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Outfitters: You've Got Mail (and it's not pretty)

Updated: Mar 1


So young and green!

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.


The common thread among all of the animosity is the allegation that as outfitters we think we “own” the river and care more about money than the resource. Setting aside the fact that nobody ever got rich off of being an outfitter on the Madison, and secondly, many guides and outfitters locally work second jobs in the off season to make ends meet. Perhaps they have a very basic disagreement with the idea that outfitters do in fact make income from taking people fishing. Some go even further though, accusing fishing outfitters of being “welfare outfitters.” More on this particular allegation later. I’m sure there’s bad apples out there. But among the professional outfitters and guides I’m proud to call my friends and colleagues, these accusations couldn’t be more unfounded. We take our responsibilities as stewards of this resource seriously. So, reading all the negativity printed in various papers across the state and country regarding outfitters on the Madison is a tough pill to swallow.


Let’s look more closely at a pretty typical argument, this one made by Keith Shein, a former board member of the Madison River Foundation, a resident of California, and a seasonal resident and landowner in the Sundance Bench Homeowners Association below $3 Bridge. For context, Keith’s house is in the same area where there was a flurry of letter writers at the time arguing against the idea of allowing access with a boat in the area of their homes. Some of these other letters came from his literal neighbors. This of course, was met with strong resistance by all of us who enjoy public access to public lands and waters which would have essentially been privatized if Keith and his neighbors had succeeded. Fortunately, they did not.


HERE is Keith’s letter, appearing in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in November of 2019. He writes:


It’s time for all of us who love and cherish the Madison River to reclaim what’s ours. A group of outfitters in Ennis has decided that the river is theirs. They don’t give a rip about the health of the fishery or the experience that Montanans have when they come to enjoy the Madison. All they care about is money, and they’re acting like bullies toward not only the whole town of Ennis, but all of Montana.


Let’s start off the top with Mr. Shein’s suggestion that it’s time to “reclaim” what is “theirs.” This is a pretty common complaint. That outfitters have taken over a resource by “overrunning” it and think they own it. While he doesn’t elaborate on what “own” means, I’ll assume he believes that outfitters are the dominant user of the river, since these two assertions are often used interchangeably in the letters printed.


Another letter printed in the Montana Standard (titled “Bullying Outfitters”) by someone named “Taylor Dennis” from Ennis makes a similar impressively misinformed statement that people “no longer come to the Madison because it’s so overrun by outfitted clients.”


What does the data say? Well, turns out we have that information. How helpful! What’s so outlandish about this particularly common charge against outfitters, is that the truth is so spectacularly opposite to the claim that outfitters are “overrunning” the river or think we “own” the river.

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, recreational use on the upper Madison in 2019 was approximately 249,000 angler days. One person fishing for even one hour on the river is an angler day. How many outfitted trips were done in 2019? That number is 14,051. Let’s say for the sake of argument that each of those outfitted trips had 2 anglers a piece, when in fact many had only 1. But we’ll be conservative here. 14,051 X 2 = 28,102 angler days from outfitted trips. That’s a mere 11% of overall use on the Madison! When presented with this information, many people seem genuinely surprised. But should they be?


Even a cursory glance at the explosive growth of Gallatin County alone in the last 10 years could more than explain the lopsided difference in percent of recreational use on the Madison. Sometimes I wonder if most people assume that every boat they see on the water, every angler on the bank, especially the ones acting irresponsibly, are all guides?

June 28, 2020 during the middle of the Salmonfly Hatch

The next letter appearing in the Billings Gazette (titled “Madison River at risk of overfishing”) supports this theory. In the letter, penned by Beth Rowell of Bozeman, the author clearly acknowledges understanding the number of angler days on the Madison, but in the same breath suggests that commercial interests don’t want restrictions and that “something needs to be done.” Assumption being, “something” refers to actions only to restrict outfitters who one would assume she is accusing of “overfishing” the Madison. What this tells me is that while she understands the overall number of angler days on the Madison, she may not understand (or chooses to ignore?) what share of those days is represented by outfitters. If she did, perhaps she wouldn’t feel obligated to make such accusations in a paper? So perhaps part of the issue is messaging. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, who clearly understands the data, as it is theirs after all, is conspicuously silent on helping set the record straight. They seem content to look the other way, allowing misguided public pressure to mount high enough to get commercial restrictions in place which it seemed they too desired.

