There are many different types of charter vessels to fit everyone’s needs for a great day of fishing. Photo by Nick Kester with All Star Fishing Charters in Seattle.

How to select a fishing charter/guide: tips for securing a memorable experience

Booking a fishing trip of a lifetime can be a daunting task, from deciding what type of trip to finding the right captain and boat. There’s a lot to cover but we’ve got some helpful tips to make your adventure a wonderful day on the water!

There’s nothing like experiencing all the fishing opportunities Washington has to offer — whether it’s on the ocean, inner-marine areas like Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, or a local lake, river, or stream. One of the most popular and accessible ways to get started is booking a charter boat or guide.

According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Washington has 426 licensed guides and 178 licensed charter boat operators in 2022.

Charters and guides help thousands of Washingtonians and out-of-state visitors get on the water every year. Licensed guides and charter services are advocates for public access to our natural resources and bring millions of dollars in tourism into the state’s communities, including those in rural areas. Through guide logbooks and other programs, they also support fisheries monitoring and conservation to ensure sustainable opportunities.

Remember this is your big day, and you want everything to be as perfect as it can be. Good attitudes catch fish. But it’s still fishing, and that comes with uncertainty even for the most experienced captains and anglers.

In this column, we’ll explain how to choose a charter or guide that suits you and/or a group of friends and family, including finding the right captain and boat, the type of fish species you’d like to catch, and the costs incorporated into the fishing trip.

Party charter boats are a very popular way to get customers on the water for a day of fishing. Photo by Butch Smith, owner of Coho Charters in Ilwaco.

What is a fishing charter captain or fishing guide?

A charter captain or fishing guide — sometimes with a deckhand(s) or other crew members — operates their business on a privately owned vessel. They may operate independently, through a corporation with multiple vessels across different fisheries, or via an outfitter that connects clients with local guides and charters.

High on the priority list is knowing if your captain or guide has the proper licensing, permits, insurance, is a credentialed mariner, has taken the proper first aid courses, and has a Coast Guard approved boat. This ensures you’re in safe hands just in case something should happen.

A charter captain operates a recreational fishing vessel on marine areas and large waterways including the Puget Sound, the Pacific Ocean, Lake Washington, and the Columbia River downstream of the Longview Bridge. Charter operators must have a Coast Guard-approved Captain’s license for the type and size of vessel they operate, along with insurance, up-to-date inspection certification, either a Salmon Charter license or Non-Salmon Charter license from WDFW, and other requirements. Salmon Charter licenses are limited but can be transferred from one person to another or bought and sold on the open market. More information on charter licenses and Angler Permits is available on this webpage.

Fly fishing guides can offer great opportunities to catch a variety of fish along many rivers and streams in Washington. Photo by Jeff Brazda, owner and head guide Wild Duc Lodge & Brazdas Fly Fishing.

A fishing guide may operate on other waterways around the state, such as rivers, lakes, and streams, and must hold either a state Food Fish Guide license or Gamefish Guide license, or both. Many fishing guides row drift boats or rafts, others guide bank fishing trips or operate powerboats for bass, sturgeon, and other species. Most guides also hold a Coast Guard license to operate in federally navigable waters, and much of the Columbia River and major tributaries are federally navigable. Any reputable guide operating a power boat on our major fisheries will be Coast Guard licensed, and any potential client regardless of the water they are fishing should ask a potential guide this question. Fishing guides are also required to have proof of current first aid and CPR certification and insurance for commercial liability coverage.

Additional federal requirements are in place in some locations and waterways, such as national parks and designated Wilderness areas.

In Washington there are many different types of boats for customers to choose from and one popular style is a center console boat. Photo by Justin Wong, owner of A Cut Plug Charter in Seattle.

Don’t hesitate to ask a prospective charter captain or fishing guide about the license(s) they hold before booking a trip!

What to think about before booking

A guide or charter’s focus is often to introduce guests to a certain type of fishing or introduce a seasoned angler to a new location or way of fishing they’re not accustomed to. For the guest, understanding what type of gear to use, techniques, maybe catch some fish, learn about the area’s natural history, and simply soak in the sights, smells and sounds are all key elements for a fun day on the water. You should also ask the charter or guide the types of fish species they’re fishing for, and then narrow the options based on the available fisheries.

High on the list of your decision is picking the right captain or guide. This can be easily done by contacting them on the phone or email well ahead of booking your trip. This helps you to get to know them, how long they’ve been in the charter business, and how well they know the area you intend to fish. Look for a captain who is a good communicator. If they don’t reply to your call or voicemail then it might be wise to look for another captain.

