Some days, out on the water, the drift boats and rafts are so dense, Wind River Troutfitter owner Ron Hansen feels like everybody’s on top of each other.
The phenomenon, he said, is most prevalent on the Bighorn River through Thermopolis and on the Grey Reef section of the North Platte River, near Alcova.
“You can have 50 or 60 boats on a 5-mile stretch of water,” Hansen said. “Literally boats are on top of boats are on top of boats. It creates issues for everybody: Everyday recreational users, for guides, and every year it just seems to be getting worse.”
There are no easy answers, he said, to alleviating congestion on blue ribbon Wyoming trout fisheries that have become world-renowned angling destinations. Still, some ideas rise to the top.
“More regulation isn’t necessarily the answer,” Hansen said, “but I don’t know an alternative here.”
The Lander-based guide is supportive of adding a layer of oversight to Wyoming’s vibrant guided fishing industry. As it is, there are no state licensing or permitting requirements for taking out a client to ply Wyoming waters.
“We have to establish some boundaries at some point so that it’s not the Wild West,” Hansen said.
He might get his wish. After eight failed attempts — in 1991, ‘93, 2005, ‘14, ‘18, ‘19, ‘20 and ‘23 — the Wyoming Legislature is again examining regulations for the commercial fishing industry akin to those that govern trophy and big game hunting, regulated by the Wyoming Board of Outfitters and Professional Guides.
Specifically, four commercial fishing-related bills are poised to emerge from the Legislature’s Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee, which identified the topic as its top priority ahead of the 2024 budget session. The coming draft legislation would: 1) Give the Wyoming Game and Fish Department the authority to regulate commercial fishing; 2) Add fishing outfitters to the existing statute governing commercial hunting; 3) Create a separate outfitting board for fishing guides; 4) Require that fishing outfitters be licensed.
Sen. Fred Baldwin, R-Kemmerer, launched the school of bills at a mid-June meeting in Evanston after hearing from outfitters who encouraged lawmakers to take it on. In conjunction, the committee voted to establish a working group to fine tune the bills, which had not yet been drafted by the Legislative Service Office as of Wednesday.
Among Rocky Mountain states with famous trout waters, Wyoming and Utah are alone in not regulating fishing guides and outfitters. Montana, Idaho and Colorado require permitting and have rules and regulations, according to an LSO memo.
That’s not to say there are no regulations or permitting requirements at all. The Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all require permits for guiding via their access areas, and Teton County also has peak-season regulations in place for the Snake River.
Ahead of the four-bill proposal, lawmakers heard from several outfitters, landowners and business owners who underscored the need to tighten the screws on their burgeoning industry. North Platte outfitter Blake Jackson, an owner of the Ugly Bug Fly Shop, expressed concern that the BLM’s recent acquisition of the 35,670-acre Marton Ranch will make it easier for out-of-state unpermitted guides to do business on his home water.
“They can now stop and eat lunch and those kinds of things,” he testified.
The BLM handles permitting on the popular Grey Reef section of the North Platte and caps the number of operators at 23, but Jackson said he was “frustrated” by the federal agency’s lack of enforcement.
Pinedale resident Paul Ulrich, better known for his role with Jonah Energy, testified as a fishing guide also irritated by unpermitted guides pouring in from across the border. The lack of regulatory structure, he said, has led to out-of-state outfitters and guides competing on Wyoming waters with local guides who are “doing it right” and are better trained with the necessary BLM or U.S. Forest Service permits.
Another Sublette County resident, Leslie Hagenstein, told legislators about crowding on the New Fork River, which cuts through her family’s ranch. Over her lifetime, the use of the river has “changed significantly,” she said, and fishing boats are now joined by canoers, kayakers and inner-tubing kids.
“I am really concerned about this fragile ecosystem,” she said. “It’s being degraded in my lifetime by the number of people who are using it. My ask today is to envision a future where we continue to keep this New Fork River corridor — my backyard — as pristine as we can.”
Hagenstein also encouraged the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to actively monitor use on the most-popular destination rivers. In 2021, the state agency completed a study that used time-lapse cameras to gauge boat traffic on the Bighorn, Green, New Fork, North Platte, Salt and Snake rivers.