All alone in the flats one August afternoon

Beth also makes several claims that the river is “overfished” describing how many angler days the Madison sustains every year. Although she unreasonably points a single finger at outfitters for this, the merit of her concern about the resource being “overfished” isn’t completely unwarranted. Unfortunately, very little time has been dedicated to the effects of angling pressure, albeit virtually all catch and release, on the resource. As a former research scientist, this topic is of great interest to me. I wish the dialogue were more focused on this, than how we manage 11% of the angling pressure. Currently, there are no signs that the resource is threatened. In fact, populations seem relatively robust, with natural cyclical changes both up and down. However, we heard throughout the debate about a feared “red line” with regards to a dreaded decline in fisheries health due to angling pressure. The thought being, we should start managing recreational use now before we start noticing declines in the health of the fishery. The assumption is, there has to be a point at which angling use impacts the fishery, even if it’s virtually all catch and release. But where is this red line, what does it look like, and how does is correlate to angling pressure? How does pressure affect fish? How much pressure is acceptable and unacceptable to the resource? I have thoughts on this I’ll likely share in another post. I digress…


Here’s yet another example of this same misinformed angst in another letter in the Gazette (titled “Speak up to save Madison River Nov. 12”. This letter was written just prior to an important commission meeting regarding petitions made for rulemaking on the Madison. The author, perhaps another alias known as “Christine Webster,” makes similar allegations that outfitters are overrunning the Madison. In the letter, she says:


Normal Montanans, like myself, are very supportive of regulating use on the river, and saving the river from exploitation by guides and outfitters. The river is already abused by guides, so please don’t let their selfish behaviors dictate the future of the river. The river should be enjoyed by all fishermen, not just commercial groups.”


Again, it’s astonishing to me that this line of thinking persists, given that the data really aren’t that ambiguous on the matter of what percentage of use outfitters are on the Madison. Christine, respectfully, "all fishermen" are most certainly already enjoying the Madison. Quite heavily, it seems. Her vitriol didn’t stop there either. She continues:


I’m an ordinary Montanan that works nine to five, so attending a Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting during the day is unrealistic, and the same goes for most Montanans. Guides, however, have nothing but free time mid-November, so I’m sure they’ll flock to the commission meeting on Nov. 12 in great numbers.”


I love this part. Imagine all those guides pillaging trout on the Madison all summer then lounging in their jammies during the winter watching reruns of South Park with the only thing marked on their calendar is a trip to Helena for a commission meeting.


Another new, but increasingly popular, accusation leveled against fishing outfitters is the label “welfare outfitters” as if our pushing back on what we consider to be ineffective rule proposals (note: not “unwarranted”, but rather ineffective – namely the strategy of “rest and rotation”) is somehow equivalent to seeking handouts or subsidies. This new strategy is often paired with the accusation that we’re displaying “power building or entitlement.” I’m just waiting for the next letter which will allege a conspiratorial plot among outfitters to take over the world. A cabal of sorts. Actually, what’s happening is we’re being indicted for all the perceived troubles of others on the Madison, and as it turns out, we sort of take offense to that when, you know, the truth is so clearly in the numbers.


And yet, if I’m being honest, I would argue that we as outfitters are clearly falling short on demonstrating how we appreciate the privilege of being professional guides on the Madison, and approach each day and even each fish. If those who penned some of the letters above were to spend even a day in the boat with me or any other of the pros on the Upper Madison, I have to believe they’d come away with a different view. The onus is on us to prove it though. Do better. Lead by example and communicate better.


Ultimately though, what we have is a problem of too many humans in general. We don’t have a guide problem. Or an outfitter problem. Although rules were passed, because blood had to be spilled somewhere and outfitters made the easiest target, make no mistake – capping commercial use at 2019/2020 levels will most certainly not stop southwest Montana from gaining on average 10 people per day. Question is, now that we’ve nailed outfitters to the cross and everyone is walking around patting each other on the back for a job well done and that finally (!) “something” was done, what are we going to do about the other 220,898 angler days (and growing) on the Madison? What impact do those days have? I’m not holding my breath that Keith, Beth, or “Christine” will be looking in the mirror anytime soon.