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Proposed bill would require permits, guide review board

GALICE — Brian Wager's nomadic life as a fishing guide means he takes his clients where the salmon are, and that can change daily.

Friday morning, that meant putting his clients on top of winter steelhead on the South Umpqua River near Tiller. Saturday morning, it was winter steelhead on the middle Rogue River near Galice, just as the clients requested of Wager when they booked their two-day trip.

"We always fish the South Umpqua one day and the Rogue the next," said Wager, a 23-year veteran guide from Medford.

Wager's job could become more expensive and exclusive under a new plan to cap and eventually reduce the number of professional salmon and steelhead guides in Oregon, and regulate them as an industry.

Born from within the guiding industry, the effort seeks to ban new guides from joining the professional salmon/steelhead/sturgeon guiding world for five years and allow the guide pool to drop from roughly 800 to 550 through attrition.

The bill, now being drafted for the Oregon Legislature, also would seek to reduce pressure on certain salmon runs at certain times by requiring additional fees and permits for guides who stray from their home waters and guide in other regions of the state.

Guides would be required to keep logs of their activities and the fish they catch and their actions would be subject to peer review through a newly formed Oregon Fishing Guide Review Board.

Part of the new license and permit fees would go to expand a salmon and steelhead hatch-box program meant to boost fish runs without creating new hatchery programs along rivers coastwide.

The bill seeks, over time, to help guides grow their own businesses without pressure from up-and-coming guides.

Its creators also are looking to curb public backlash toward this group, which is often chided by an angling public that perceives them as over-pressuring Oregon's wild salmon and steelhead resources and crowding the public off their hometown streams.

"The public interest is for guides to be in some sort of control instead of unlimited numbers of guides fishing wherever they want and whenever they want," said Gold Beach guide Steve Beyerlin, one of the bill's architects.

"There's going to be a bill to limit guides, whether it's this one or another one," Beyerlin said. "It's only foolish for our industry to let outsiders write a bill to legislate our industry."

The effort has the endorsement of state Rep. Wayne Krieger, a Gold Beach Republican and former Oregon State Police fish and wildlife trooper who Friday took an outline of the proposed bill to the Office of Legislative Counsel for drafting.

Krieger said he expects to introduce it next month to the Natural Resources and Rural Communities Committee, of which he is vice chair. The concept already has the endorsement of three guide associations, and Krieger expects to shepherd it through the Oregon Legislature this session so it would become law in 2010.

Krieger said the proposed bill would treat inland fishing guides much like the current system for commercial fishermen by curbing guide crowding and competition — and reducing conflicts with private anglers — while making guide permits more valuable.

"I think it's a great opportunity to make sure they have a good, clean industry," Krieger said. "Hopefully, it'll improve the image of guides and not let this thing get out of hand."

The concept has received mixed results among this largely live-free-or-die world of guides, where freedom and mobility are cherished and any pencil-pushing for government's sake is met with quick stiff-arms.

"I'm not into more regulations and restrictions on where I can fish," Wager said. "I just can't get into more government control. They ought to enforce what we have better."

For years, anyone who paid a $50 fee to the Oregon State Marine Board and produced a current first-aid certification and liability insurance could guide anywhere in the state during legal fishing seasons.

That compares to $414 for a guide license in California and $425 in Idaho.

Guides such as Wager also pay fees to the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service to ply federal waters, as well as for Coast Guard licenses and, most recently, a federal Transportation Workers Identification Credential.

The new proposal would offer guides licensed in 2007 or 2008 the chance for a Resident Oregon Limited Entry Fishing Guide Permit for $250, with annual renewals at $50.

Also, the state would be broken into four regions, with guides paying a $250 "endorsement" per zone for the right to fish there. The endorsements would be renewed annually for $125 per zone. The endorsement costs would be double for nonresident guides.

The idea is to limit scenes like guide Dave Pitts witnessed on Social Security Bar during last year's winter steelhead season on the Chetco River near Brookings.

Pitts counted between 138 and 148 boat trailers parked there over three consecutive days of steelhead fishing, "and 90 percent of them were from out of the area," he said. "That's too much pressure."

Under the proposed bill, money collected from guides would go toward growing more salmon and steelhead in rivers throughout the state via the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Salmon Trout Enhancement Program.

"If you boost fish numbers elsewhere, these people wouldn't have any reason to leave," said Pitts, a bill supporter.

Under the current draft, no new guides would be added for at least five years. The goal would be to have guides pare their own numbers down to 450 resident guides and 100 out-of-state guides fishing for salmon, steelhead and sturgeon.

After five years, veteran guides could sell their licenses as commercial fishermen currently do.

"These permits will be valuable," Beyerlin said. "Guides who retire or move out will have something to sell."

Beyerlin said salmon and steelhead guides over time will come to believe the permit system will suit them best in the long run. Others, however, see it as selfishly protecting their fishing lifestyle at the expense of future guides.

"I think it's a terrible idea," said Vernon Grieve, a second-generation guide on the Rogue in Shady Cove. "It's hard enough to keep young guys in as it is.

"It would be nice to limit your industry so you're the only one who can work in it, but that's not fair," Grieve said.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Fishing Guide Brian Wager, left, Angelo Scaramastra and Jim Luzzi watch as a wild steelhead breaks water after being hooked near Hell Gate Canyon on the Rogue River Saturday. - Jamie Lusch