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What's the difference between a guide boat and a charter boat?

Folks, going on a guided trip with a fishing guide (especially Total Fisherman Guide Service) is a first class fishing experience that just hands down beats anything you're going to find on a charter boat. It should really be what you're looking for, and if you don't know the differences and the advantages of going with a fishing guide, then this is a must read article.

This article will help you to ask the appropriate questions when looking for a fishing trip. I hope you take the time to read it and make an informed decision so that your trip can be the best one possible.

I had a fellow call me the other day; he was looking for a fishing trip for himself and his friend.  We had a nice talk, he asked questions and I answered them, the typical sort of thing.  He told me he wanted to go ahead and book the trip and then asked, “What is the cost per person?” I told him it was $175 per person, included everything he would need for fishing and included fish filleting and he only needed to bring his lunch/beverages and fishing license.” 

His response was “$175! The last guy I talked to was only $105 dollars!”  He obviously liked the other fellas price structure but something must have turned him off or he wouldn’t have been calling me.  I mentioned to him that he must have been talking to one of the big charter boat outfits in Ilwaco and he said that indeed he had.  I said “The boats in Ilwaco, Washington are charters but I run fishing guide service ... which is quite a bit different then what those big charter boats offer …” I was going into the details of how my service is different when he said, “Well if a boats a boat.”  That’s where he lost me, I knew I wasn’t going to change this guy’s mind, and that I was really wasting my time trying.

Folks … all boats, meaning all charter/guide operations aren’t created equal any sooner than all restaurants are created equal.  Yeah, all of the restaurants feed you but we certainly realize that this isn’t the only standard that they’re measured by.  There is a lot more to what makes one restaurant better than another and the same holds true with charter fishing boats and guide boats. 

I think there may be quite a few people who like the fella that called me, think all boats should be $105 and just don’t understand the ins and outs of how all of this works.  You’re going to learn.  You will either learn through experience or by reading what I’m saying here.

I’m not pulling any punches, this is honest, first hand knowledge and it should be an informative insight from the perspective of someone who is in the industry and has fished on all kinds of charter and guide boats.

What is the difference between a charter boat and a guide boat?  Or what is the difference between a charter fishing trip and a guided fishing trip?

Charter boats on the lower Columbia River are currently charging from $105 to $130 per person.  They charge these lower prices for a variety of reasons, many of which you will understand after reading this, but the main reason is because many can take up to 20+ anglers.  Let’s say they average 12 anglers per day, that boat at $120 pp grossed $1260 that day.  A guide boat with four anglers at $175 grossed $700.  The math is simple they can charge less because they can take more anglers and make more money off of the big group. 

You might say, “But some charter boats advertise that they only take six people.” Yep they do, and they only charge $105 per person.  They have a captain, and a deck hand they have to pay, all of the same operational expenses, the owner takes his cut.  What kind of boat and equipment do you think you’re going to be seeing when you get to the dock?  What kind of day do you think you’re going to have?  Do you think they are going to go above and beyond for you and your trip? By the way you need to have six people in your party or they will fill the fifth and six slot.

Some charter boat companies currently advertise “Call for latest pricing” which means they are probably increasing the price when they have limited space, and lowering the price when the boat is empty, either way this isn’t fair to their customers.  Transparency and treating everyone equally is an important trait of a reputable business. 

Charter Captain vs. Guide Boat Captain – What’s the difference?

Charter boats are generally 38’ to 58’ feet long.  They cost $100,000 to $400,000 and up to buy.  The guy that’s driving it isn’t often the guy that owns it.  The owner is off working another job or sitting in an office booking trips for the charter boat. 

Fishing guides own the boats, they run the boats, bait the hooks, they clean the boats, clean the fish etc.  It’s a one person operation.

What does this have to do with anything?  Let me put it this way.  What restaurant do you think you’re going to get better service from, the one that hires a waiter for the summer because that is the only time they are open? Or from the restaurant that has the owner seating you and waiting on you, and his wife is in the kitchen doing the cooking? Which one do you think is going to care the most? Which one do you think will remember you when you come back? 

When you’re dealing with an owner/operator, that person has a vested interest in you having the best experience possible.  They aren’t just pulling down a check, they are working their business, and for them this is a career.

Fishing guides fish year around because the boat can fish other waters and it's transportable to other locations.  Columbia River charter boats and their captains don’t.

Charter boats have employee turnover.  This means that you may be going on the same boat next year but it very well may not have the same captain and crew.  You might as well be going on a different boat.  New charter captains don’t catch as many fish as experienced ones.  Turnover hurts the outcome of your trip.  The charter boats without high turnover are also the ones charging the most … we’re starting to see a pattern here.

