PARK FALLS, Wisc. (May 25, 2021) – 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.