In this modern era a potential client doesn’t need to stroll a marina dock or look at a phone book to find a reputable charter service. You can do a lot of this online by researching websites or social media to get you on the right boat and fishing experience. Contacting a local fishing writer or social media influencer are also helpful ways to find the right fit.

Puget Sound’s inner-marine waterways offer protected areas for those who may want to fish in calmer seas. Photo by Carl Nyman, owner of Fish Finders Charters in Seattle.

Next is addressing the type of charter you’d like to go with whether it’s a larger “party” vessel or smaller charter boat? Do you want the whole boat to yourself or with family and friends or are you happy to share it with other anglers? And do you want a full-day excursion, or a half-day morning or evening trip?

The upside to a larger party-style boat is they’re usually less expensive, they get you on top of the fish and you can make new fishing friends along the way. The downside is the crew must help everyone on the boat (it can range from a handful to upwards of 25 or 30 anglers) so first timers can get lost in the shuffle. You’ll also not get a say in how or where you fish or the type of gear you use. Some boats allow you to bring your own gear, while others ask clients not to as different lines and fishing styles can lead to time-consuming tangles.

A smaller charter — commonly referred to as a “six-pack” for carrying up to six customers — provides you a more intimate fishing experience. If you don’t know much about fishing, the captain will teach you the basics and guide you once you hook the fish. Many times, a personal charter captain will tell you about the fishing area and give you tips and advice so you can venture out on your own the next time. The cost tends to be more than party boats, but you’ll get what you pay for. These boats also typically get you to the fishing grounds and back more quickly than larger vessels.

Another good way to find out more information is by asking someone you know what charter service or guide they may have used or by contacting a certain charter boat association in the area you intend to fish.

Trolling and mooching are just two techniques used by charter operators and guides in saltwater areas and there’s so many other ways to catch fish especially in freshwater or estuarial waters so be sure to ask your captain where and how they catch fish to ensure that’s what you’re looking for on your trip.

Your day will be completely different based on where you choose to fish — especially between freshwater, inner-marine, ocean, and long-distance deep sea charter fishing trips.

Once you’ve considered these aspects of your fishing trip, it’ll narrow down your search even more.

A lucky angler on a guide boat at Buoy 10 along the Lower Columbia River lands a Chinook salmon. Photo by Mark Yuasa.

Inner-marine or freshwater trips

These trips are usually in sheltered waters such as bays, straits, inlets or rivers and lakes near land, usually close to shore. Often the fishing holes are located a short boat ride away from the marina, dock, or boat ramp. These charters are either half day or full day trips and are a fun way for first timers, youngsters or for someone who is prone to seasickness.

Coastal trips

As you move away from protected waters into the open ocean, usually anywhere from a few miles to 25 miles offshore, where you could lose sight of land. The conditions tend to have larger swells, choppy water, and much deeper depths although flat calm seas happen on occasion. These trips often take an entire day.

Deep sea “ocean” adventures

Many long-distance offshore fishing trips around Washington target a variety of fish species but mainly albacore tuna, which occurs in late summer and early fall. These trips are either full-day or overnight fishing trips that can take you out to very deep waters. Deep sea fishing isn’t for the faint of heart or those prone to getting seasick. Once you leave port you’re committed to the task ahead, but they do offer a chance to hook a hard fighting tuna or larger-sized bottomfish.

You can find a variety of fishing charters/guides to choose from in Washington. Photo by Keith Robbins, owner of A Spot Tail Guide Service in Seattle.

Here are other steps to consider:

· Many charter operators set up a booth at sportsman’s or boat shows or through seminars at local tackle shops and fishing clubs. It often pays to ask questions before you make a commitment.

· Reviews like “Yelp” or “Trip Advisor” are helpful ways to know who the top guides are in the areas you intend to fish. By looking at reviews you can see what makes the charter service special or in some cases not. Keep in mind an experienced guide can be the difference between a good or bad day out and the trip of a lifetime.

· Another key is to book a trip well in advance, often six months or more for the best guides and charters. Just like making a dinner reservation at a popular restaurant it is often hard to find an “open boat” or well-known guide on short notice especially at the height of the peak fishing periods.

According to the Charter Boat Association of Puget Sound, even during busy summer periods if a person is flexible on days (outside of weekends) they might be able to find a captain and charter businesses network between each other to book trips. Morning trips are the most requested, but afternoon or midweek bookings can usually be found. Surprisingly fishing is sometimes just as productive during this time frame especially if they line up with good tides or if fish are abundant.

· There are so many different types of boats that each charter service utilizes in their fisheries, and each has their pros and cons whether it is an open center console boat or a larger, sleek, enclosed hard top aluminum fishing machine. This is something to consider before booking your trip especially in a temperate climate area like Washington where you could be faced with bone chilling morning temperatures, a downpour to a blazing sun all in one day.