The boats: Guide Boat vs. Charter Boat

Charter boats: Designed primarily for ocean fishing.

These are very expensive boats, and on the lower Columbia River, the business and boat are generally not owned by the captain.

Size: Large, typically over 36 feet in length.

Bathroom - they have an enclosed place to go to the bathroom called a “head”.  Not spacious but they get the job done in a pinch.

Most have enough of an enclosed cabin for their customers to get into to stay warm and dry.  On the larger boats it may be tight but everyone can fit inside.  On the smaller charter boats you may find that inside seating is fairly limited and some folks have to sit outside on the back deck.

Stability - since they are fairly long (up to 58’ feet here in Oregon/Washington) and wide 12’ to 16’) they also tend to be really stable and can handle pretty rough water.

Speed - slower moving, 12 to 25 mph is typical

Seating arrangement - you typically stand by your rod holder.  The back deck may have a few bench seats but over half of the rod holders are quite a distance from the seating, 30 to 40 feet away on the larger boats.  Charter boats don't have seating near your rod holder so you can't sit much, you mostly stand or lean against the outside of the cabin.

Fuel - diesel.  Diesel is great for fuel economy but the downside is that the fumes really make folks sick.  Many anglers think they got seasick but in reality they breathed too many diesel fumes.

Space - even though they are large, most charter boats restrict the amount or size of coolers and carry-ons that you can bring onboard.  Inside storage is limited and outside space on the deck is limited because there are quite a few anglers needing to utilize that space and the cabin structure takes up the rest.

Northwest Guide Boats: Designed primarily for inshore fishing but can fish the ocean effectively.

Captain owned and operated.

Moderate size -  your typical guide boat is going to be 23 to 25.5 feet long by eight to nine feet wide.

Most of these are open boats without a cabin and have individual cushioned seating with arm rests near your rod holder.

Bathrooms - are nonexistent on these boats.  A bucket or portable toilet are the facilities.  If this doesn’t work then most captains are more than ok with running you into the various launch facilities to take a quick break.  Guys typically don’t have a problem discretely going in the bucket, and quite a few women will use this as well as long as they know everyone in the boat is facing the other direction.  Everyone else either holds it, moderates their fluid intake, or plans on a bathroom break during the trip.

Stability - guide boats can handle everything that inshore river conditions can throw at them and can also fish on the ocean but are restricted in their ability to fish the ocean during rough conditions.  Going out on the ocean doesn't mean that conditions have to be perfect ... some chop and swells aren’t a big deal, but large wind chop and swells are going to keep you off of the ocean.

Speed - guide boats are generally pushed by gas fueled high power outboard motors.  The typical cruise speed for one of these boats is going to be 28 to 32 mph and when you want to get there in a hurry they can do 40+ mph.

Space - guide boats fish up to six anglers and many (not all) captains will tell you that if you book for four anglers then it will just be your party in the boat and they won’t fill any of the empty seats.  The boat is an open design without a cabin; there is a lot of space to move around on a guide boat, and I don’t know of any fishing guides that restrict how much stuff their customers can bring with them.  You can bring it, and a spot for it can be found for it to be stored, each seat has its own under-seat storage and there is a ton of deck space.

That’s how the actual charter boats and guide boats are different.  Now let’s talk about how these boats’ design impacts the way they run their trips.

Charter boats are made to fish the ocean and if you’re talking salmon fishing then this is where they prefer to go.  Salmon fishing in the ocean is a lot less technical then in the river.  In the ocean these boats can fish large groups of people utilizing pretty simple techniques and if they find where the fish are they will be successful.

What happens when the ocean is too rough?

Charter Boat

Problems occur when one of two things happen. One, the ocean is too rough for even these big boats or two, the salmon have moved into the river and are no longer in the ocean in easy to find and catch numbers (this happens every year in late August through September).

Now the charter boat is in a jam.  There is a reason fishing guides don’t use big boats inshore.  It’s because big boats don’t have the maneuverability, speed and finesse that it takes to excel at successfully fishing our complex inshore salmon fisheries.

Charter boats just don’t catch fish in the river like guide boats do.  They have too many people fishing.  They are too slow and can’t run and gun chasing the fish, or constantly running back upstream to troll down through the good water (charter boats just troll both ways, but the fish prefer a downstream troll).

So in the “ocean is too rough” scenario you either wind up getting cancelled on or you end up fishing inshore on a boat that 99% of the time won’t be as successful as the guide boat alternative.

