Once upon a time, I was a research scientist. Specifically, toothy critters like wolves and bears. I’ve spent countless hours in the backcountry, in super cubs over the upper Lamar looking for carnivores I trapped and collared, crawling inside active bear and wolf dens (resulting in one instance of being bitten in the ass – true story), collaring endangered island foxes off the coast of southern California, and even being shot at by ranchers in rural South Dakota while reintroducing endangered swift foxes, among other pursuits all over the country in the name of science and conservation, earning two degrees in conservation biology. I poured my soul into a thesis aimed at developing a predictive spatial model to help a state agency prevent wolf livestock conflicts. No one ever questioned my integrity when it came to conservation. It was and is part of my ethos. And by the way, when I criticize Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks later in this post, recognize that many of my prior positions as a scientist were with similar state agencies across the country. In fact, my entire master’s thesis was working with and for Michigan Department of Natural Resources on the contentious issue of wolf management. So, I fully understand the position that our agency biologists are in when confronting controversial management strategies.
But now, 15 years later as a fishing outfitter on the Upper Madison, the public perception of my kind is quite different. Recently a client asked me “how do you become an outfitter?” Not technically speaking, like you have to have X number of days on the water, etc. etc. It was a question more in the vein of “who becomes an outfitter?” I didn’t have an immediate answer because we’re from such a wide variety of backgrounds. In part, that’s what makes fishing communities with a variety of small outfitters so intriguing and full of character. What brings us all to the career is a deep love for the sport, the region, and of course the fish. But I suspect what keeps us here is intrinsically tied to the very idea of what trout represent and our respect for their place in the world. I truly believe that.
However, if you were to read the papers or glance at social media recently, you’ll see that fishing outfitters of the Madison are being attacked. We’re frequently labeled “bullies” “greedy” “entitled crybabies” “selfish” and “welfare outfitters” among others.
I mean damn. If you didn’t click those links and read those letters, which were printed in widely distributed media outlets, you should. If you didn't know any better, you'd be led to believe most of the angling on the Madison is outfitter based. They give me visions of fish mercenaries who’s objective every day is to get rich (this is where their ignorance really shows) and kill fish. Then it’s like we went into their homes and insulted their grandmas and drove home laughing about it with our drift boats leaking empty beer cans all over the roads. When all I really want to do, is help deliver smiles to people who mostly have never fly fished before, show them the tremendously beautiful valley we live in, teach them a thing or two about the sport and the ecosystem and then go to my own home and spend time with my family. Maybe fish a little myself. It really feels like they actually hate our guts. Put plainly, we’re developing a thick skin as fishing outfitters on the Madison right now.