How to Start Your Own Salmon Chartering Business

Professional charter business like “Jambo’s Sportfishing” set the standard for the Sport Fishing Industry


Several years ago in response to an often asked question I wrote a version of this story for The Reel News. The question is, “How do I get to be a charter captain in Washington?” So here for all you aspiring Captains is an updated version of the story.

First of all, if every angler who ever dreamed of becoming a charter captain actually did so, there wouldn’t be any clients. Fortunately, the financial commitment, long hours, salmon permit availability and dedication needed to become a captain reduces that universe to a very select few.

There are probably as many reasons for wanting to become a charter captain as there are fishermen who want to pursue the dream. Many anglers own a boat and want to pay for it by running some fishing trips on the side. Most are attracted by the lure of profiting from a hobby they enjoy. The simple fact of the matter is that few part timers can develop enough business to make any serious money through chartering.

The overhead is a killer. The costs of the vessel, moorage, maintenance and fishing tackle are enormous and when coupled with unexpected costs like rising fuel prices even small profits can quickly turn to losses.

Despite all the reasons for not getting into the business, there are some solid reasons to charter. Love of the water and job satisfaction can’t be measured on any balance sheet. No, you won’t get rich but you can make a decent living if you have the drive to build a successful business.

Let’s look at what it takes to get into the salmon charter business: Number one: experience counts. If you’re going to charge people to go fishing, you had better know the in’s and out’s of salmon fishing. Just because you can catch a few coho during the middle of the run or a lucky derby fish doesn’t make you an expert. As one of my best friends regularly used to say about weekend warriors; “Even a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn.” The point being the best captains train under more experienced skippers for several years to learn the finer points of salmon chartering to produce fish year round. There’s a big difference when it comes to fishing for yourself and being paid to take someone fishing. Remember you’re not in control of the rod, but you still take the heat if the fish spits the hook! After all, fishing clients think salmon bite all day and all they have to do is drop their bait back into the water for another opportunity.

People skills are also essential for anyone even thinking about chartering. If you don’t have them you flat out won’t make it in this business. Honesty is a big factor to staying in the fishing business; if fishing is slow tell your clients the truth, if you get a reputation of lying about your daily catch numbers word gets out very fast and you will lose any repeat business.

An overwhelming love of the sport and a desire to succeed is also required. You will have many long days starting at 4:30 AM in this trade. Remember customers only care about results, not excuses. As the pros say you’re either a hero or a zero!

Now to the required paper work: The dreaded US Coast Guard exam. To carry any passengers on any waters for hire you must earn a US Coast Guard Masters License or an Uninspected Passenger Vessel (OUPV) more commonly referred to as a six pack license. Before you can test you will have to show proof of documented sea time for the type of license you’re testing for as well as a Merchant Marine physical exam and drug test. Current First Aid and CPR cards are also required. The exam itself covers Navigation, Seamanship and Rules of the Road that requires a 90% score to pass. Trust me when I say it takes a lot of studying to pass this test!

Here in Washington State you will also need to attain a Washington Department Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) salmon charter permit in order to take clients fishing in the marine waters. This includes the Ocean, Puget Sound, Bays, below the Astoria Bridge on the Columbia River, Lake Washington, Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay. The catch is, the permits have not been issued over the counter since 1976 because of a legislative moratorium on commercial licensees… yes, a salmon charter permit is considered a commercial license. Commonly referred to as poles, one pole equates the right to fish one angler. Hence six poles = six fishing passengers. There are around a 140 permits left in the state. The catch is, many times to get the prized permit you might be forced to buy out an existing charter business owner.

These salmon charter permits are highly sought after and don’t remain on the market long when offered for sale. In 2010 expect to pay a market price of over $25K for a six pole permit if you are lucky enough to find one!

Don’t even think about chartering without one or trying to use a guide permit known as a River Salmon/Game fish permit (which is still available) in a saltwater fishery unless you want to have your boat and equipment confiscated by a WDFW officer.

All expenses are higher with a charter boat and that includes insurance, as you will need adequate indemnity for your fishing clients as well as your boat and equipment. Normal marine insurance will not cover you or your clients if you’re chartering. Many marinas will also require you to carry them as a rider on your policy should your client get hurt on their property.

Most reputable charter fishing captains belong to professional organizations like the National Charter Boat Association and here in Washington the Charter Boat Association of Puget Sound (CAPS) which require proof of USCG & WDFW licensing and insurance to join. You are also subject to random drug testing and have to belong to a USGC approved testing program. You are also now required to attain a Transportation Workers Identification Credential (TWIC) from the Transportation Security Administration. This last item requires a federal background check.

Assuming that you go through the hassle of attaining a Captains license and locating and buying a WDFW charter permit, how do you attract clients?

Advertising: Word of mouth is best over the long haul; over fifty percent of my clients were repeats. In the short term try advertising in local fishing publications. Submit reports and you will even be listed for free on the Salt Patrol site. Establish good relationships with Outdoor Writers, take them on free trips, they can make or break your business. It’s a small circle when it comes to Outdoor Writers in this game and word gets around quick if don’t know what you’re doing. It also helps to create a good brochure for hotels and tackle shops to market your charter and a company web page to attract out of state clients.

Chartering was a source of both enjoyment and profit for me, but it’s not for everyone. Consider all the requirements before jumping into it as a full or part time business. Long hours, hard work, major wear and tear on your boat and equipment are all factors to take into account but the real reward can be having a job doing something that you love.

Capt. John Keizer


For more information visit WDFW Commercial License at


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