FWP commission rejects remote controlled boats, drones in fishing

(Montana FWP)

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is considering strengthening its laws to make sure drones and remote controlled boats don’t invade the hobby of fishing.

FWP Operations Sergeant Phil Kilbreath told the FWP commission this week about a potential problem looming on the horizon: drones and remote controlled boats are being used to help fishermen get to places they couldn’t before.

It’s a rather new phenomenon that hasn’t been used much in Montana yet, that Kilbreath knew of. However, people have reported seeing fishermen using RC boats to access a closed area below the Libby Dam, and FWP is starting to get questions about the legality of their use.

Obviously, a few people are intrigued enough to use them.

RC boats can either carry a fisherman’s line out beyond where he could normally cast or they can troll independently with a line controlled by the fisherman.

“It’s like ‘jug-fishing’ except the jug is remote controlled,” Kilbreath said.

Similarly, airborne drones can also carry a fisherman’s line long distances and provide visual confirmation of the water before dropping the line. Or drones can also fish independently while the fisherman operates the drone’s controls.

The difference is drones can go more places than a boat.

Commissioner Tim Aldrich said RC boats can cause bad feelings when most fishermen are following the law by not going into a closed area but then they see a few using RC boats to fish the area. He saw it happen near the Dworshak Dam on the North Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho.
“My personal feeling is the earlier we recognize the potential of some of these things and put statute in place, the better off we’ll be,” Aldrich said. “We don’t want this to become run-of-the-mill technology for so-called fishing.”

Kilbreath showed a video of a drone locating a school of ocean fish and then returning to the angler with a fish flopping at the end of the line. Obviously, with a fish dangling in mid-air, catch-and-release would be less of an option.

“With any kind of technology, particularly with these unmanned vehicles, there’s likely to be other inventive ways that people will come up with for using these,” Kilbreath said.

Such toys definitely have a gee-whiz factor. So for some, it’s more about playing with the controls, getting a boat or drone to do what you want, rather than catching fish.

However, many hunters and anglers are more attracted to the traditional aspect of the sports, which gets people outdoors, away from computers, and requires the development of physical skill and self-sufficiency. Some go even further, taking up more ancient sports like bow hunting. And most still take pride in the concept of fair-chase rather than rigging the odds too much in the sportsman’s favor.

Such an attitude usually doesn’t jibe well with the use of computerized devices that make things too easy. So Montanans have regularly showed up to commission meetings and legislative hearings over the years to oppose techniques and accessories, like bear-baiting or crossbows, that are allowed in a few other states.

One Montana law says anglers can’t use guns, traps or other devices to catch fish. The phrase “other devices” could include remote controlled boats or drones. But the phrase isn’t specific, Kilbreath said, and wardens are concerned that anglers could argue that RC boats are similar to a downrigger, a swing arm that holds a fishing line off the side of a boat, and therefore should be legal.

Kilbreath pointed out that the commission already voted in 2018 to ban drones from being used to spot game during hunting season. Drones are also illegal in national parks, Montana state parks and near wildfires.

“The commission has the authority to regulate that activity,” Kilbreath said. “We’re committed to being proactive. So we’re eager to come up with a proposal to present to the commission for regulating these devices.”

Chairman Shane Colton said downriggers are in no way similar. Fishermen have used downriggers for centuries and they still have to be engaged in the fishing process, whereas fishing with drones is much more detached.

“It’s a very small fraction of our sporting community that wants to catch fish like that,” Colton said. “We need to be cognizant of who funds this and keep our participation away from those people. These trade groups have powerful influence out there.”

Commissioner Dan Stuker didn’t hesitate to voice his strong opposition to remote controlled boats or drones.

“My feeling is, if the use of technology gets into one area, whether it’s angling or hunting, it’s not long before it gets into the other side,” Stuker said. “If you can use a drone to go out and spot fish and take fish, how long before someone wants to use a drone to mount a rifle and shoot the elk or spot elk, which we don’t’allow now? If we don’t have enough statutory limitations now, I think we should adopt one.”

Kilbreath said FWP would craft a rule that they would bring to a future commission meeting.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.