Featured Photo: Northern Lights in Tennessee

Featured Photo: Northern Lights in Tennessee

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Paying More: ACT NOW

Here in Tennessee, it looks like we are set to pay more to fish and hunt.  Taxes on most outdoor activities that I care about are about to go up.  Remember, once the government gets a tax from us, it is very rare to ever go back the other direction.  Sadly, as a trout fisherman, I don't believe the increased cost is justified by the quality of the fishing.  There are several important things wrong with the current proposal, at least some of which I hope we can get fixed.

First and most importantly for out of state anglers, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) is proposing eliminating the one day fishing license for non-residents.  To put this into better perspective, let's look at a scenario where you decide to come take a float with Trout Zone Anglers. As things now stand, you can purchase a one day all species license for $16.  Not bad for some decent trout fishing.  Under the new proposal, TWRA wants to eliminate the one day non-resident license.  The next cheapest alternative?  A three day all species license.  Guess how much that is going to cost you?  Seriously, you don't want to know but this is so important that I'm going to tell you anyway.  $40.50. Yeah, ouch.  That is a LOT of money considering that is what North Carolina currently charges for an annual non-resident fishing license, and I can fish a whole season in Yellowstone for that price.  See what I mean about the increased cost not making sense for trout fishermen?

TWRA supposedly needs funding and a lot of it.  Okay, I buy that.  I know from my own observations that they are understaffed as it can be really tough to find a wildlife officer when you need one.  They are simply stretched too thin and increased funding should theoretically solve that.  Unfortunately, by increasing license fees, they will ultimately sell fewer licenses and thus may not obtain much additional funding.  A much better alternative would be for the Tennessee state legislature to pass legislation that enables TWRA to keep the majority of ticket money from enforcement actions.  That would both encourage officers to get out there and enforce the rules and simultaneously improve fishing (and hunting) by making sure everyone plays by the rules that are in place.

In addition, as trout fishermen, we need to look at what people would pay for licenses in other destinations. I have been fortunate enough to fish in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.  I have enjoyed fishing in each and every one of those.  In Colorado, an annual non-resident fishing license is $66.  In Arizona it is $55.  In Montana, the Mecca of trout fishing, a non-resident license is $70.  Utah's non-resident license for 1 year is $75.  In Yellowstone National Park, I can get a season permit for $40.  Currently, in TN, a non-resident license is $81.  Our fishing is better than that in Arizona, but not as good as that in any of the other 4 destinations/states that I mentioned.

One state that I failed to mention is Wyoming.  Guess what?  The Wyoming non-resident license (including the conservation stamp is $104.50.  Can you guess which state I have NOT fished in?  I might also add that they have incredible fishing, but I have not experienced it because the cost was prohibitive.  If we continue to increase our license fees, we will lose more and more business to neighboring North Carolina, Kentucky, and Georgia who all have great fishing including fantastic trout fishing.  North Carolina has a delayed harvest program better than anywhere else I have seen or heard of.  Again, I should mention here that their non-resident license is less than half of what we currently charge (to be fair they are also increasing license costs this next year from what I have heard).

Finally, one proposal that I am torn on but ultimately oppose is the proposed guide license.  The cost is not terrible prohibitive unless there are additional costs associated with getting "certified," but that is not my main concern.  A little history would be best here.  I started Trout Zone Anglers at the beginning of this year.  Already approaching my own year anniversary as a fly fishing guide, I could not have done this except in Tennessee.  Let me explain further.

Living and teaching in Colorado was an incredible experience, and a large piece of me misses it terribly and not just for the great fishing and mountains.  However, when my job status became murky, and I started looking around for something other than teaching, I knew that I could not stay in Colorado.  Starting a business as a fly fishing guide in Colorado was impossible.  Literally.  You see, the cost was prohibitive and there just weren't permits available to guide in certain areas.  Things are very heavily regulated.  Just to obtain a guide license in Colorado (never mind insurance or fees from various government entities to guide on specific waters, etc) was going to run me hundreds of dollars.  In other words, the barriers to entry to the guide profession were significant.  Of course, I could have started guiding for an established business, but with bills to pay I couldn't afford to start on the lowest rung and take just a few trips here and there.  The cost of living in Colorado meant that I couldn't afford to follow my dream of being a guide there.

