Guidance by the Buck

Published in the October 2018 Issue April 2021 Feature Captain Danny Lee

I am often asked for fishing advice about particular locations, often by competent, boat-owning anglers who simply – and understandably – want a short cut to the action. Usually they are headed there on vacation, often with the family, and realize I may have been there and have some tips.

My answer is the same whether they are inquiring about fishing a port on the far side of their favorite Great Lake or an angling location on the far side of the continent: do some research and book a qualified fishing guide as early in the trip as possible. I didn’t used to advise this because I’m a captain myself, but because the process has paid off for me so many times it’s a no-brainer now. I just factor-in the fee for hiring a guide in the budget of any trip to any destination that may involve fishing in unfamiliar waters.

It’s tough for seasoned anglers to bite the ego bullet. “Why hire someone when I know how to fish and can run a boat?!” you might ask and why shell out the (considerable) bucks it’ll cost you to spend a day with a local pro. But I guarantee you, you won’t be sorry if you do just that.

Even if you own your own boat and have the basic fishing skills and equipment required to be successful in a given water system, the time and money you will spend (note I didn’t say “waste;” since I consider any time spent aboard and on the water to have value…) using trial and error to learn the local waters and stumble upon a fishing spot or two will over-ride the up-front monetary investment required to hire a local professional to help you cut some corners and straighten out your local knowledge learning curve.

That said, to be fair to the guide, there are some guidelines you need to follow when temporarily hiring his services to show you the ropes in waters you intend to boat and angle in the long run on your own.

Because you are not the typical client hiring a guide for a day or two of fishing while you are in town, and instead are hoping to gain local boating and fishing knowledge for your own use in those same waters, you need to be up front with him (or her) and share that information before you agree on a trip. Most guides will appreciate your candor, respect you for being open about your intentions, and may (or may not) agree to host you. And if they do, they may not be as forthcoming about taking you to their “secret” honey-holes, knowing you may return yourself and compete with his clients for his hard-earned fishing action. However, in my experience most professional fishing guides who agree to a “training trip” will return the favor by extending the extra effort required to show you some tips and shortcuts for safely navigating local waters and share other equally valuable information to someone who will be boating there in the long term. A good guide will also take you to good places to fish, and perhaps explain what makes those particular locales productive, which is invaluable for people seeking information to help them start identifying potential hot spots of their own.

If you have a hand-held GPS unit, ask your guide if it’s okay for you to mark some of the places he takes you. Better yet, if your model offers the option, ask if it is okay with your captain to record the route of your entire time on the water for later reference. The rule here is to ask first; you don’t want your captain to catch you sneaking position fixes of his prime fishing holes on a portable GPS receiver. That’s grounds for a long swim back to the dock in most locales.

In advance of any trip during which you intend to hire a local fishing guide, you should get names of guides and captains from friends who have visited the destination, local sources such as tourism agencies, chambers of commerce, tackle shops or fishing guide associations, or study magazines that carry advertisements for captains who work the waters you want to visit. Then ask the guides you choose to contact for references from past clients, and follow up with contact with them to learn of the anglers’ experiences with that particular captain.

Once you have settled on a potential guide to hire, tell him exactly your intention to use the fishing and boating experience he offers as a basis for further exploration on your own. If he agrees to take you out and show you the ropes under those conditions, follow up with additional communication to make sure you know what time to show up and where, what to wear and who is responsible for what in terms of tackle, bait, and lunch.

Done right and with mutual respect, you may be entering a mutually beneficial, long-term relationship with your captain. At the least, you will be spending time in the company of someone with professional knowledge of waters and a fishery that you want to know better yourself.


Captain Lee highlights local USCG unit

In several popular fishing ports across the Great Lakes, the Coast Guard is stepping up enforcement measures on boat operators illegally taking passengers for hire.

Last summer the Coast Guard conducted operations to stop illegal passenger vessel operators in northern Minnesota and western Lake Superior waters. A similar operation was conducted last summer in the vicinity of Chicago, and during those operations 50 percent of stopped vessels were found to be operating illegally on Lake Michigan.

Operators who take on paying passengers are considered to be a commercial vessel and must be operated by a mariner with a Coast Guard credential (license). Operating as a commercial vessel without the required documents and credentials is a violation of federal law, and if caught, the operator could be subject to criminal or civil liability. Vessels that operate with a captain who is not licensed put passengers and surrounding boats in danger.

When the Coast Guard encounters a boat that is non-compliant with regulations, measures are taken with the goal of bringing the vessel/operator into compliance. Those measures may include education, verbal or written warnings, civil penalties, vessel voyage termination, arrest or vessel seizure.  

When reserving boats, prospective passengers should ask the operator in advance for proof the vessel is compliant with Coast Guard requirements. Availability on a website is not a guarantee of regulatory compliance. Passengers have the right to see the captain's license and Certificate of Inspection to ensure the vessel and captain are certified, and a right to know they are paying for a safe voyage before handing over their money.

The Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit Duluth is able to administer testing to become a credentialed mariner. For questions on how to obtain a credential, please contact the Regional Exam Center (REC) Toledo at 888-427-5662 or by email at

Anyone who wishes to verify a captain’s license or the inspected status of a vessel, or who wishes to report a vessel suspected of operating illegally can contact Coast Guard Sector Sault Ste. Marie Command Center at 906-635-3236. 

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