PARK FALLS, Wisc. – The past fifteen months have created unprecedented challenges for people around the world. Here in the U.S.A., relief for most individuals and families struggling with the economic hardships of the coronavirus pandemic has been available in varying forms. Now, as vaccinations increase and restrictions loosen, governments at all levels face the sad challenge of undoing the financial disincentives they’ve created that are keeping some Americans from going back to work.
Of course, many Americans never wanted to stop going to work; it was neither their choice nor preference. Our nation’s tens of thousands of professional fishing guides fall squarely into that group. Pandemic-induced travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders, and strict social-distancing requirements caused an extreme customer shortage that resulted in failing fishing-guide businesses, almost overnight.
Like many other self-employed contract workers, most fishing guides didn’t immediately qualify for even the most-basic forms of assistance. In the early stages of the pandemic, for example, many states lacked systems that allowed self-employed persons to access unemployment benefits. Other forms of assistance were either non-existent or lagged well behind those accessible to conventionally employed persons.
Just over one year ago in Montana, where recreational fishing contributes nearly $1B annually to the state’s economy, Sweetwater Fly Shop owner, Dan Gigone was less worried about keeping his own doors open than he was about the welfare of the state’s fishing guides. “Out here, guides basically have to make all their money in two or three months and then hope to make it through the winter. And that’s in the best of years,” says Gigone. “And last year was far from the best of years.” Gigone mentioned to Mollie Simpkins, fly-fishing advocate and Sweetwater booking manager, “We’ve got to do something to try and help the guides.”
Simpkins and her friend and self-employed fly-fishing guide, KynsLee Scott, agreed and began brainstorming ideas. Together, the pair co-founded the Guide Relief Program to assist resource-strapped Montana fishing guides in navigating the serious and immediate impacts of the pandemic.
"As guides, we don’t have HR departments to go to for help with basic employee benefits," says GRP co-founder Scott, who also serves as director of outreach and guide services. “We knew we needed to do anything possible and necessary to keep our guides in a place where they could stay on their feet and continue working as soon as possible, not only because of what it would mean to themselves and their families, but because these are the folks who are most invested in protecting our fisheries. We focused on the immediate financial issues first, but soon realized there was a lot more we could and should be doing to support these angling ambassadors and resource protectors.”
Guide Relief Program co-founder and executive director Simpkins says the GRP initially served as an information clearinghouse to help fishing guides in Montana wade through the murky challenges of the federal CARE Act and access the relief funds they so desperately needed. “But it quickly became apparent there was much more work to be done than just helping the guide community heal financially,” she says. “Not only was the harm to these hardworking, frontline, fly-fishing workers financial, but we began seeing significant mental-health challenges creep into our community. Guides and their families were really struggling with the stress and uncertainty of the wolf at the door; they were worrying and wondering how they would provide and trying to figure out what would come next. At that point, the mission became much greater, and we saw opportunities to improve access to additional resources that would help make our guides’ businesses more sustainable in both good times and bad, now and into the future.”
Thanks to the hard work and creativity of Simpkins and Scott, the past several months have seen the Guide Relief Program expand its scope to offer members access to liability insurance, discount mental- and physical-health benefits, free telehealth, accident insurance, roadside assistance, and more – a remarkable record of accomplishment that is resulting in markedly increased security for hundreds of fishing guides. “We have learned a great deal helping guides navigate the pandemic,” Simpkins says. “We now know guides need access to a variety of resources to enjoy the kinds of sustainable careers that benefit not only them, but also our fisheries, and we’re setting up the delivery systems that provide access to those resources.”
Scott and Simpkins have also successfully navigated the time-consuming process of becoming an official non-profit entity, which has made it possible to accelerate their mission of helping Montana’s guides by attracting the support of likeminded stakeholders like Trout Unlimited, Simms, Yeti, Sawyer Paddles and Oars, and St. Croix Rod. “I’m proud of my industry,” says Scott. “We’ve seen several great companies and organizations step up and provide support for our mission, because they understand what’s at stake.”
“Taking care of anglers has remained the core of everything we’ve done at St. Croix for the past 74 years,” says St. Croix CEO, Scott Foristall, who has deep personal and professional roots in the fly-fishing industry. “We share the Guide Relief Program’s belief that guides are the frontline ambassadors of our sport and recognize their role as guardians of our cherished resources. We’re proud of the difficult work Mollie, KynsLee and others have undertaken to help Montana’s hardworking fly-fishing guides weather this storm and prepare for many more rewarding seasons on the water, and St. Croix is pleased to extend our support to the GRP. Working together, we’re hopeful that critical resource networks the GRP has created can be expanded or modeled elsewhere to benefit even more fishing guides in the future.”
Simpkins and Scott would love to increase the GRP’s reach to help more guides in more places but say any expansion will depend on the amount of support the program can garner. “We believe we can grow into something very special for guides everywhere, and not just fishing guides,” Scott says. “Who’s to say that, in time, we’re not going to be able to expand and help hunting guides, climbing guides, and other independent contractors who make other meaningful outdoor experiences available to the public, and not just in Montana? It simply depends on the additional support and resources we can call to the cause.”
Licensed Montana fishing guides can learn more about the benefits offered by the Guide Relief Program at https://guidereliefprogram.org
Companies and organizations interested in discussing partnership opportunities with the GRP are invited to contact Mollie Simpkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.