Returning to Tennessee meant I had a chance, however.  Arriving back in my home state to start guiding on the waters I grew up fishing, I had just enough money to get important things like insurance and a Commercial Use Authorization to guide in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Things were so tight that an additional "state" guide license would have been more than I could afford at the time.

As a guide, I recognize the value in making sure that the playing field is level.  I believe everyone working out on the river should have appropriate guide liability insurance as well as 1st aid and CPR certifications.  Guides should be good stewards who teach clients to respect the environment and the quarry and to clean up after themselves as well as others who are less educated.

While my politics are not relevant to this discussion and even my students never knew which political party I supported (if any) because I think everyone should make informed decisions on their own, I will say that I appreciated the fact that Tennessee was a conservative state when I decided to become a guide.  Without the lack of barriers to entry in the guide profession, I may very well have ended up in some field that did not suit me, living the rat race of corporate America.  However, here in Tennessee, the idea that any individual willing to work hard enough could be successful still lived strong enough that I was able to start my own business.

Thanks to all of my great clients and now friends, my first year as a guide was all that I had hoped it would be and then some.  Having learned a lot and hoping to be even better this next year, I'm eagerly looking forward to a great 2015 and already booking trips into the spring, but again, none of this would have been possible if it had cost just a little more to get started.

The whole point of this background history and discussion is this. I have lived in states where you had to pay for everything in terms of access and license fees.  I have also lived in Tennessee where fees are only just now on the rise.  More and more Forest Service sites will be charging money for use, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park forced through a "Backcountry Use Fee" despite huge (and continuing) opposition, and now TWRA wants to further raise license fees.  If you don't think this sounds bad, wait until we also have to pay for entry into our state parks.  I have seen where this ends up, and unfortunately here in Tennessee wages are not high enough to reasonably allow everyone to participate in outdoor activities if there is a large fee attached to everything.  For years I have camped less and less just because the cost is prohibitive and went backpacking as a reasonably priced alternative.  So much for that idea with the fees in the Smokies.  A basic economics class will teach you that by raising the cost, you will eliminate some people from buying a given product.  This is not rocket science here.

What we need in outdoor sports is more participants, not fewer, or we will eventually be eliminated.  We need more education, yes, but not fewer people enjoying things like fly fishing.  There are already elements within the National Park Service that would ban all users and leave the land wild for the animals that live there.  A noble thought if you are a wild animal, but imagine the day when we cannot even enjoy our own wilderness.  I live and breathe wilderness, clean water, and crisp, clean mountain air.  We need more people who do the same.

Additionally, the introduction of a guide license will eventually lead to higher guide license fees and ultimately all of that will be passed on to the consumers, those of you who book guide trips.  I'm already embarrassed when I explain to potential clients how much they will have to spend on a fishing license.  Some have been shocked already at how expensive it is now and if you have been used to fishing North Carolina's fantastic delayed harvest waters, it would be quite a shock to come to Tennessee.  By regulating guides, they are simply chipping away at another small area and eventually the sum of all these concessions will be great.  Remember, once things are taken, once prices are raised, once rules are implemented, there is no going back.

For that matter, how will they even define the term "guide"?  For example, I'm a guide who also fishes for fun.  What if I'm out with my buddies on a Tennessee river and we get stopped.  When asked if this is a guide trip, I honestly reply no.  Then what?  I'm sure plenty of people will simply lie.  Then the honest ones get screwed by paying more and the others are still out there.  Based on the sheer number of people using our waterways, I guarantee they will not have the time to investigate every trip to see if it is really a guide trip or not.  As usual, the honest ones get a raw deal.

Finally, as long as we are making changes to the regulations, Tennessee needs to make all annual licenses good for one calendar year from the date of purchase.  Having fished in states that do it this way, I can really see no good reason that this is not possible.  If they are going to change the rules, at least change rules that actually help.