Charter boats are slow compared to guide boats which means you spend a longer amount of time traveling to a given destination, and if you’re in a charter boat your going to stay there longer too, because the majority of the day has to be spent fishing not traveling.  On a charter boat this means you’re either not going to travel far, or if you do you’re not going to have the flexibility to pick up and go somewhere else at the drop of a hat.

Charter boats can travel and fish in water that is rough, which means they can take you out on the ocean in water that would make a guide boat stay inshore.  This can be good and bad.  You may find that you’re fishing, but it’s too rough to have fun.  This is a balancing act and a good charter boat captain should know when too rough is too rough, but keep in mind they have a several different groups on the boat. The captain has to be worried about making everyone onboard happy. Another potential situation that may cause you to stay on a rough ocean would be that the captain may be worried about not coming in with a full limit of fish because they feel this could make them look bad and inturn be potential cause to get replaced by someone else. 

It is too rough on the water to even consider leaving the dock ...this is the ugliest scenario of all. The charter boat's owner is in the office and tells the captain that they have to go fishing. The captain says "But the water is huge and I don't feel comfortable going." The owner tells him you're going to take the boat out or I will find someone who will. When faced with this decision the captain goes because he is going to loose his job. This all happened behind closed doors and you don't even know it occurred. Do you want to be on this boat?

When the owner of the boat is also the one running it, things are totally different, he doesn't have to be worried about being fired for ensuring the safety of his customers.

Sea Sickness (or you just want to go in.)

This is something that happens on the ocean but rarely inshore. When you’re on a guide boat,it’s just your party and someone gets seasick, and that person wants to go back to the dock, then the guide will take you back to the dock and turn around and take your party back out fishing.  Guide boats are fast so they don’t spend a lot of time doing this.  This scenario is not going to happen on a charter boat. If you're not feeling well a charter boat will not bring you back in.  If they do then you’re staying in.  You haven’t paid enough and the boat isn’t fast enough to have this luxury.

The flip side of this is that if you’re fishing on the ocean you are more likely to get seasick on a guide boat then on a charter boat.  The stability of a larger boat does help a little bit with this.  However most folks find that if they are prone to getting seasick in swells or rough water, then they are going to get sick, and it doesn’t matter what size vessel they are on.

Gear

Most fishing guides take a lot of pride in the gear that they use.  Every fishing guide wants to outfit their boat with the best equipment.  Some can afford it and do, while others use the absolute best they can afford, but either way you will be fishing with very good or absolute top of the line fishing equipment.  This is one of the reasons guided fishing trips cost more.

Charter boats tend to use “good enough” or possibly even a little above average gear.  Why?  The price charters charge their customers means they don’t have a lot of money to buy high end gear.  This means that the gear you use will probably work but may not catch as many fish, or may potentially fail when you need it the most.  Charter boat rods often pull double duty for multiple species so they tend to be heavier and stiffer, so you won’t get the fight from the fish that you would get from the lighter tackle that guided customers use.

Charter boats almost always run monofilament line because it’s cheap.  They have a lot of customers on that boat and tangles are common.  Cutting apart braided line gets expensive so they use mono, which also breaks easier and doesn’t last as long as braid. Most guide boats run braid because they don’t want you to lose your fish and they have the budget to spend the extra money.

The actual fishing experience – Charter Boat Style

When we’re comparing these two alternatives we're really talking about the choices for a salmon or a sturgeon trip.  Going after Halibut or Albacore Tuna require travelling long distances off shore and are charter boat trips exclusively.  However that doesn’t mean you have to be stuck on a boat with 20 other people.  There are big charter boats who fish offshore for halibut and tuna, that just take small six person groups and ALSO have high end equipment and a philosophy similar to that of a fishing guide boat captain.  These large “six pack” boats are how I fish when I go for halibut or tuna, I wouldn’t fish with them inshore because the boat is too big to do it right.  These trips aren’t cheap and they make guide boat pricing look low.

So when you’re looking at the following, remember we’re really talking about salmon and sturgeon trips here.  The following is standard operating procedure which may vary a bit from boat to boat but not by much.

On an ocean salmon trip aboard a charter boat you’re going to meet the boat and leave when the captain says.  You don’t have a say in this.  Multiple groups have to be accommodated and a 5 or 5:30 am start time is typical.

You load up and you head out.  You hit the ocean and hopefully find the fish right away, which you probably will because the charter boats are out every day.  If you don’t find them right away and have to go looking for them, you better hope you’re on a fast boat so you don’t spend all day driving around searching.

