Let’s face it, everyone that is passionate about fishing has thrown around the idea of becoming a guide. To many, it is considered an elite status in the fishing community. What better way to make a living then by fishing all day and making money, right? Not so fast. As an experienced fishing guide in Florida, I can assure you that you’ll want to be aware of the financial aspects of being a guide. Specifically, how much fishing guides make in Florida.
The average saltwater fishing guide in Florida earns $45,000 – $91,000 a year before taxes. These figures assume running between 100-200 trips a year. A new guide will make considerably less as they try to grow their business. Expenses on average account for 25-30% of your income.
This income may sound good to you, especially in Florida, but keep in mind there are quite a few tradeoffs. The amount of money you make is capped by the number of days you can fish a year. Expenses can become overbearing when things like boats and motors need to be repaired. Like any commission profession, income may not be steady and if you are unable to budget then you will run out of money. Additionally, just because you are on the water often, does not mean you will get to fish. You will be watching other people fish. Clients can be demanding and have unrealistic expectations. Below we will analyze each of these factors in depth to make sure guiding is a right fit for you.
Income potential for Florida fishing guides
Guiding is unique in that income is earned by the day. The more trips you run, the more income you make. The downside to this is that there are a finite number of days in the year. It is unrealistic to guide them all.
Charter trips are typically divided into categories; half-day and full-day. The price of each trip will vary based on the type of trips you provide and going rate in your local area. The average half day trip price in Florida is $500 where a full day is $800. This was derived by reviewing 100 charter companies on www.fishingbooker.com, and is in-line with my experience as well. Offshore and deep sea rates will be higher than this due to additional expenses, but the amount the captain will see is typically within this range.
The top guides in an area can expect to run approximately 200 trips/year. This is after years of building a book of business and making a name for yourself. New guides can expect to struggle for the first few years while they build their clientele base.
The ultimate goal as a guide is to fill your calendar with repeat clients and referrals, this way you are not relying on finding new clients. If you are a good guide this will happen, it just takes time.
As you can see from above, a successful guide running 200 trips/year will earn roughly $130,000 before expenses and taxes assuming a blend of half-day and full-day trips. This is fantastic money, but keep in mind this is at the top end. Factors such as holidays, time off with your family, and bad weather will reduce the number of trips per year.
How you can increase income as a guide
There are a few ways to increase your income potential while guiding. You can run more trips or raise your prices.
Running more trips
When first starting as a guide, increasing your trip count will be a challenge. It will take time to get your name out there and earn respect from other local guides. Advertising extensively during this period will help in spades. One way to accomplish this is to create Facebook/Instagram marketing ads that target people in your local area. Another good strategy is to introduce yourself to local fishing outfitters and ask if you can display business cards. Putting business cards at tourist centric locations such as hotels is a good way to get out of town exposure as well. A lot of times, people who are visiting the area are looking for different ways to experience the area, this is a good opportunity to advertise spending time on the water as a way to learn about your local area.
As you begin to start guiding, other charter guides will take notice. Earning respect on the water by showing you are putting your time in will go a long way. Build relationships with other guides where possible. The busiest guides in your area will typically have trips they cannot run due to already being booked. These guides will refer out their excess trips for a fee. As you are starting out, being the recipient of referred trips allows you the opportunity to gain a lifetime client for a small fee. Be quick to respond when asked to take a referral and pay the referral fee promptly. This will increase the number of trips referred to you by other guides.
Price increases are the most common way to increase income. This can be a tough decision. You need to maintain affordability for your existing clients and be competitive to earn new business.
Typically, the busiest guides in your area will set price increases. As the most sought after guides raise their prices, other guides will follow suite. Trying to price cut other guides to run more trips is frowned upon and will make you look bad in the guiding community. It will also make you look inferior to your competition.
While there are unwritten rules regarding minimum trip prices, there are no rules for raising prices. If you can maintain business while raising your prices, then it makes sense.
Provide the best experience
One area that you can control is the quality of the experience you provide your client. Being knowledgeable on the water and making sure your clients have a memorable experience can go a long way. Often, this will lead to gratuity from the client.
A customary tip is 20% of the trip price, however, from my experience guiding, tips tend to fall all over the map. Many clients, especially clients that do not fish often, will not know how to tip.
Since tipping values will vary so much, I do not account for them in my income predictions. Instead, I think of them as a bonus.
What expenses do fishing guides have?
When thinking about becoming a guide, most tend to focus on understanding how much fishing guides make. Often people fail to consider the expenses that will eat away at that income.
The general rule of thumb is that your expenses should fall between 20-30% of your revenue. Expenses will include things such as boat maintenance, fishing gear, bait, gas, advertising, and your licenses and insurance. I took a look at my expenses from last year and have compiled a list of the 6 biggest expenses I encountered:
- Boat maintenance: Some years, maintenance on your vessel, engine, or trailer can be extensive. Staying on top of preventative maintenance will help mitigate those large expenses from occurring often. Costly expenses such as a new engine should be pre-planned and budgeted for over multiple years.
