Does Maine Have Too Many Registered Guides?
By Stu Bristol
Everyone, it seems, wants to be a Registered Maine Guide. More than 1,000 candidates for becoming a Registered Maine Guide have passed the testing phase and are now waiting to be processed. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife already has more than 4,000 Registered Guides on the books and the number is growing faster than during any other period in Maine history. Has the time come to impose a limit on the number of guides? Perhaps higher fees or more stringent record-keeping will keep their numbers in check.
In our free economy, you ask, why should there be a limit on the number of licensed guides. Won't the market level itself? Most guides are charging $200-$300 per day for services. That's not something the average sportsman can shell out very often.
To earn the designation, "Registered Maine Guide" a candidate must first pass a written test, dealing with Maine law and general knowledge of the category for which the person is applying. The Department offers six different classifications; Hunting, Fishing, Recreation, Tidewater Fishing, Sea-kayaking and Whitewater Rafting.
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Years ago the majority of Registered guides were employed by sporting camps or large-scale outfitters, dealing in volumes of hunters and anglers. Today most of the guides are independent businessmen and women that use their license as a part-time job.
Some clients (and lawmakers) feel the ease in which people are tested and become guides is not fair to potential clients. Book learning alone, they argue, should not be the ultimate test before guides are allowed to take the lives of the general public in their hands. After all, Maine is comprised of over 17 million acres of wilderness with more than 6,000 lakes, ponds, rivers and streams.
Outings very often take novice sportsmen and women into the harsh wilderness with only that guide for protection and common sense. His or her expertise will determine the quality of the outing and, some fear, their safety.
Feedback from clients has me equally concerned that, even with book learning, many of the guides lack the ability to deal with the public, with landowners or have the working knowledge of the sport they are guiding.
Turkey hunters I guided this spring are a good example. After a day in the turkey woods with me the clients agreed, "That's not how the guy I hired last year operated." One guide who took money from my client three days last spring never showed him a turkey, never even heard one gobble, and everyday out they were surrounded by other hunters, mostly angry because the guide brought them to "their secret spots."
I attribute most of the excess bodies in the turkey woods to the Maine Warden Service,(Lt. Nat Berry of the Gray office in particular) A few years after the spring season was offered (1986). Instead of asking for an Attorney General's ruling on the practice of non-permitted hunters to call for those with turkey permits, Berry simply reported to the public that his wardens would not question the practice.
Title 12 MRSA, Part 10,Chapter 701, subsection 7001 Definitions, seems clear to me. "To 'hunt' means to hunt for, pursue, molest, shoot, catch, take, kill, wound or destroy wild animals and wild birds." How that wording could not apply to non-licensed guides taking part in the pursuit of wild turkeys is beyond me, but the Attorney General should have been called on for clarification.
Berry argued that the caller was not armed and therefore made enforcement nearly impossible. He has the badge and I don't, but many of us guides feel our livelihood was denied us by that ruling. No guiding license is necessary, either, reported Berry, due to a similar technicality. The officer would have to prove the caller received "remuneration" in exchange for calling. I don't know of many callers who didn't get something for their efforts albeit not the fee I would have gotten if I guided the same person.
What these off-the-cuff rulings by the Warden Service created was double and sometime triple the amount of hunters in the woods, many of the experienced hunters calling for several permitted hunters per year. This essentially killed the market for Registered Maine Guides as far as resident clients goes. Almost all of the turkey hunters guided in Maine today are non-residents.
To add further hardship on the guiding opportunities, IF&W has reduced the number of non-resident permits to 3% from 10%.
Then, there is the congestion along the Kennebec River. Since the return of viable numbers of striped bass and the formation of the Coastal Conservation Association, saltwater fly-fishing has increased three hundred fold. Clients complain that just about everyone any anyone who is a fly-angler has now become a Registered Maine Tidewater Guide. Many they say have little idea of how to deal with the public nor how to enhance outings. Several I spoke with had the same complaint that the guide charge $250 to $350 for four or five hours and most of that time was steaming up and down the river and crowding into the popular spots with other guides doing the same thing. Sounds a lot like the same problem turkey hunters are experiencing.
I've been a guide in several states for nearly 20 years (over 10 in Maine) and as a national outdoor writer I have hired many guides throughout the country and in Canada. Clients should expect that a guide first knows the woodlot, or water he is guiding in or on; should have a much better than average knowledge of the sport for which he or she is offering expert services, and the guide should be like a waiter in an upscale restaurant.
Too often the guide will tell tales of how he or she took deer, bear moose or fish instead of passing on tips and anecdotes to aid their client in becoming successful. Call any of my clients and I will guarantee they will volunteer that they came away from the outing with more knowledge and understanding than before they hired me.
So, should IF&W impose a hands-on test to supplement the written and oral testing of guide applicants? If you say a nail knot is the best one for joining fly line to leader, then be prepared to tie one. Before a hunter can buy a firearms license he or she must pass a hands-on Hunter Safety Course and the same is true for archers yet our guides need only to pass paper exams, and oral testing.
At their August meeting the Advisory Council passed a resolution to clarify the designation of "Master" guides, after hearing much of the same arguments I have offered. Too often, they worried, a person would be given the Master designation simply because he or she passed the written and oral testing in Hunting, Fishing and Recreation categories. Details of the resolution were not readily available at press time but it appears some period of time, perhaps five years of on-the-job experience will be necessary. I believe another portion of the ruling was to allow persons to be made a master guide in single categories instead of having to become a guide in all three.
The testing and registration of guides goes a long way toward protecting consumer rights, and perhaps in the future a regulatory Board can be set up to hear arguments by clients who feel they were short-changed by inexperienced or unqualified guides.
For now, what do you think of the Outdoor Question this month. Are there too many Registered Maine Guides and should an effort be put forth to slow down the testing process? The increased popularity of saltwater angling and the ever-increasing popularity of white-water rafting accounts for much of the increase. Had turkey hunting been presented to guides in a fair manner, the sport would also generate a flood of people looking to pick up part-time guiding cash.
Stu Bristol is a freelance outdoor writer living in Lyman. His weekly newspaper columns and monthly features have appeared nationwide for over thirty years.
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