Now for perhaps the most annoying part of this whole discussion.  TWRA has been very crafty and has sought no public input on the proposed changes, a real taxation without representation if you will.  The goal is clearly to sneak all of these increases through with the least amount of public outrage possible.  Towards this goal, the January meeting where this will be discussed is scheduled to happen in Union City.  Anyone know where that is?  Probably not many of you do without consulting a map.  Union City is about as far in northwest Tennessee as you can get and much too far for most of the state's sportsmen to drive to attend so their voices can be heard.  There are no public comment meetings in the evenings, just the one commission meeting happening at 9:00 a.m. on a Friday morning in the middle of nowhere.  The message is clear: TWRA really does not care about Tennessee sportsmen or their opinions.  They are far more interested in raising fees instead of starting a dialogue on how we can address the funding issues in a more meaningful manner that will have a lasting impact.

My recommendation is for each and every one of you to contact the members of the Tennessee Wildlife Commission and let them know that you oppose the fee increases.  You can find all of their contact information here.  Both emails and phone calls would be a great idea for as many of them as you can.  The best idea to email would be to just copy all of them on the same email.  There is very little time left to act here, especially since they are making it difficult for us to be heard.  I know it will take some time, but if you care about hunting and fishing in Tennessee, please take the time to let them know that you oppose the fee increases and guide license.


  1. It's funny how people will she'll out ridiculous amounts of money on gear (rods, reels, waders, extra.) but when it comes to paying for a license they get all up in arms. Personal, do not mind increases in fees for fishing I mean they money goes straight to protecting these resources I cheerish so deeply. We are proposing one right now in my home state of montana and I fully support it. Seems like a no brainier to me.

  2. Travis, I agree with you in principle and if our wildlife and fisheries management was as progressive as it is in Montana, I would not have an issue with it on a personal level. Personally I have no problem paying extra if I know for sure it will actually do some good.

    That said, I AM concerned for people who hunt for sustenance and here in TN (we are not a rich state by a long shot) there are a lot of people who do that, shooting several deer for the freezer each year. Same thing with fishing. I personally have a lot of friends who can't afford to shell out lots of money on gear simply because they do not have it. For people like this, each increase makes it more and more difficult to legally get out and fish and hunt.

    I sincerely hope that this increase will not hurt the number of people participating in outdoors activities but I'm not holding my breath.

    By the way, you are fortunate to live in an exceptional place. I'm jealous!

  3. How about a little California cost.
    One day $15.12
    Resident $47.01 Year
    Add a second rod $14.61 Year
    Non-resident $126.36 Year
    If you want to specialize like Steelhead, Abalone, or Lobster, $5.00 to $23.00 per stamp.

    1. Mark, California is another state I have long wanted to fish but so far avoided because of cost. What worries me the most is the possibility that the whole goal of the high cost is to limit the number of users...

  4. The difference between "shelling out money" for a rod and reel, etc. and paying government for the privilege of fishing and hunting "public land" should be obvious. One is a tangible material and the other is a TAX on an activity. That said, I understand that taxes make fishing ( and especially in most cases trout fishing in the South ) possible - but TN has been going this way ( the wrong way IMHO ) for decades now. How so? Well, back in the early and mid-90's I gave TN roughly $40 a year ( I think it was ) and who knows how much more money when I'd visit to fish. When they went up to $80 a year for non-resident - I just stopped fishing there. Period. No visits to fish, buy gear, spend money at bait shops and restaurants, etc. and I'm sure I'm not alone. On the other hand, I frequently visit NC for fishing and camping. Ahem. Cha-ching for NC, getting money from a GA resident simply by having affordable out of state license fees. If TN wants fewer people to fish, that's TN's business I guess... but in this crap economy, you'd think they'd be trying to do things to invite people to visit the state more, not stay away. But then, government these days can be counted on to take one step forward and two steps back. A snarky one-liner - - - "I'm from the government and I'm here to help" used to be a sarcastic joke - now it's reality in most cases imho.

    1. This is my biggest concern, that we keep driving out of state anglers to neighboring states that arguably have better trout fishing. Our tailwaters are definitely better than most other places in the southeast but we don't hold a candle to the NC delayed harvest program. As a guide, I hate to see TN driving away potential customers.