- Fishing Gear: Clients are extremely rough on gear. This is especially true for novice anglers. With the amount of time you will be spending on the water, your gear will need to be serviced or replaced more frequently than recreational fishermen.
- Bait & Gas: This will be a daily expense for you. Although, the cost of fuel and bait is not significant on a daily basis, over the course of the year this will be one of your biggest expenses. These costs will vary based on the fuel capacity of the vessel you charter and the type of fishing charters you provide. As a fly-fishing guide, I rarely purchase or use bait.
- Advertising: When starting up your charter business, advertising will be a large expense for your business. As you try to build your book of clientele, advertising costs will be heavy. As you become more established with repeat clients, the need to advertise will reduce.
- Licensing: Licensing costs will vary based on the type of fishing you provide. Licenses in Florida are purchased through your Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission via your local DMV office. State fishing licenses are renewed on a yearly basis. Additionally, you will need to have your Captain’s License issued through the United States Coast Guard. Captain’s licenses are renewed in 5 year increments.
- Insurance: As a guide, you will be required to maintain insurance on your vessel and guide insurance. Guide insurance will protect you and your passengers in the event of any bodily injury. Insurance is renewed yearly and can be paid in one lump sum or in monthly increments.
If you find your expenses are consistently over 30% of revenue, then a budget analysis needs to be completed to see where expenses could be cut. If you are unable to cut expenses, then trip prices may need to be increased.
Knowing how to budget
One of the main reasons guides fail is because of their inability to budget. I’ve seen this happen all around the industry, and I almost fell victim to it myself. Since there is not a steady paycheck or a set schedule, you must budget and account for slower periods of the year. Here are 3 tips for creating an effective budget:
Understanding seasonality is a must
Most of Florida fisheries have seasons. These seasons are based on the species you target, tourism months, and weather. The busiest season in Florida is from March – July. This coincides with warmer months and peak summer tourism. January through February tend to be the slowest months.
If you fail to spread out your income over the year, you will find yourself in a bind in the slower months. Knowing how to save in the busy months takes discipline and does not bode well for people with bad spending habits.
Forecasting using previous experience when possible
At the beginning of the year, I like to create a budget that forecasts the number of trips based on last year’s figures. I will analyze the prior year’s data to see where my slow points were and how much I can potentially save in the busiest months.
Once I have my forecast, I will compare this to my personal expenses and create a monthly allowance to live off. Ideally, 3 months of income is held in a savings account to cover any unexpected scenarios or expenses.
If you are just starting and don’t have access to this data, try to pick the brains of other local charter guides around what to expect. The most successful guides started in a similar situation as you and will be able to talk you through the challenges they faced and how long it took to build business.
After I review my budget, I will focus on ways to market/advertise the slow times of year to fill these gaps. There are a lot of ways to advertise for free in your local area. As mentioned above, putting business cards at local shops is a good way to get your name out there for free.
Using fishing booking sites is another way to advertise to a broad market. There is no fee to have your name listed on these sites, but they will take a fee out of any trips earned through their service.
Collecting emails of clients is another way to advertise. When I have a slow period of time, I will reach out to my client list with a fishing report to gain interest on bookings. Sending emails to your clients is a good way to stay on their radar when they might not be thinking about fishing.
If you think you will be able to fish more now that you are a guide, you are dead wrong. Your “fishing” is now helping others catch fish and make memories. If you are passionate about helping others and enjoy dealing with people, then guiding will be a good fit.
Another misconception is that the work stops at the dock. This is so far from the truth. Your day will begin long before you hit the water as you rig rods, game plan, pack coolers, fuel up and pick up bait. After your trip is complete, it is time to clean everything and do it all over again for the next day.
On the days not on the water, updating your records, managing the calendar, returning emails and phone calls will be the norm. Not to mention any maintenance that needs to completed. You are the CEO, frontline worker, and the secretary.
One of the interesting things about fishing is the variety of personalities you will encounter each day. You will have clients that you love sharing a boat with, and you will have clients that you cannot wait to drop off. Both of these people allow you to make a living on the water, so sometimes you have to fake it. Occasionally fish do not cooperate or expectations are too high. It is your job to make the day memorable and earn your money. The ability to make good conversation will help navigate unexpected obstacles.
Since becoming a guide, I found that my ability to personally fish was little changed from when I worked in an office. The tradeoff though was a better view with fresh air, sharing my passion with others, and being able to set aside time with my family.
If you were wondering how much fishing guides make in Florida, I hope this was a helpful perspective. Being a fishing guide is an incredible adventure. We are fortunate to see on a daily basis things people dream about from their office. You will meet some incredible people. I have clients that are now lifelong friends. You will most likely never be rich from guiding. You have to decide if passion is more important than stability in your life. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to be successful in this business. Your family will likely have to make sacrifices for you to chase that passion. Being disciplined with your money will help you navigate through tough times. If you’re going to be a fishing guide, don’t do it for the money.