Becoming a Saltwater Fishing Charter Guide is tough.

Almost every day I have a customers that come upstairs in my wheelhouse and tell me that “You have the dream job.” They also exclaim “Boy, I sure wish I could do what you do.” I am flattered by all of the compliments, but are cautious about telling people “do not to quit their day job” just yet.

It takes more than a captains license and the ability to drive a boat, to become a good charter fishing guide in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. Most people make the mistake of quitting their job too soon, buying a boat, going to captains school and start making a fortune taking people fishing. If the truth be known, there is a lot more to it. More than you can ever imagine.

Before I started fishing professionally in 2002, I was told by older captains that “in order to be a good captain, you have to catch fish.” I grew up fishing the gulf waters and catching fish was never a problem. Some days were more challenging than others, but I knew how to catch fish. Catching fish would not be a problem, I thought.

Finding my charter boat

I went and found a used Hatteras in Destin, Fl. and purchased her. I thought I would save some money and buy a used boat. New boats my size run about $800,000. This used boat was in what appeared to be be in good shape. I had her surveyed and was told that she had a sound hull. They did not tell me that the engines were shot and the paint would soon peel. I thought it would take a couple of weeks to get her ready to go. Boy I was wrong. Nine months in the ship yard was very expensive. I had to completely retro-fit her with new engines, fiberglass, electronics, woodwork and paint. I thought that I could stay under budget. I was wrong again. I busted my budget 3 times and had to keep pumping money into it. I had always heard that a boat is a hole in the water that you pour money into. There is a truth to that. You would think that boat ownership would be bugetable and you could accurately figure what it will cost to get your boat is safe and sound working order. I was a greenhorn and had to find out the hard way. Most boats need a lot of work to get them going. It takes regular maintenance to keep them in good running shape. If you want to do it right, you need to schedule weekly and monthy maintenance schedules just to stay on top of it. I for one do not hesitate when it comes to maintenance. I do all of the work myself. If you don’t know any better, you can get retailed quickly and that will make you sick to your stomach when you get the bill.

Getting started with my boat

When I put my newly renovated charter boat in the water, I took her to Zeke’s Marina in Orange Beach and began paying slip rent of $600 a month plus utilities. It was January and there was not a lot of fishing going on during the winter months back then. It would be March before I saw any bookings or fishing activities to help slow the draining of my bank account. When June arrived in Orange Beach, I was running trips every day. The marina was booking me over two thirds of my trips and taking a 15% commission on everything they booked. Commissions are a way of paying your dues to get started. I did not have a customer base built up yet. We all had low prices back then and fuel was cheap. After the end of that first summer, I had run 127 trips and had a good bit of money in my business checking account. I did the math and found out that I had to live on this money until next June. By the time I took out the slip rent, insurance, electricity and boat taxes, I realized that I did not have enough money to make it to December. It was an eye opener and scared the life out of me. I ended up having to do some consulting work to make ends meet that winter and the next few winters to survive.

Constant change and adjusting to it

After a couple of years of barely making it, we had Hurricane Ivan (2004) and the next year, Katrina (2005). You talking about having a tough couple of years? Whew! Orange Beach and Gulf Shores rebuilt quickly but everyone thought things were still destroyed and avoided the Alabama Gulf Coast for a couple of years. Business was down over 40 percent due to people just not being here. Another factor was, the hurricanes destroyed about 90 percent of all of the close fishing reefs. It took a couple of years of rebuilding them and finding them to be able to have enough reefs to fish again. The tourist returned in 2006 and I thought I would start making a living again. Actually it was just about to get tougher.

Just when the reefs were restored, the National Marine Fisheries division of NOAA, decided that Red Snapper were being overfished in the Gulf of Mexico and cut the bag limits in half. Then they cut our season back fom 6 months, to a 2 month season. In case you did not know, the Red Snapper harvest makes up about 90 percent of all fish landed from deep-sea fishing boats within 30 miles of the Alabama coast line. They were the most abundant offshore fish and were the staple of the local fishing guides and charter boats for over 30 years. This federal ruling has taken its toll on most of the fishing charters in Orange Beach and other parts of the gulf coast. We have lost over 30 percent of our charter fishing fleet because the type of people who used to come down and keep four Red Snappers would not come down for two Red Snappers. Some boats just gave up and went out of business. There are more charter boats that will probably fail this year simply because they can’t adjust to strict bag limits and short season.

The real estate boom hit our area hard and waterfront property prices doubled and tripled over night. We saw marina’s disappear almost overnight and became condo’s. In 2008, the market went bust and some marinas are finacially strapped and some have even shut down. The problem that causes, is not knowing if you will have a place to park your charter boat. There are four marinas in our area that have charter boats now. You have Orange Beach Marina, Sanroc Cay Marina, Zekes Marina and the Gulf Shores Marina. The best marina to get a quality charter is where I am located, at Orange Beach Marina. The Orange Beach Marina is beautiful. We have two, fine restaurants on site. The parking lot is clean and there are no potholes. The docks are mostly new and the atmosphere is incredible.

Finding your niche'

I knew I could not survive by selling fishing charters that targeted only Red Snapper.  I invested tens of thousands of dollars in a marketing campaign in 2007.  I became the first offshore charter boat to start promoting conservation and preserving our resource.  It took a while, but I had to find my customers all over again.  Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant used to say “Expect the unexpected.”  Boy he was right.  Forest Gump once said “shrimping is tough.”  Fishing is tougher.

Being a charter fishing guide in Orange Beach is not easy.   When things were good, it was a lifestyle.  Now it is just like any other job.  It has its rewards and challenges.  It is either red hot or its not.  Everything about boat ownership is expensive.  Finding your customer base is tough.  Developing your niche’ is scary and takes a lot of time.  Changing rules and bag limits makes it interesting to say the least.

If you want to become an Orange Beach fishing guide, you can get started soon.  There are always a supply of used boats to choose from and a marina to park her at.  It would be wise to have two times the cost of the charter boat set up in a reserve bank account to help you get through the first year.   You will need to have a marketing campaign and target the customers you want to attract.  Remember, you can no longer sell “Red Snapper” as a meat haul.  The meat hunters are not a customer base anymore.  You can’t do it part time and expect to be successful.  It normally takes 2/3 of the year to just pay fixed expenses.  The other 1/3 rd of the years revenue needs to be set aside to pay bills for the Winter and live on. The key to starting a charter guide service in Orange Beach is not having any debt when you start.  Not many people can do that.  If you can, with a lot of hard work and patience, you can make a meek living from it.

Reaping the benefits of hard work

I know it sounds like everything about becoming a charter fishing guide is negative. It is not. Had I known all of the information above, I may not have jumped in so quickly. I would have saved my money and then done it right. I have no regrets at all. This has been the best job I have ever had. Now that I have been through the toughest part of starting a business, I am enjoying the fruits of my labor. As with any business, it is tough to get started. As with any new business venture, it takes about 5 years to turn the corner and establish your brand. By knowing all of this information, you will be know some things to look for so you don’t make rookie mistakes.

If you really enjoy deep-sea fishing in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, it would be a lot more fun to hire a charter boat like myself instead of buying one. You get to enjoy a day on the water in a stress free environment. You get to catch fish on new, light tackle. At the end of the day, you can go home and not have to worry about a thing except remembering the great time you had on the water.