Jun. 26—If a bad day fishing is better than a good day at work, Richard Simms has landed himself a pretty great way to make a living.
"I've built quite the thriving business," says Simms, whose team at Scenic City Fishing Charters led about 450 trips last year. "When I was growing up in Chattanooga, the river was basically considered an obstacle to try to figure out how to get across. Now it just excites me no end to see how people have come to think of the Tennessee River as the tremendous natural resource it is."
Simms was never interested in working at a desk, and after snagging a degree in wildlife management from Tennessee Technological University, he spent the first nine years of his career with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. He worked as a game warden in Marion County, and then as a photographer based in the Nashville office, but eventually made his way back home to Chattanooga to work for NewsChannel 9 as a photographer and digital editor.
In 2006, Simms started his fishing guide business, working weekends on the water and spending Monday through Friday at his day job.
"It didn't take long for me to realize that niche was definitely there," he says. "I did it on a part-time basis for a lot of years, but in 2014 I decided I was ready to start guiding full time, and I met other people who were avid, excellent fisherpersons and slowly but surely just started adding on guides."
Now Simms is one of seven guides in his crew who take clients out on the water ranging from 15 to 20 miles upstream of the Chickamauga Dam to Chickamauga Lake to 15 or 20 miles downstream to the Nickajack Reservoir and everywhere in between.
"The dedicated largemouth bass guides stay around Chickamauga Lake proper," Simms says. "Those who catfish mix it up a bit."
The pandemic put a temporary cramp in his business and forced a wave of cancellations in the spring of 2020, but once the shutdowns lifted, the floodgates opened, Simms says.
"The river has always been a tremendous place to escape, but last year it just went crazy," he says. "People were desperate for something to do, and they couldn't go to movies or restaurants. You and the family going fishing was a perfect opportunity."
But while 2020 was a banner year for life on the water, business has always been brisk, he adds. Chickamauga Lake has become a nationally recognized hotspot for bass fishing since a TWRA stocking program launched 20 years ago, and catfishing has a whole lot more cachet than it did in the past.
"A lot of times we're fishing right in downtown Chattanooga, and I always like taking pictures of big catfish in front of the Tennessee Aquarium," Simms says. "It's a really cool thing to see a monster blue catfish in the Tennessee Aquarium, but it's another thing altogether to see one on the end of your line."
Most of the fishing expeditions are catch-and-release, especially on the bass fishing side of the house, and the business hooks customers who range from locals looking to get to know hometown waters better to international travelers exploring entirely new countries, Simms says.
"I guided a gentleman from China one time, and we have a few local folks that call on us," Simms says. "A lot of the local business we get is people who have family coming in from out of town and they want to entertain them."
As the temperatures warm up, Simms knows he can expect to see familiar faces, and that has become one of the best parts of the business, he says.
"We have people that will get off the boat in March and April from a trip and book next year's trip," he says. "I've got clients who have fished with me or one of our guides once a year since we started in 2006."