Fishing with a guide is one of the best ways to learn new waters and tactics and to reach fish you wouldn’t have been able to find on your own. Guides spend countless hours on the water perfecting their craft and adjusting to water and weather conditions. But just as hiring the right catfish guide can make great memories and accelerate your fishing knowledge, choosing the wrong guide can be disastrous and even unsafe.
Make a Plan
What species are you after. Channel cats? Blues? Flatheads? A multispecies trip? Are you after trophies or numbers? Some guides specialize in big fish while others keep the lines tight and action fast with smaller fish with a shot at an occasional big fish. Think about your needs before you call and find out what style of fishing they do.
Some guides are strictly catch-and-release. If you want to keep fish to eat, hire a guide that practices selective harvest. If cleaning and packaging the catch is included, all the better.
Consider your budget. The price tag for guided fishing varies, and it’s easy to think more expensive means better fishing. But remember the other potential costs involved in your fishing day: lodging, fuel, food, fishing licenses, and equipment. How far are you willing to go? I live in Ohio. I can travel to Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, and Illinois in less than a day. Throw in my home state and I have a lot of cat waters only a half-day’s drive away. That keeps my expenses for travel low. Your travel budget may have to increase if you live farther away from prime catfish waters.
Make a List
Once you know what you want and can afford, it’s time to do research. The Internet makes for easy shopping. You can find several guides listed for the species and regions you want to travel to. Not all fishing guides have websites, however, and some of the best guides can be a challenge to identify and track down. Sometimes local visitor bureaus and fishing information websites list area guides and how to contact them, some only reachable by phone. Also inquire with area bait shops, tackle stores, and resorts. They often know who the most successful guides are in the area.
Qualify the List
Picking the cheapest guide may be a mistake. I am all for saving hard-earned money, but if you stop at this step you may be disappointed. Several other factors are important to consider.
Qualify the guides you’re considering by checking their credentials. A guide with proper licensing is more than likely serious about his business. This usually translates into someone who’s serious about you catching fish.
If they’re fishing navigable waters they need a U.S. Coast Guard Charter Captain’s License. Many of the nation’s top catfish venues are navigable waters so don’t overlook this credential, which indicates that they can safely operate on their waters and have passed certain first-aid requirements. This matters for you and your family’s safety. Remember, many catfish waters can be dangerous if a guide doesn’t have good boating and emergency preparedness skills. Also make sure the guide is insured.
Some states require state guiding licenses. Illinois, for example, requires a “Passenger for Hire” license for guides, and Ohio requires a fishing guide license. To find out if the state you are planning to fish in requires special licensing, plug in the words “fishing guide license,” and your state name into your search browser and also check with the state department of natural resources. Don’t hesitate to ask the guides you are considering.
References, Log Books, & More
Once you have your list narrowed down, it’s time to select the guide that’s right for you. In addition to determining their qualifications, cost, and specialty, visit their website and peruse guest logbooks, trip reports, and recent photos. Look for multiple recent entries, suggesting the guide has been on the water a lot and regularly catching fish and posting photos. Seeing only outdated photos can be a red flag. Positive comments by guests mean a lot. If a website lacks client comments or a guide doesn’t have a website, ask for references.
I would never book a guide without speaking with them beforehand. That conversation tells you a lot about their enthusiasm, professionalism, and personality. Do they enjoy teaching kids and new anglers? Ask yourself if this is someone you want to spend hours with in a boat.
Knowing what equipment a guide uses is important. Ask what they’re using and how old it is. Often guides have sponsors and show on their websites what they use for equipment and what kind of boat they have. Imagine booking an exciting nighttime flathead fishing trip, but when you arrive the motor won’t start. Sure, equipment fails and that’s part of fishing. But equipment should be relatively new and properly maintained. You don’t want to have a difficult time casting because reels don’t work properly, or lose fish because line is too old or rods have seen better days. Life jackets and other safety gear should be in excellent working order.
Most guides are proud of their boat and fishing equipment and their livelihood depends on it. If they provide a well-maintained, well-equipped, and organized vessel, compliments are always appreciated.
Ask about bait, equipment, fuel, meals, beverages, and whether you need to bring a cooler. Be sure to get your fishing license beforehand so the first part of your day isn’t spent purchasing a license. You can buy licenses online ahead of time in most states, if not all. You might assume you’ll be the only party in the boat, but be sure to ask.
In the end, doing some homework goes a long way in having a memorable day on the water. Let the guide know what you liked about the trip, and what might be improved. Tipping is always a personal decision but is almost always expected and appreciated. A good starting point is 15 percent, but tip more if it’s deserved. Often the decision isn’t based on how many fish you caught or how big the fish were, but how hard the guide worked. Success always plays a part in any trip, but evaluate the overall experience.
- Virginia’s state record 102-pounder caught from the James River was bumped for the behemoth 143-pound world record caught from Bugg’s Island Lake in 2011. But the James still reigns as one of the nation’s premier waters for big fish. “We consistently see 80-plus-pound fish in tournaments,” says Ken Freeman of Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest, who held a tournament there in March this year. “The gizzard shad forage base is perfect for producing remarkable fish year after year.” The Potomac River joins the James among the best options east for catching a 50-pound blue, with numbers of 30- to 50-pounders.
Contact: James River Guides Chris Eberwien, 804/449-6134, catfishingva.com; Capt. Joe Hecht, 804/221-1951, fatcatguide.com; Capt. Neil Renouf, 804-539-8023, olddominionoutdoors.com. Potomac River: Capt. Josh Fitchett, 804/836-5220, rivercatn.com.