You’re fishing and you get a salmon hooked up.  The charter boat does not stop to let you reel your fish in.  It keeps on trolling which means that you don’t really fight your fish as much as you just reel him in and hope he doesn’t come off against the extra drag the boat’s speed is creating.  Why doesn’t the boat stop?  The captain has 16 other anglers he has to worry about limiting out and your one fish just isn’t that important plus the ocean generally has good salmon fishing during July and August so if you loose that one there is another one waiting to bite your hook.  “Lost salmon?  Who cares, get your rod back in the water.”

Most charter boats practice “Party Fishing” which means that unless you state otherwise (and assuming they listen) your limit of fish can actually be landed by someone else.  If you’re not catching fish and someone else is, the boat heads in when the fish box is full.  A good captain will make the person with the hot rod hand it off to the person who still needs to catch fish.

The salmon limit has been caught.  Now what?  You head in.  It doesn’t matter if it has only been an hour and a half.  This is normal, you can’t catch and release on salmon.

The sturgeon charter trip

Similar to the salmon trip but instead of going to the ocean and trolling you are going to be fishing in the river. Typically you’re going to find yourself on the Washington side a few miles below the bridge or a few miles above it, this is where the charter boats fish.  They all fish in a big group.  When the fish are there the group does well if not then the group can say, “Well the fish just weren’t in today.”  Nobody saw the boats up in the islands or on the Oregon side catching fish after fish, so the customer doesn’t know any better.

Folks there is a heck of a lot more river that holds sturgeon other than just the area where those charters fish.  They don’t fish this other water because it is too long of a run for them when their boat will only go 15 mph, and some of that water is also too shallow for them to get into.  Some are also on a tight operating budget because their customers didn’t pay enough money to be run way up river to where the sturgeon are actually located.

The key to sturgeon fishing isn’t sitting in one or two spots all day long and hoping the fish come by, the key to sturgeon success is finding the fish!  You can find sturgeon in a hurry on a fast guide boat with a guide that knows how the fish pattern out in the lower river.  A good guide will beat that river to death to find those sturgeon.  A good charter boat is going to move four or five times at most and really may only be moving in the same pattern which actually doesn’t equate to moving at all as far as the fish are concerned.  These lower river sturgeon have distinct patterns they like to follow and moving around on the Washington side of the river doesn’t get it done if they aren’t in that pattern.

Oversize fish (over 5’) often get purposely broken off on charter boats.  They don’t want to chase that fish because it interferes with the other anglers’ ability to catch their keepers.  The monofilament fishing line is also around 25 to 30 pound breaking strength so it takes even longer to land these fish on a charter boat and they don’t want to deal with the hassle.  You just hooked the biggest fish of your life and they just took the rod from you and broke it off.

The boat limits out.  You are headed in.  Even though you are legally allowed to catch and release on sturgeon after the limit has been retained that isn’t going to happen on most charter boats.  They want to get in and get the day over with.

 

On a charter boat there is a deck hand or maybe two, and the captain.  The deckhands are the ones you will be interacting with while you're fishing.  Deckhands come in all shapes, sizes and varieties; you need to have gone on a bunch of charter trips to know what I mean on this one.  There are good ones and there are definitely a lot of bad ones.

If you don’t have a good time and come back again … then someone else will.  If you complain and the captain gets a bad reputation for being a jerk or a bad fisherman, the worst that is going to happen is he will lose his job.  Remember he doesn’t loose his business, he doesn’t own the boat or the charter service, he can go get another job doing something else, no real loss to him other then not being able to go fishing and get paid for it.

When you get back to the dock your fish will be gutted and bagged for the trip home.  For an additional fee they will fillet it and for another additional fee they will vacuum pack it.

The actual fishing experience – Guide Boat Style

Assuming it is just your group in the boat.  You meet the guide at a prearranged time, this can be at the time that he suggests or since it is your day and just your party in the boat it can be at a later time that works better for you.  In general since these boats are fast, the recommended start time is about the time the sun comes up.

You hit the water.  If you’re fishing in the ocean then you should get into the fish pretty fast because the guide is out there every day.  If you don’t then you’re on a fast boat that can pick up and move to another location in a hurry to get you on the fish, not wasting time driving to get there.

You get into the fish, because it is a trip custom tailored to take care of your group the captain can focus on each individual’s fish catching experience.  So when a fish is hooked up the captain has the flexibility to put the motor in neutral and stop the boat so that your fish gets landed and the fight is enjoyed.

You get your limit of fish, everyone reeled in their own salmon, and nobody caught anybody else’s limit.  One angler having the hot rod and limiting half of the boat just isn’t allowed to happen on a guide boat.

If it’s warm weather the guide is going to put your fish on ice while it is on the boat.  He is also going to make sure it is properly bled.  Both of these things ensure that your fish tastes great and doesn’t spoil.  Charter boats don’t always do this.

