This Month With A Susquehanna River Fishing Guide

By Lance Dunham

  Not a whole lot is happening on the river so far this month due to the ice still being in the slower water where we need to fish, so I wanted to start out by telling you a little story about what happened to me after I got home from my last show. I’ve been doing this so-called job of being a full time fishing guide now going on 34 years.  I’ve seen, heard, and done just about it all on the river during that period of my life, so when a young man in his 20s approached me saying that he has followed my career for years naturally I was flattered and I thanked him. Then he told me he just put a down payment on a new boat and would also like to become a fishing guide. I just politely smiled because I’ve heard this so many times before from so many guys over the years and I knew that there would be many things he would have to do and overcome before becoming a successful fishing guide in this day and age. He was in his second year of college, was tired of it and he said he was ready to quit and take on life. I was ready to talk him out of what I saw was a mistake, “Are you crazy!” I said maybe a little too loud because it made him jump back a bit. Well why not, he said, you are doing okay at it. I told him true, that I was doing okay now, but I was just lucky in that I started back when there were no other guides in the area to be compared to for the first 24 years and nobody had even heard of a jet boat when I started! We fished in a 16ft jon boat and floated from town to town, pulling the boat over the rocks when we got stuck. A guide wouldn’t get away with that now and still keep his clients. I screwed up plenty, made mistakes, and learned the hard way about people and the river, but I was the only game in town in the area that I fished and my customers stuck with me because I knew how to catch a lot of fish and got along well with most folks, or at least the ones who treated me half decent.


OK, so you want to be a fishing guide! Have a seat and let me tell you about it. Even though I love being a guide, it’s just not all glimmer and games like you see on TV. There is more to it than just owning a boat and knowing how to catch fish for yourself with a buddy for bragging rights. Catching fish is maybe only half the job; you must also be a teacher and have the patience of a saint because you are going to meet all kinds of people in this business. Most folks will like and admire what you do, but a few will almost hate you because you’re doing what they think is a glamorous job that anyone can do. They will dislike you only second to that of a Fish Commission Waterways Conservation Officer because you are showing strangers how to catch “Their” fish on “Their” river. It doesn’t matter that you catch and immediately release 99.9% of all the fish caught.


Anyone can become a fishing guide on paper, all it takes is money. First you get your application from the Fish and Boat Commission, fill it out and send it in with a hundred bucks and a copy of your current fishing license. However you also have to show that you have liability insurance and depending on the company and your boat the price should be between about $600.00 and $1000.00 a year for that. Now that fills their requirement but you had better get a big umbrella policy personally because somebody is going to get a hook in them and blame you and look for an easy pay off. Better add another $500.00 a year for that. You have to show them that you have a current CPR and first aid certificate each year, maybe just $50.00 for that. You also need a safe boating certificate, which I think is a great idea except it’s too easy to get them on line anymore, and you can’t fail it. When I took mine we had to go for two days, four hours a day in a class room, and then pass the written test. Yes, and some people failed.


Now let’s talk boats, you say you just bought one. Are you making payments on it? Yes! Well add that to the list of money needed per month along with the cost of maintenance gas and oil. Let’s not forget your towing vehicle and the yearly cost of that. To pay for all your expenses and make a decent living, you are going to have to guide full time, five to seven days a week. This is where I got lucky. Nowadays, and I have learned this from what my clients have told me, when they see a part-time guide advertised, they also see part time knowledge of the water they guide in, really no more that the guy that just gets to fish on the weekend, this could be true or not but this is what they see. I was lucky in that I was the only guide in the area and the new customers had to pick me and stay with me and my crappy little boat that leaked like a sieve, they had no place else to go.


For the first five or six years I also had a part-time job and a wonderful wife who worked full time and she still does, but now she has a choice. You’re young and single, do you ever think you’re going to get married and have kids? Yes? Well, forget it, you’ll be working on the water from dawn to dusk, every day to keep the bills paid just to support yourself. Remember, when you are self-employed there are no sick days off, you work every day or don’t get paid, there is no retirement plan or health insurance unless you pay for it yourself. If you have little kids, you should be taking them fishing instead of strangers or they may resent you for it later. You say you’ll have time after you get home from guiding every day to have fun with the kids? Not if you want to get ahead of the game. You’ve got to get your boat ready for the next day to keep it in good working condition, repair anything that you, your client, or Mother Nature broke. Maintain all of the rods and reels which is about 15 on my boat. I also spend at least two hours each evening editing the client photos, putting them on the internet, not only on my own site but also on sponsors’ sites so they can see that I’m advertising their product. By the time you’re done you eat and go to bed very tired only to be up at 4:30AM to do it all again.


Just to add a little extra thought for you. You need to make a year’s worth of income in 8 or 9 months time because that’s all Mother Nature is going to give you to do it in. Most clients don’t like to fish in the cold and ice, the lures keep bouncing off the hard water. Also when you’re self employed there are no “unemployment benefits,” the government isn’t going to take care of you when you’re not working! Now young man, do you still want to be a full time fishing guide? In hind site, if I had someone to pay for me to go to school way back when, I think I would have gone for it knowing what I know now. I did indeed have that choice, but I felt I needed to be outdoors and I turned college down. The young man said that after listening to me he might stay in school and live with Mom and Dad as long as possible…….Good Boy……Good Boy!


    I didn’t tell him that I enjoyed most everyday of that struggle but then again, I got some good lucky breaks, met a bunch of good people that have helped me along the way, and really enjoy my life now. Well, that’s all for this month folks. For further daily reports, photos, and charter information, please visit me on my web site at and on Facebook.