Guides Aren’t All That Bad

For recovering guides such as myself or any other Average Joe that just wants to get out and fish, the increased presence of guides might be annoying

By Rob Breeding

A Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks survey of anglers confirms some of what we already knew about river use, while suggesting some of our common perceptions about what’s happening on the water may be flawed.

The creel survey conducted on the Missouri River last year, the first since 2002, shows that there are more anglers on the water than ever before. No surprise there. But the survey also showed that “perceptions” about guided anglers may inflate the actual presence of professionals on the water.

The survey shows that respondents believed 44 percent of anglers on the Missouri were guided, with that number climbing to 59 during the peak summer months. But in the survey of anglers who were interviewed along the river, just 21 percent indicated they were being guided, climbing to 33 percent during peak months.

Creel surveys provide useful data about use. Maybe the best data possible. But without the kind of random sampling used to provide data on, say, how many voters prefer one candidate over another, the results should be taken as more a suggestion than hard numbers.

However, the fact that the perception and reality regarding guided anglers climbs by similar rates suggests the increase is real, and that should surprise no one. Guides have to work in the summer. That’s the only time of the year they can depend on the weather, and hence, out-of-state clients traveling to Montana in need of their services.

I know a few guides who do some business in early spring down on the Bitterroot during the skwala hatch. But you have to be pretty obsessed to book a trip to Montana to fly fish in March when a blizzard is as likely as the bluebird days that sometimes follow. So guides book the bulk of their business when they can best count on the weather, and that’s the summer.

What the perception-versus-reality question doesn’t answer is this: Are there more guides on the water or not? The answer, even lacking hard data, is almost certainly yes. But it’s also the case that there are simply a lot more fly fishers and floaters of all stripes taking advantage of Montana’s precious rivers. More people means more headaches, crowding and conflicts on the water. And when you have conflicts, you need scapegoats, so some folks blame guides.

Of all the economic activity in Montana, guided fly fishing just might be the most sustainable. Fly fishing guides make sure their clients practice catch-and-release with a passion that borders on religious zealotry. Sure the occasional fish will be mortally hooked, but the fact of the matter is that a drift boat can float through a stretch of river and leave no trace in its wake. That’s not something you can say about a coal-fired power plant or a home builder or even the most sustainable organic agricultural operation.

For recovering guides such as myself or any other Average Joe that just wants to get out and fish, the increased presence of guides might be annoying. But should it be? Other than the rare low-holer, most guides operate with a level of curtesy and respect that many river users are simply clueless about.

For instance, I’ve never had a guide let their boat drift over the run I was posted up fishing the way a private did last summer on the North Fork. That dude literally rammed his raft into mine just so he could give me a message he wanted me to pass along in case his late arriving floating partners showed up — and I saw them on the river.

Is all perfect out there on Montana rivers? Of course not. But I’m not chalking this up to the horrors of guided anglers. There’s just more of us, guided and non-guided alike. We’ll have to work a little harder to make sure we all get along.