Fishing Guides, Inc.

Montanans claim they're getting crowded out of the water.

Field & Stream Online Editors

For most of his 60 years, Mike Whittington has enjoyed a family tradition that was started by his great-grandfather: fishing for trout in the rivers and streams near his Billings, Montana, home.

"It was considered a Montana birthright to be able to go down a river and just get away from it all," says Whittington. "It's a right many of us have spent hours and not small amounts of our own money fighting to preserve." Now he and others like him wonder if it was all wasted effort, because there's a threat to their pastime-but not from pollution or dams. It comes from the most unlikely opponent sport fishermen might imagine: guides and outfitters.

"I've been waiting five years to get a permit to fish the Smith River, but if I had the money to pay an outfitter I could go tomorrow because the guides have been guaranteed some of the permits," says Whittington. "I used to be able to fish that river any time I wanted. Now I'm standing in line behind guides and outfitters-people who fish for a living." That doesn't seem right to Whittington.

"We're feeling like we're being squeezed off our own public waters by commercial fishing operations," he says. "Now they're asking for a larger share in how the resources are managed, because of their economic impact. Limiting access to everyday taxpayers so businesses can make money isn't what management of these resources was supposed to be about."

Allies or Competitors?
Friction between private anglers and guided fishing services is increasing, and not just in Montana. Anglers in states as diverse as Florida, Idaho, Colorado, and Texas find themselves vying for time and space on their traditional fishing waters with guides and outfitters representing fishing, rafting, and other uses.

Few expected the clash. Guides have long been held as icons of the sport-fishing world, respected for their skill, envied for their lifestyle, and honored for their often outspoken commitment to conservation causes-including donating services to groups such as Trout Unlimited and the Coastal Conservation Association. In areas where sportsmen were fighting to limit or end traditional commercial fishing, guides and outfitters often were at the forefront of the battle. But in the last few years the relationship has begun to chill.

"Some of our members look at guides and outfitters now as commercial fishermen," says Craig Sharpe, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation.

**A Heavy Impact **
The affluence generated by the explosive economy of the 1990s helped trigger a soaring interest in fishing. State and local governments fed that fire by mounting multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns to lure nonresidents inside their borders. Few, if any, considered the impact these programs could have on natives.

And as ever more anglers headed onto the water, the number, size, and economic clout of for-hire fishing services rose sharply. Because states share no uniform licensing requirement for fishing guides, estimates of their numbers vary. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2001 reported that 2.58 million anglers used guide services, spending $687 million for their trips. The National Association of Charterboat Operators has much higher figures: It estimates the nation has 16,061 charter boats taking 13.04 million anglers, resulting in $56.1 billion in spending and creating 1.1 million jobs.

By all accounts, the presence of charter, guide, and outfitting services is now an undeniable force on the American fishing scene, and is impacting ordinary anglers in a growing number of ways. In Texas, for example, a recent study showed an estimated 800 coastal guide services were taking 40 percent of the spotted seatrout catch-badly outfishing 700,000 coastal recreational anglers.

The Montana Problem
The situation in Montana may serve as the best case study on the issu Blessed with fabulous fishing resources and a tiny population, Montana was always an angler's dream. Initially, residents hardly noticed the growth of the guide and outfitting industry. By 2000, Montana, which has fewer than 1 million residents, had almost 2,500 fishing guides. By comparison, Texas-with 20 million people and far more fishing water-had just 1,500 guides.

The importance of that burgeoning enterprise came crashing home to Montana sportsmen with a bang in 1996. That's when fishing pressure on the famed Smith River produced so much crowding, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks organized a citizens' panel to develop a user-friendly plan to preserve "the quality of the experience." After months of work, the panel made its recommendations. Then the state acted-but not in the way recreationists expected.

"The panel agreed on a total number of permits for the year," says Whittington. "Then the Legislature passed a special bill [BRACKET "the Smith River Management Act"] that allocated a good chunk of those to specific outfitters. They ceded a portion of a public resource to private businesses, and the taxpaying angler got what was left over."

The lesson of that experience wasn't lost on the state's anglers, who began to wonder what their future would be on other famous blue-ribbon streams like the Beaverhead, Big Hole, Big Horn, and Madison.

