08/20/2012 11:43 EDT | Updated 10/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Illegal fishing guides in B.C. need to be reeled in: angling association

VANCOUVER - A different kind of fishing tale is being told all over British Columbia, and the biggest lies don't involve the size of a rainbow trout.

Illegal fishing guides are operating in the province with great frequency and conservation officers and legal guides alike say often the offenders come from the U.S. and Europe.

"There's a whole bunch of it," said Jezz Crosby of the Pioneer Fishing Lodge, who is also the chairman of the Skeena Angling Guides Association.

"We get Europeans coming over here . . . guiding and saying they're not a guide, but if they look like a guide and smell like a guide — they're a guide."

Conservation Officer Gareth Scrivner said he gets about 20 reports of suspected or illegal guiding each year in his jurisdiction on the North Coast around Terrace, and those are just the reported cases.

Guides who know the rivers where they operate not only need to buy a license, they also undergo an examination and vetting before becoming official.

Certain rivers have rod days — specific days in which a guide can take customers on a stretch of river — that could cost thousands for rights plus royalties to the B.C. government.

The guides get their license to operate inland, such as in rivers and lakes, from the province, while ocean or salmon fishing in rivers is regulated by the federal government.

Scrivner said the popularity and high cost of fishing in the region supplies a healthy customer base for rogue guides who undercut fees charged by legal guides.

"It's a global destination for steelhead fishing, it's pretty much one of the places to come if you're a big fly fisherman or steelhead fisherman," said Scrivner.

"But with that comes a lot of people who really would like to fish this resource, but perhaps don't have enough money to do it all legally."

He said a lot of clients are people who used a legal guide on their first trip to B.C. and crossed paths with someone doing it illegally. On their return trip, they take the cheaper option.

Crosby said he's heard people from outside of Canada round up clients from their own countries and fly over with them. If anyone asks questions, they're told the group is friends or family on a fishing trip.

The cheating angers legal guides who pay more than $10,000 per year each for their licenses, mandatory liability insurance and operational costs, Crosby said.

"Everybody knows it's happening. You know, what do you do?" said Crosby, who said the amount of unfamiliar guides adds an element of danger to the problem.

It's hard to catch the offenders because of the standby fib they are a group of friends or family fishing, he said.

Scrivner said the only reliable way to catch illegal guides is through clients who notify authorities.

People should make sure their guides are legally registered before going out with them and report them if they are not, he added.

In April, a man caught guiding illegally on the Copper River, near Smithers, pleaded guilty for guiding illegally and was fined $1,000 and ordered to make a $9,000 donation to a local conservation fund.

Earlier this month near Fernie, a man from Utah was caught and charged for guiding without a license. Authorities accuse him of guiding 12 clients in the area.

Joe Caravetta, an East Kootenay conservation officer, also said detecting the unlicensed guides is an issue of concern in his region.

"We suspect it's happening but it's difficult to ascertain and get a handle on completely," said Caravetta.

"We have other complaints of a similar nature from other guides who suspect illegal activities on the river."

Back up on the North Coast, Crosby said he knows conservation officers do their best to curb the rod-wielding rogues digging into his business.

But, to his dismay he doesn't think they have the manpower to effectively deal with the problem — and said damage reaches beyond his own pay cheque.

"At the end of the day, it's not only the guide industry that is losing out — it's the province," he said.