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.
1 East Coast Rivers
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
2 Tennessee River
Wheeler, Wilson, and Pickwick lakes continue to offer outstanding fishing for numbers of quality blue cats and join a handful of waters with the potential for 100-pound fish. Guide Jason Bridges says Wheeler's rich forage base and blues' genetics grow huge fish. Plus, you can enjoy river or lake fishing, depending on which end of the reservoir you fish. Look outside the spawn (late May into June) for the best fishing. Anchoring in winter and drift-fishing in warmer water are top bets. Controlled drifting and vertically fishing deep water unveils giant fish. In July 2014, anglers will make their way to Pickwick Lake for the Big Cat Quest World Championship of Catfishing, held each year on this storied stretch of cat water. Other top tournament trails make this a regular stopover.
Contact: Guides Jason Bridges, 256/738-9461, wheelercatsguideservice.com
; Guide Phil King, 662/286-8644; h2ow.com/catfish
3 Lake Tawakoni
This 39,000-acre lake at West Tawakoni, Texas, is garnering national acclaim. 'We have held events on Tawakoni for the past several years in February and March and have broken records for total weight for five-fish limits, ' says Darrell VanVactor, President of the Cabela's King Kat Tournament Trail. 'This lake turns out limit after limit of five fish weighing 200-pounds plus. Last year Paul and Dan Miles broke records with five fish weighing 240 pounds. In 2014, Roger Gerloff and Justin Cook weighed in five fish totaling 217 pounds. We see so many huge fish it is definitely a blue cat manufacturing plant! ' The lake record 87.5-pounder was caught in early 2014.
Contact: Guides Cody Mullennix, 903/815-0273; Michael Littlejohn, 903/441-3937; tawakoniguideservice.com
4 Lower Mississippi River
Just about every blue cat expert weighing in picks the Mississippi River as perhaps the best blue cat water that exists today. St. Louis, Missouri, to Tunica, Mississippi, is Freeman's favorite stretch, making it a regular stop for his Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest tournament circuit. 'This is great area with fantastic fishing for giant blues. We've had 100-plus-pounders brought to the scales more than once, ' he says. 'In 2007, two 100-pounders were weighed in on the same day at a tournament at Memphis. I think this water has a great chance of producing the next world record soon. ' South, the lower Mississippi Delta is mostly untapped for giant blues. Even south of New Orleans, giant cats await between the levees along deep river ledges. On a trip to the area last year, anglers in the group I was with side-imaged several big blues by day, going back at night and catching fish to 70 pounds within a couple hours.
Contact: Guides James Patterson (Memphis area), 901/383-8674, bigcatfishing.com
; Cajun Fishing Adventures, 504/657-8717; cajunfishingadventures.com
5 Powerton Lake
Asian carp took a hit in 2012 and 2013 due to summerkills in this 1,500-acre power-plant cooling reservoir near Pekin, Illinois, but the blue catfish population wasn't affected, says Wayne Herndon, fishery biologist with the Illinois DNR. 'The DNR started stocking blues in 2001 and they grow to 20 to 30 pounds in 5 years, with fish to 60 pounds available, ' he says. 'The warm-water discharge creates a 300-day growing season and the blues grow fast, faster than in rivers in the region. The lake contains gizzard and threadfin shad, and we've sampled blue cats that ate buffalo. They also likely eat bighead and silver carp. ' Herndon also recommends LaSalle Cooling Lake. Powerton is closed to fishing during the waterfowl hunting season; check for rules at LaSalle.
Contact: Spring Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area (Powerton Lake), 309/968-7135; LaSalle Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area, 815/357-1608.
6 Middle Missouri River
Catfish pro John Jamison reports the middle Missouri River to Kansas City as been the best he's seen in years. 'I haven't seen a lot of giants recently, but there's an abundance of fish to about 25 pounds, ' he says. 'I attribute this to the Asian carp infestation providing a huge food base. I've been catching 10 to 20 blues a day, which is extremely high for the Missouri. Big fish are here but more difficult to catch because of all the smaller fish. The Kansas City area and the river from Waverly to Hermann, Missouri, produces fish in the 70- to 90-pound range every year. A blue over 100 pounds caught two years ago in Kansas City set the state record. ' He says the best times to fish the Missouri are late February (right after ice flows) through about mid-May for numbers of fish and an occasional large fish, and then again from mid-August through October for big fish. 'By mid-August, all the big blues are done spawning and aggressively feeding. Set up on sandbars in 5 to 10 feet of water at night. '
Contact: Guide John Trager, 913/706-5888; captaincatfish.net
7 Ohio River
Capt. Paul Willett, Henderson, Kentucky, fishes the Ohio River from Cannelton Dam to its mouth at the Mississippi River. 'I've caught better than a 50-pound blue cat from three pools starting below Cannelton Dam upstream to Cave In Rock, Illinois, during every month of the year, ' he says. 'There's potential to catch quality fish consistently in all seasons whether the water temps are 35°F or 85°F. I enjoy fishing for them most when they pile up below the lock and dams in spring and fall. When I was guiding it wasn't uncommon to have day total weights over 600 pounds with fish averaging over 20. ' In winter, Kentucky and Barkley Lakes are hard to beat, he says. There are hundreds of miles of old river channel ledges and usually good current flow that time of year.
Contact: Capt. Paul Willett, kentuckytourism.com/camofishguideservice
; Kentucky Dept. Fish and Wildlife, fw.ky.gov
8 Southern California Lakes
Before San Vicente Reservoir in San Diego County was closed for dam repair several years ago, 100-pounders were known to exist there. With several years to go before the lake reopens, those fish will pack on pounds and thrive in the absence of fishing pressure. In the meantime, local catfish expert Ronson Smothers remains on his quest for monster blues, focusing on Lower Otay Lake's history for giant fish, including an 83-pounder he caught there a couple years ago. He says Lower Otay's fish run 10 pounds to over 100, maybe as big as 140 or more. Fall through winter is primetime, with mackerel chunks being a top bait. He also recommends Lake Irvine in Orange County for it's high abundance of smaller fish. Lake Jennings and Diamond Valley Lake also are worth a look.
Contact: Lower Otay Lake Concessions, 619/397-5212; Irvine Lake, 714/649-9111.