"Our members worry about the growing influence the recreation industry is having on government," says the Montana Wildlife Federation's Sharpe. "Tourism is the second largest industry in this state, and most of that is based on our natural resources. That industry has growing power with the Legislature and the MDFWP. Especially with our current administration, we're seeing commercial considerations driving policy.

"We know there are some communities that depend almost exclusively on outfitting for their livelihoods. We're not asking that they be closed down. What we're saying is the state must protect the public trust-and that trust says the noncommercial use of these resources should be given first priority."

A Sport and a Business
Guides and outfitters don't see it exactly the same way. They say crowding is as much a result of resident use as of outfitting-and that their activity is too important to the state to limit indiscriminately.

"We're under attack and singled out as the only problem, when a careful consideration of facts shows we are not," says Robin Cunningham, executive director of the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana. He argues that studies show outfitters represent no more than 16 to 20 percent of the use on most streams. And years of effort on the part of his group to develop some type of plan to control the pressure on rivers has repeatedly been blocked by Montanans who have resisted any restrictions.

"We think one of the biggest difficulties we face in finding a solution to this is that residents won't face up to the fact that they're part of the problem. They fish, too," says Cunningham. "We don't want to own these rivers; we just want reasonable access, and a place at the table when decisions are made."

He thinks that place is deserved because of his industry's importance to the state. "The nonresidents we bring here represent not only a huge income to the communities they visit, but their license fees make up something like 60 to 65 percent of the fisheries budget in the state."

If nonresidents were limited, Cunningham notes pointedly, "we wonder what would happen to the budgets of the agencies managing the resources that people who live here enjoy year-round. I think that it's safe to say if we all stopped operating, this state would face a crisis."

But he acknowledges that more than a handful of the older, established fishing outfitters are pushing the Legislature to cut them more deals like the one now in place on the Smith.

A Plan in the Making
The MDFWP is trying to prevent the conflict from ballooning further. Two years ago it recruited representatives from a wide array of user groups to sit on the River Recreation Advisory Council, which is charged with developing a statewide river management plan. Management specialist Charlie Sperry was hired by the MDFWP to work exclusively on that project and finds his hands full.

"There are a lot of interests to consider, including river rafters, recreational users, residents, nonresidents, guides, outfitters-and the communities whose economies are affected by all this," he says. "But our goal is to develop a plan based on what the citizens are telling us they want."

Citizens like Mike Whittington know what they want: easy access to enjoy the public resources he and other taxpayers have been supporting for generations.

That doesn't mean nonresidents and outfitters should pack up and go home, he says, because "there's plenty of water for everyone to have a quality experience if it's properly managed." But he worries that the tax dollars and jobs represented by commercial users like guides and outfitters will limit the ability of recreational anglers to get a fair slice of the pie.

"No one wants to be restricted on using their favorite river, yet there comes a time when crowding gets so bad, you have to do something about it," he admits. "And that solution should not be based on who has the big bucks. It should be done on an equitable and noneconomic basis, because these public resources should not be given over to commercial users." e now in place on the Smith.

A Plan in the Making
The MDFWP is trying to prevent the conflict from ballooning further. Two years ago it recruited representatives from a wide array of user groups to sit on the River Recreation Advisory Council, which is charged with developing a statewide river management plan. Management specialist Charlie Sperry was hired by the MDFWP to work exclusively on that project and finds his hands full.

"There are a lot of interests to consider, including river rafters, recreational users, residents, nonresidents, guides, outfitters-and the communities whose economies are affected by all this," he says. "But our goal is to develop a plan based on what the citizens are telling us they want."

Citizens like Mike Whittington know what they want: easy access to enjoy the public resources he and other taxpayers have been supporting for generations.

That doesn't mean nonresidents and outfitters should pack up and go home, he says, because "there's plenty of water for everyone to have a quality experience if it's properly managed." But he worries that the tax dollars and jobs represented by commercial users like guides and outfitters will limit the ability of recreational anglers to get a fair slice of the pie.

"No one wants to be restricted on using their favorite river, yet there comes a time when crowding gets so bad, you have to do something about it," he admits. "And that solution should not be based on who has the big bucks. It should be done on an equitable and noneconomic basis, because these public resources should not be given over to commercial users."