Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington hooks fishing guides for more info

By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

Many Washington fishing guides are skeptical if not outraged about a new state requirement that takes effect Jan. 1 to report their clients’ license information and detail what fish they catch, when and where.

As some fisheries struggle, the law is part of a trend in asking guides to be more involved in regulating an industry that depends on a public resource. The trend is disturbing to guides who are venting on state officials and especially in social media.

“It seems the pushback is anchored in the general mistrust of government,” said Chris Donley, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department regional fish program manager in Spokane. “Some think the data might come back to bite them.”

“It’s definitely controversial,” said Casey Kelly of Northwest Columbia Fishing Adventures based in Battle Ground. “It sucks, but we have to deal with this.”

Freshwater guides in Washington were loosely regulated until 2014 when a Washington law was enacted requiring anglers renewing their state fishing guide license to have a business license number, certification in first aid and CPR, a U.S. Coast Guard license and commercial liability insurance of at least $300,000.

In August, the state Fish and Wildlife Commission voted unanimously to require freshwater fishing guides, totaling 563 this year, to report their fishing activities on a monthly basis beginning in 2020. The new requirement will increase the amount of biological data collected from anglers each year while scoping industry trends.

The commission wants to build a picture of the industry’s demographics, the geographic distribution of guide activity and the contributions guides have to local economies, Donley said.

“In the 2017 Washington legislative session, a bill introduced in the Senate in coordination with Trout Unlimited sought to overhaul the way guiding was managed on the Olympic Peninsula and a few other areas,” he said. “It called for an ‘outfitter model’ that would restrict where guides could operate.

“The legislation was premised on what they called a massive crowding issue – a ton of guides impacting the fishing experience and fisheries conservation. For the most part, it’s all conceptual because there’s no data to make a case.”

Lawmakers were persuaded by WDFW officials to avoid making sweeping impacts on the industry.

“They went with our recommendation to institute a logbook system to form data-driven decisions,” Donley said

Currently, all anglers, guided and unguided, are asked to return catch-record cards for certain species at the end of the fishing season.

“The response rate is about 40 %,” Donley said. “Statistically, that makes for pretty darn good harvest estimates that we can compare with creel surveys.

“But the catch record card is not designed to look at guiding activity. We can’t collect information from the voluntary return of a card that allows us to understand specific business information – dates of fishing activity, fishing areas, and who they take with them.

“In the logbook, we’re asking for the demographic data. In the creel surveys, we ask for harvest data.”

The agency held 14 meetings in the summer of 2018, including sessions at Clarkston and Wenatchee, that offered perspectives on regulating the industry and the need for more data on the distribution of guides throughout Washington.

Another eight meetings were held in early 2019, specifically to propose a guide logbook system. The agency listened to concerns of Washington guides, including those who fish in states like Alaska that already have logbook systems.

The agency collected public comment for the commission and established a Fishing Guide Advisory Group to help vet reporting tools.

“I see it as nothing but a positive,” said Steve Joyce of Red’s Fly Shop on the Yakima River near Ellensburg. “At the end of the day, the guide industry and the Department of Fish and Wildlife are partners. Any guide, especially for the long term, needs to be a part of managing fisheries and fishing access in a sustainable manner.”

Joyce is one of 14 volunteers in the guides advisory group.

“Opening two-way channels of communication is important,” he said.

The group is helping WDFW fine-tune a mobile app so guides can file their reports on their smartphones. Agency staff is looking into their recommendation that the app include a bar code scanner to quickly record information from a client’s license or catch-record card. Web and paper reporting options also are available.

“Writing each person’s WILD ID number takes time when you have six angers, it’s drizzling, and everyone’s eager to get out on the water before the crowd,” said Kelly, who’s been guiding on Washington and Oregon rivers for 11 years targeting salmon, sturgeon, steelhead, kokanee, walleye, shad and bass. “Some clients won’t like it.

“But this is my livelihood. The people who do it for real, the full-time guides, will be 100 % on board. I’m not saying we’ll like it, but we’ll do it. Others might not.”

Kelly suspects the logbook program won’t give the state accurate numbers.

“I don’t think a lot of guides, especially the part timers, will be honest, just like they weren’t in Alaska,” he said. “They don’t have a lot of skin in the game.”

Alaska guides generally see benefits in reporting their fishing activity.

“(Alaska’s) program is quite successful in tracking catch and effort,” said Tom Ohaus, co-owner of Angling Unlimited based in Sitka. “It’s not particularly burdensome.”

Ohaus, who’s president of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization and a stakeholder from Alaska on the Pacific Salmon Commission, said guides need better data to avoid being short-changed on fish allocations divvied up among sport and commercial fishermen.

“When I travel around the country and see how little data is collected on sport fisheries, I don’t know how they manage them,” he said.

In Alaska, the logbooks are checked against the Alaska Fish and Game Department creel survey and its mail-out statewide harvest survey.

“I’m all for the logbook,” Ohaus said. “Managers need to get data on harvest in order to sustainably manage the resource.”

On Friday, Toby Wyatt, owner of Reel Time Fishing based in Clarkston, took time out from guiding steelhead anglers on the Snake River to meet with Donley and two reporters. Licensed to guide in Idaho, Oregon and Washington, Wyatt said he’s generally pleased to see Washington increase its contact with the information guides can provide.

“It makes us more professional and legitimizes the industry,” he said.

Wyatt, who’s on the Fishing Guide Advisory Group, also volunteers to use an electronic device to scan fish his anglers catch for PIT tags fisheries researchers have inserted invisibly into the flesh of some salmon and steelhead.

“I’m in a position to help researchers get valuable information on fish migrations and details like how many times these fish are caught and released and where,” he said.

Idaho’s Clearwater River is normally a hot fall-winter portion of his business. But since the Clearwater has been closed to steelhead fishing because of this year’s record-low run, Wyatt has maintained his business by being able to move around in Washington to hit seasons through the year for Columbia system salmon, steelhead, sturgeon as well as smallmouth bass on the Grande Ronde River.

In one of the poorest steelhead runs in recent years, his boat of three anglers landed and released 11 steelhead Friday during an abbreviated day of fishing the short section of the Snake in Washington still open to steelheading.

“I have a love-hate relationship with Idaho’s outfitter model,” he said. “If the stream you have access to is restricted for some reason, you’re up the creek because you can’t just move to another outfitter’s territory.”

Joyce said river closures have also been challenging to guides in his shop. Yakima River trout are his bread and butter, but poor fall steelhead runs on the Columbia River tributaries have cut into his fly fishing business in recent years.

“The new guide logbook requirements open channels of communication, so if we’re encountering issues with fisheries we can identify them more quickly and figure out how to address them,” he said.

“Bottom line: Fishing closures will always be a challenge to the guiding industry, but we have to look at the big picture,” Joyce said. “If we’re going to have an industry at all down the road, we need to support the steps the biologists deem necessary to sustain the fishery.”

“The feedback the agency is getting indicates that most guides don’t like the new requirements,” said Donley, who’s been a licensed fishing guide in the past. “We also heard firmly from our guiding industry that they like being independent operators, and WDFW is encouraging that. They don’t want to run under an outfitter model, and it’s not our intent to go that direction.

“We just want to know what’s going on out there.”