If the ocean wound up being too rough then the guide boat can fish inshore for salmon or other species and be effective at catching them.  Your trip typically doesn’t have to be cancelled unless you were dead set on catching salmon in the ocean and nothing else would do.

When fishing in the river, because of the speed and maneuverability of their boat, the guide can troll through the best water, have everyone reel up and then run back to the beginning and troll back through again.  The fish typically only want the bait to be trolled in one direction.  Charter boats troll both ways; they can’t do this economically or time-wise.

The guided sturgeon trip

You hit the river running.  The guide knows where the fish are and if they aren’t there than he is going to be fishing spot after spot and if need be, talking on the phone with his fellow fishing guides to find out where the sturgeon are being caught.

One key difference between charter trips and guide trips for sturgeon is when you hook an oversize (a fish greater than 5’ in length).  These fish can be up to 12’ long and you just don’t reel them to the boat.  These huge sturgeon have to be followed with the boat if you hope to actually land one.  Most fishing guides know you came to catch fish and the bigger the better so you’re boat is going to follow that fish and get it landed.  It is probably the biggest fish you’ve ever caught and catching trophy fish is what it is all about!

It’s early though and you still want to make a day of it rather than just heading home.  Often times the guide has other options, crabbing, fishing for other species of fish or maybe even sight seeing.  This are typically add on packages that cost an additional fee but they do allow you to do have more fun after the main goal of catching all of your salmon has been achieved.

You’re now headed in.  You get back to the dock and the guide is assuming that you want your salmon filleted.  Most guides know that part of the reason you pay the premium to go with a guide is to have additional services like fish filleting included.  There is no “gut and bag” going to happen here because they take pride in how they run their operation and how well they take care of their customers.  This is the way most guides operate, but there are exceptions to this rule, make sure you ask before you book the trip.

The salmon are filleted by the guide or someone he hires and he sticks around and sees you off at the end of the day, answering any questions you may have about cooking the fish etc.  He didn’t take off to go do whatever else he thought was more important.  A good guide knows that until you get in your car to drive home, you’re still on your guided trip and he needs to be there to make sure every detail is attended to.

Service after the sale

Charter boats use booking agents.  This is a person or service that answers the phone when you call to book your trip, you won’t be talking with the captain. 

A guide boat captain answers the phone and answers the emails, there should be absolutely no concern about something about your trip being different then what you were told on the phone, there is no middle man to mess things up.

Unless the charter boat captain gives you a card with his personal phone number on it, it is unlikely that you can call him directly later on down the road.

Most guides take deep pride in their relationships with their customers and this includes the time they are off of the water as well.  You will always be able to get a hold of your guide to ask fishing or trip questions via phone or email.

Summary

The biggest difference between a guided trip and a charter trip is that guided trips are custom tailored to meet your needs.  The small group setting in a guide boat makes it a more private customer focused trip, you don’t have 16 people from 5 different groups running all over the boat.  This isn’t Walmart or the playground, this is a guided fishing trip with focus; that focus is on taking care of your group, having fun, catching fish and doing everything within reason to make sure your trip is successful so that you will come back and also hopefully refer us to your friends.

Guided fishing trips cost more than charter trips when you’re comparing apples to apples meaning both boats are fishing the same water after the same species of fish.  We have covered all of the bases in this article; from equipment, economies of scale, business practices, all the way to what motivates the captain to do a good job.

Ultimately you the customer need to decide what is most important to you.  Please ask yourself these questions:

Is your time valuable?

Do you want to maximize the opportunity you have on the water?

Do you want to fish in a boat with just your group or do you want to share it with other people?

Do you want to use high quality equipment?

Do you want to get the best fight from the fish you catch?

Do you want to go with someone that cares about how you feel about the success of your trip and wants you to come back?

Do you want all of the details of your trip included or do you want to pay more for “extra things” like fish filleting?

If the fishing is great or maybe you just need one more fish to limit the boat; do you want to have the flexibility to stay another hour or two and not have to go in because “This is only an 8 hour trip.”

After reading this I hope you see that all boats are not created equal and that there are a number of reasons and a ton of benefit for paying the higher price to go with a fishing guide.

However if above all else, your only concern is to obtain a cheap fishing trip at the lowest possible price and you don't care about any of the things I mentioned in this article, then the low cost of a charter boat is exactly what you're looking for.

 

Kevin Newell and Lacey DeWeert
Professional Columbia River Fishing Guides
E-mail or call to book a trip!
360 430 2521
info@totalfisherman.com