· The cost of each charter varies and depends on what type of fish you’d like to catch, where you want to go and the amount of time you’d like to fish.

Fish aren’t the only species that charter and guide services in Washington can get you on the water to catch. In the fall and winter squid jigging is a popular choice around Puget Sound. Photo by Mark Yuasa.

Paying for your charter trip depends on the captain but most will ask for a deposit to secure the trip. Be sure to ask ahead whether they accept payment by cash or credit card. Often captains let you pay the full balance when you pre-book a trip and thus avoid needing to bring cash or credit on the boat. A tip depends on the quality of service, but usual rates are like dining out at a restaurant.

· Once you’ve booked your trip make sure to ask what type of fishing license, catch record card (required for salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, halibut, and Dungeness crab) you’ll need to purchase before your trip. Guides have a logbook entry and will require them to log a WILD ID from the clients fishing license. You can find out fishing license information by going to the WDFW license webpage. Some charters and fishing guides will have necessary fishing licenses available to purchase but as them well in advance of your trip to avoid any surprises especially those visiting from out of state.

· Just like any other trip or vacation you take, sometimes you’ll need to cancel or rebook. Be sure to ask your captain about their cancellation policies. On occasion a charter operator will need to cancel a trip due to inclement weather or boat issues. If this happens be sure to ask if you can set another date or find another boat for that day or get you a full refund. When it is weather related keep in mind the captain is thinking out for your own safety, even if it’s sunny on the shore it can be much different when you’re out on the water.

· When it comes to salmon and steelhead fishing, researching time of year, catch quotas and fishing regulations and seasons is important especially for out-of-state folks looking at targeting a specific fish species. Clients can do this on their own by visiting the WDFW website or by asking the charter or fishing guide. While the necessary research can help someone dial into fishing dates, run sizes can vary year-to-year and fisheries can close early and guides/charters may shift their focus on certain fish species or cancel trips entirely if the fishery closes sooner than expected.

A happy angler holds up a nice salmon caught off Ilwaco on the southern Washington coast. Photo by Butch Smith, owner of Coho Charters in Ilwaco.

· Depending on the type of fishing, fish cleaning (gut and fillet) and processing (package and/or ice your catch to ensure its freshness) is typically a separate fee, and usually well worth the cost for new anglers looking to take home quality fillets. If you are planning a trip away from home be sure to leave an ice chest filled with ice in the car for the drive home. Ask about fish cleaning in advance, and don’t forget to tip your deckhand!

· Depending on the trip some fishing guides are flexible on the time you’d like to start the trip but will often let you know when best action occurs. If you’re tight on time be sure to mention before you book a trip so there are no surprises, especially for fisheries that rely on certain tides or time of day.

· Weather in some parts of Washington can change rather quickly from a nice sunny day to a downpour in a matter of minutes so consider dressing for a variety of situations. It is always better to layer your clothing. Rain gear and waterproof boots in some situations are worth bringing along. At certain times especially in summer, sunblock is a must to prevent from getting sunburned!

· Make sure you’re well equipped with snacks, food, and drinks — especially on hot days when keeping hydrated us very important (and limit the adult beverages so that you have a memorable day on the water).

· Sometimes charters/guides don’t want you to lug big coolers on board, rather, bring a day pack to keep your personal items dry but handy. It is always best to ask your charter or guide what essentials are best to bring on the trip.

· The WDFW website has information about fishing charters and guides.

Anglers on a guided fly fishing trip take a break along the shoreline of a Washington river. Photo by Jeff Brazda, owner and head guide Wild Duc Lodge & Brazdas Fly Fishing.

LIST OF WASHINGTON FISHING CHARTERS AND GUIDES

Charter Boat Association of Puget Soundwww.capscharters.com or call 425–252–4188 or email Director@capscharters.com

Washington State Guide’s Association https://waguidesassociation.org/

Northwest Guides and Anglers Association for Washington and Oregon https://nwguidesandanglers.org/

Grays Harbor Guides Association http://www.graysharborguidesassociation.com/

Westport Charterboat Associationhttp://charterwestport.com/

Ilwaco Charter Associationhttps://ilwacocharterassociation.com/about-ica-1

Olympic Peninsula Guides Associationhttp://www.olympicpeninsulaguidesassociation.com/

Washington Fly Fishing Clubhttps://wffc.com/

Hopefully this advice will find the right fit that suits your needs to make this a great experience and an enjoyable amazing fishing trip!

Spectacular scenery like this fishing hole below Wells Dam on the Upper Columbia River can be found all across Washington and there are fishing guides who can get you to these kinds of special places to catch a sockeye or summer Chinook. Photo by Mark Yuasa.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.