Boating Safety News

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Here we are at the beginning of a brand-new year in 2022. For many of us, it’s a time for new resolutions and commitments, for others it may mark the beginning of a brand-new career

Did you know the state of Florida is the largest market for charter boat fishing in the world? We have more licensed fishing guides (currently around 5,500) for both fresh and saltwater fishing than anywhere else on this planet, not to mention the freshwater bass and crappie fishing guides who are not required to be licensed in the Sunshine State.

Becoming a fishing guide, specifically a bass fishing guide is not that hard or complicated. Many anglers who love to fish find it to be an easy marriage between a hobby that they are passionate about, and an opportunity to earn a living in the great outdoors.

I’ve always loved fishing, so when I moved to Florida, over 30 years ago, it was an easy decision to become a bass fishing guide. I had the boat, some knowledge and the equipment, and I had fished the lakes in and around south-central Florida long enough to feel comfortable taking someone out and helping them catch fish.

I’ve always enjoyed teaching, especially when it comes to anything to do with fishing. Taking someone who is new to fishing, or a youngster and spending the time to teach them the proper use of a spinning or baitcasting outfit, or even flyfishing techniques, is very satisfying. The proper use of lures and specialty techniques like flipping and pitching, walking the dog with a Zara Spook, drop-shotting and literally “knowing when to set the hook”, are all part and parcel to being a fishing guide. The key is patience.

There are major differences between being a licensed saltwater captain and being a freshwater bass-fishing guide in the state of Florida. To legally operate saltwater charters, you need to go to school and pass three major exams before receiving your license. Freshwater guides do not have to meet those same requirements.

In order to run a legal saltwater fishing charter business in the state of Florida, charter owners and captains must have at least a Captain’s License (USCG), a Charter/Fishing License, Boat registration and insurance.

Saltwater fishing guides in Florida must comply with USCG requirements. This means that you must have a Captain’s license – officially called a Merchant Mariner Credential, or six-pack for saltwater guiding.

All charter boats must be registered with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (https://www.flhsmv.gov/motor-vehicles/vessels-titling-registrations/). Only the vessel owner can apply for this vessel registration at the county tax collector’s office. It’s important to remember that you must always have your boat registration certificate on board your boat when you’re operating it, exactly like you would for a car.

Before you can apply, you’ll need to meet these six requirements:

  1. 360 operating days—an “operating day” is defined as a minimum of 4 hours underway. At least 90 operating days must be offshore and a minimum of 90 days must be within the last 3 years.

  2. Medical Certificate—A physical examination, including an eye exam, must be completed within 1 year of the application date.

  3. Drug Testing Compliance—Within 6 months of the application date, the candidate must pass a drug test.

  4. Valid First Aid/CPR Card—Certification must be American Red Cross, American Heart Association, or USCG approved.

  5. USCG Exam OR Completion of USCG Approved Course–The candidate must pass the USCG exam or complete an USCG approved course (which ends in a final exam) within 1 year of the application date.

  6. TWIC Card—Transportation Worker Identification Credential card issued by the TSA (Transportation Security Administration).

To be a legal freshwater fishing guide, you don’t require any specific state guide licenses, so no Charter Captain License or Charter Boat License from the FWC. Moreover, you only need a USCG captain’s license if you fish “navigable waters”, meaning waterways with commercial traffic. This includes the St. Johns River and its lakes. If you fish in non-navigable waters, you do not need a USCG Merchant Mariner Credential to fish freshwater in the Sunshine State.

However, you do need to have your boat registered at the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

When it comes to fishing licenses, you as a guide must purchase your own annual, 5-year or lifetime Freshwater Fishing License. In addition, unlike clients of saltwater guides with a USCG license, your clients must also purchase their own fishing license before you take them on a trip. Saltwater clients do not need a license since they are covered by the captain’s license.

So, if fishing is your passion, join the ranks of hundreds of other anglers and become a fishing guide. Just remember, it’s not a question of how good a fisherman you are, it all comes down to whether you can put your clients on fish, and if you have the patience to teach others how to fish.

For all you guys and gals interested in becoming a bass fishing guide right here in Highlands County, all you need is a:

  • A personal fishing license from the FWC

  • Life preservers and safety equipment required by the FWC

  • Equipment for your clients i.e., rods, reels, lures etc.

Here’s a few helpful suggestions:

  1. Spend the money and get good quality business cards.

  2. Be creative in the naming of your guide business.

  3. Drop off cards at all the local marinas and tackle shops.

  4. Post pictures of your clients and the fish you’ve caught using social media

  5. Make sure you have the proper fishing equipment, (some clients prefer spinning over casting, while others may be left or right-handed) or if you offer shiner fishing, reliable access to a supply of wild shiners.

  6. A battery-powered scale to weigh the fish

  7. A camera or cell phone for picture taking opportunities.

Lastly, consider your pricing. Many bass fishing guides offer 4-, 6- and 8-hour trips, with different costs associated with each. Trip charges may range from $250.00 to $400.00 per trip, and shiners are generally an extra charge ($18 to $22 a dozen – most guides take along 5-6 dozen per trip).

It’s not all a money-making venture. Obviously you need to have an ample supply of rods, reels, lures, etc., but there’s also the cost of the boat, gas and oil, and safety equipment.

Not everyone who becomes a guide is successful, however those who put their client’s satisfaction above all else tend to be the most successful.

The key to success is giving a client their moneys-worth!

Editor’s note: Don Norton, often referred to as “Red”, is a semi-retired bass fishing guide, custom rod builder and tournament bass fisherman. He was the owner of two local fishing tackle stores, REDS in Avon Park and REDS II in Sebring, and in addition to previously writing for Highlands Today the NEWS-SUN and the Coastal Angler, he also taught evening classes at the South Florida State College in Avon Park on bass fishing techniques and custom rod building. He is also the Publisher of The Angler Magazine – Okeechobee Edition LLC. Don lives in Golf Hammock with his wife Lexie.

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