Led by Rob Gipson, former Jackson region fisheries supervisor for Game and Fish, and his successor, Darren Rhea, the research found that crowding is perhaps not as bad as perceived. An average of five to 10 fishing boats per day traversed most waters in July. Only the North Platte and Snake rivers exceeded 15 boats per day. Part of the issue, the biologists concluded, is that anglers all tend to launch during the same time window — usually in the morning — which creates a phenomenon of “concentrated use.”
“That is, peak use over a period of two to three hours could give many floaters the impression of crowding,” the biologists wrote.
Still, the study also found that commercially guided anglers constituted a “significant amount” of the overall fishing pressure — the majority of anglers, in fact, on the Upper Green, Lower North Platte and Snake rivers. The highest concentration showed up on the Snake River in 2020, when 88% of anglers Game and Fish interviewed reported being guided. Guided anglers on the North Platte registered 76% of usage in 2019, and 68% on the Upper Green.
The majority of anglers on all rivers sampled were nonresidents, which speaks to how trout fishing has become a major tourism draw and an economic stimulus in Wyoming.
Jackson, the Ugly Bug Fly Shop owner, told lawmakers that he partnered with the Casper tourism board a couple years ago and determined that his clients spent $583 per day in the community.
“Roughly, that would equate to $2.5 million of economic benefit,” he said.
Finding return clients, however, has become increasingly challenging. Ugly Bug is now having to market to bring in new anglers, Jackson said, because long-term guests are “choosing not to return due to river traffic.”
Hearing all the concern in Evanston, Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, pressed his fellow committee members to get behind the idea of new regulations.
“Judging from the comments today,” he said, “in this industry, the time has come that we need something.”
Major institutional challenges help explain the decades of inertia — and eight failed bills, so far.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is leery of administering the program and further straining its already understaffed, overworked game warden corps.
“We certainly recognize that it’s a concern, but taking on another task for my department right now is not something I’m interested in,” Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik told WyoFile. “I view the enforcement of this, because it’s on a statewide scale, as being a significant increase in workload.”
Game and Fish’s statewide fisheries chief, Alan Osterland, told lawmakers that his crews are still operating the time-lapse cameras and conducting angler attitude surveys, but he did not outline other steps the agency is taking to address perceived overcrowding.
The Wyoming Board of Outfitters and Professional Guides has also offered tempered resistance. Cody big-game outfitter Lee Livingtson, speaking as a member, agreed with one lawmaker’s assessment that “nobody wants this,” referring to the state’s reluctance to administer the program.
“The Outfitter board doesn’t want this,” he said, “Game and Fish doesn’t want it.”
But Livingston also indicated some willingness to take it on.
“I would rather be driving the bus than be getting run over by it,” he said. “I think this is coming to the outfitter board.”
Lack of unanimity within the fishing community also complicates finding a solution. When the Wyoming Legislature first regulated guided hunting some 34 years ago, some fishing outfitters opposed their industry’s inclusion in the measure. They successfully convinced lawmakers to strip fishing from oversight under the then-newly founded Wyoming Board of Outfitters and Professional Guides, Livingston said. Speaker of the House and Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, hooked into that resistance when his 2019 and 2023 bills failed.
“There’s been a lot of people who want it, but there’s been a lot of outfitters and guides who don’t want it, particularly in Teton County,” Sommers said. Their concern, he said, was permitting redundancy — the entirety of the Snake River in Wyoming is already regulated.
Count Snake River Angler owner Will Dornan in that camp. He supports some of the coming bill drafts, like the one that would give Game and Fish authority to regulate guided river use.
“I’m not opposed to permitting a river,” Dornan said, “I’m opposed to a guide’s association.”
If the Wyoming agency does start to regulate river use, he said, it’s important there’s adequate enforcement and that the state learns from the mistakes of Teton County’s river management program, which he called a “junk show piece of garbage.”
Sommers, meanwhile, said that even the Teton County guides he’s spoken with recognize that the industry is growing and cannot grow like this forever. Over the years, the Sublette County representative has gotten an earful from local guides who’ve tired of what they see as overuse and competition with out-of-state outfitters and those from Teton County. And he’s seen overcrowding firsthand, once tallying 23 boat trailers at a single access point on the New Fork River.
“All I know,” Sommers said, “is that if you don’t have a mechanism to throttle use, use will continue to grow until you have a serious problem.”