A month after Montana fish and wildlife officials refused ESPN a permit to host a televised trout-fishing contest on the Clark Fork River, outdoor filmmaker John Barrett remained confounded and disappointed with the decision. But he was smiling as the three-day tournament wrapped up Thursday, April 10, on the Henry’s Fork, the revered Idaho trout stream just over the continental divide from Montana’s Centennial Mountains. After all, he had 10 hours of video in the bag, showing expert anglers throwing tiny fake bugs on a beautiful mountain stream and reeling in feisty rainbows and browns. As a bonus, nature graced the tourney with unseasonably pleasant weather and stunning views of the Tetons.
“They don’t understand the event,” Barrett said of his numerous critics, who wrote more than 200 letters to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP).
“If their objection is about pressure on the resource or impact on the fish, their objection is not founded,” said Barrett, whose Missoula-based Barrett Productions films ESPN outdoor programs. “Every single angler tells me this is one of the best events they have ever seen. These people make their living fishing. They aren’t going to do things that would hurt it. The positives of this event far outweigh the negatives.” Indeed, the fishing contest, which involved 18 anglers and no spectators aside from Barrett’s camera operators, who rode with contestants in six drift boats, had a lot more in common with a friendly game of poker than a dreaded bass derby. No motors, no logos, no dead fish floating in “live” wells. Contestants fished short “beats” between Warm River and Ashton Reservoir, a 7-mile stretch that is open year-round downstream from the Island Park plateau.
Fish that are foul-hooked or die cannot be counted, and in the four years ESPN has been holding the trout tourney, there have been no known instances of fish mortality, according to Great Outdoor Games assistant director Cadence Harkins.
Last week’s event was one of two qualifiers for ESPN’s popular made-for-television Great Outdoor Games, jokingly referred to as the “redneck Olympics,” which are to be staged in Reno, Nev. this July. Barrett’s company will edit his Henry’s Fork footage into a 42-minute TV show that ESPN2 will air June 14.
Chris King won the qualifier after landing a 17-inch rainbow on the last day of the tournament, becoming one of three event participants to earn invitations to Reno. The 31-year-old guide on California’s Sacramento River had no apologies for participating.
“It’s a way for us to bring the sport to a new level, so it’s no longer the snobbish atmosphere that’s been associated with fly fishing,” said King, who lives in Redding.
King’s point of view contrasts starkly with that of dozens of Montana anglers who argued in February that the event needlessly commercializes fly fishing and the sport’s salmonid quarry. Because Montana bars fishing contests that affect wild trout, ESPN had to apply for a wai-ver if it was to stage the qualifier on the Clark Fork as originally proposed. Thus began a contentious public comment process. Although the Montana rule is based on biology, comment pitted economic development against the core values of fly fishing. Opponents, whose comments outnumbered those of proponents by a 2-to-1 margin, argued that a televised contest is an insult to such a contemplative sport and would attract more fishing pressure to Montana’s already-famous trout streams. “We do not have an iron-clad policy on these contests, because we never thought angling would have come to that,” said Bruce Farling, executive director of Trout Unlimited’s Montana chapter. “We support state regulations that prohibit this. These guys were asking to have a rule bent just for them.”
Missoula’s Chamber of Commerce, which landed the Great Outdoor Games’ retriever series last year, argued that the event would generate priceless publicity for Montana tourism. Other backers pointed out that it is structured to have minimum impact on the fish, the river and the angling public. But in this debate, philosophy trumped both science and money. “I didn’t know it would be so near and dear to people,” said FWP boss Jeff Hagener, who authorized the decision to keep the event out of Montana. “I was surprised by the [number of opponents who] took the time to write their own letters and e-mails. On the side of the proponents, it was mostly form letters.”
Idaho welcomed the event after long-time Idaho Falls outfitter and ESPN sponsor Lamoyne Hyde, who serves on the Idaho Travel Council, suggested the network come to southeast Idaho. But moving the event was akin to jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Conservation-minded anglers fumed about a competition that would bring prize money and television to the holy waters of the Henry’s Fork, also known as the North Fork of the Snake River. But unlike Montanans’ comments, these opinions had no bearing on the decision-making honchos at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. As long as a contest meets the state’s requirements, the state could not say no, according to fisheries director Jim Fredericks. Angler Kevin Biegler, a Minnesotan who operates Sourdough Outfitters in Three Forks, endured a storm of criticism for his participation in the event.
“The more elitist we become, we lose the opportunity to get access and do stream restoration,” said Biegler, who caught the tournament’s largest trout, a 19-inch brown, but then finished out of the money with a mere 15-incher in the finals. “This is an opportunity for anglers to fish responsibly on television and promote catch and release.”
The Henry’s Fork Foundation was the event’s loudest critic, but the conservation group’s members took no steps to block the event other than to voice displeasure in letters to the editor and around the bar counters. “Fly fishing is man against the fish, it’s the quiet sport,” said foundation president Marty McClellan of Idaho Falls. “There is enough competition between you and that 18-inch rainbow sipping blue-wing olives. Sometimes he wins and sometimes you win. To commercialize this is an atrocity.”
In the end, foundation executive director Steve Trafton agreed to deliver a conservation message for Barrett’s camera, but the organization declined to accept any donations from ESPN.
Mike Lawson, probably the river’s most respected guide and a co-founder of the Henry’s Fork Foundation, noted a hint of hypocrisy in the anti-contest stance. The organization has accepted $40,000 over the years from the famed Jackson Hole One Fly, a fund-raising tournament on the Henry’s sister fork on the other side of the Tetons, according to Lawson. “They had a knee-jerk reaction. These fly fishing events are about camaraderie. We need to promote that,” Lawson said. “We can’t save these rivers without doing it as a group. We need money and people to fight these battles.”