“Blame is the coward’s solution to his fear of accountability.”
― Craig D. Lounsbrough
Public perception of the Outfitting industry in Montana is something I have been thinking about in the dark, dusty corners of my brain for a while. Mostly, it’s the negative perception of the outfitting industry that troubles me. You find it in social media. Just about any article talking about fly fishing guides or outfitters, invariably you will find most of the comments are negative. There’s too many guides, they don’t care about the river, the clients are all rich assholes from out of state, they do more harm than good, they should have to pay to use the river. Of course, these folks are completely uninformed, and are only drawing conclusions from their own empirical evidence instead of actual facts. Maybe these folks are the minority, I don’t know, but I guess I hear it from people enough, and see enough of it on social media, that I feel like it should be addressed. I don’t know how we in the industry can do better to change perception, so bear with me as I ramble my way through my own thoughts.
What really has stoked the fire is the current regulation proposal on the Madison river. I’m not quite going to get to that yet. First I want to throw out a couple examples of public perception vs. outfitting reality.
If I got a dollar for every time I’ve heard “I never get a Smith river permit because the outfitters own them all”, I would be a thousandaire. The reality is, is that the outfitters own seasonal launch permits, out of the 7 commercial outfitters on the Smith, they get 73 launches between them. There are 1,804 permits available to the public. So tell me exactly how the outfitters are taking all the launch dates? More than likely you are not getting a permit because you applied for a June or July launch along with everyone else. The past couple of years has seen over 6,000 applications for public launch dates. Perception vs. reality.
The picture above was taken by yours truly a couple of years ago. I took it more to remember a day guiding with friends more than anything else. But, does that look like a crowded boat ramp? Is that a normal day? Or is that an exception? Also note the school bus in the back. That was rented by a group of folks floating for fun, and not fishing. How many people did they put on the river that day? The answer is, that was an exception for that day and date. Mid October doesn’t usually see that much traffic at the boat ramp, however, late May, June, and mid July see lots of traffic. By guides and the general public. So, if you only fish the Missouri during that time, you’re going to see lots of traffic, you’re going to assume that every boat that goes by is a guide, and you may come to the conclusion that that is how the river always is, and that guides outnumber the public. Again, perception vs. reality. The reason why you showed up to fish the Missouri in June, is the same reason that the 5 other wade anglers showed up, and the same reason why there was 10 guides at the boat ramp, and a couple of other folks launching at the boat ramp. The reason is because the fishing, and the weather are good. If you think crowding is an issue, remember, you are part of the crowding. There are plenty of good fishing and weather days in other months on the Missouri where it is a ghost town. If you only come fish it in August, you might have a different view of how busy the river is. And you might really enjoy the fishing then.
One of my other favorite complaints I hear is, the fishing was better 40 years ago. That is completely subjective. I’ve heard from folks that have been here a lot longer than myself that the fishing is the same, or better. The crowding on the other hand is true. Unfortunately time travel doesn’t exist, so the good old days are long behind us. Adapt and overcome.
Now for the meat and potaters. What really stoked the fire is the current meetings, negotiations ongoing with the Madison river proposed regulations. Quick note, I don’t guide on the Madison, and I don’t get over there a lot to have an opinion on crowding. What I do have as reference is friends that do guide and or are outfitters on the Madison and their word on the subject. I’m going to take the lazy way here and provide a link to the specifics, mostly because I don’t think I can do it justice repeating verbatim.
The bottom line is this. The Madison is the busiest river in Montana. Maybe the most loved in Montana, and there is a social conflict about the amount of people using the resource. FWP proposed a cap on outfitting, and also proposed closing the upper section of the Madison from Quake lake to Lyons bridge to boats. Here’s the kicker, commercial use is the smallest percentage of users on the river. So why go after them, and not the larger user groups? Is it because guides are more visible, or is it because guides and outfitters are making money off the resource? Personally I think it’s both. To a degree it makes sense, but, perception vs reality. Let’s say you’re an avid angler from Indiana, your whole fly fishing life you’ve always wanted to hit the famed salmonfly hatch on the Madison river. Just you, the river, grand vistas of the Madison valley, and big trout smashing salmonflies with reckless abandon. The reality is, is that you are more than likely going to share that experience with a crowd. Why? Because everyone wants to fish the salmonfly hatch on the Madison just as much as you do. Maybe you sour on the Madison, or maybe you accept it. While you’re there you see a steady stream of boats coming by. Are they all guides? You don’t really know being from out of town, but assume they are because they’re in boats. You get home from your Montana trip, you had fun, but also it wasn’t the experience you had hoped for. A couple of months later you get a letter from the state of Montana asking about your fishing experience that past summer.
Please rate your fishing experience from 1-10
How many fish did you catch?
Were you happy with the amount of fish?
Was it crowded?
Were you happy with number of other anglers?
How many do you think were being guided?
How many do you think were not guided?
What was your overall satisfaction of your experience?
Of course I’m using lots of poetic license here, but I’ve been part of those creel surveys to know the types of questions the state asks. A couple of years ago they did a survey on the Missouri, the perception was that something like 75% of all boats on the water were guided trips. The reality was that something like 15% was a guided trip. I could be wrong on the exact numbers, but it’s close. It’s the same for the Madison. Public perception is that every single boat going down the river is a guide. Therefore, they are to blame for the crowding. The reality is, is that commercial trips make up the smallest percent of actual use. But, being an outside angler, how do you answer those creel survey questions correctly if you can’t identify a guide boat from a private boat? And how many of those anglers asked, follow up and read the results of the survey they answered? It’s easy to blame and assume if you don’t know what’s really going on.
I don’t know what needs to happen on the Madison, but what happens there, affects the Outfitting industry statewide. Public perception of the industry doesn’t help as well. I will say that the community in Ennis rallied with the guides and outfitters on the Madison. I like that, there’s hope in that gesture, and also a deep understanding of the economic web of tourism, Outfitting, and commerce amongst the bars, hotels, grocery stores, and gas stations in that community. As of now, the committee is slowly making progress towards some kind of solution. We can only hope that the solution is fair and equitable to all parties involved, and doesn’t place the blame and the burden of regulation on the smallest party involved. There’s a chance that perceptions can change with the right solution. Still holding on to my always hopeful optimism—Matt