June 22, 2018
By Hilary Hutcheson
From the rooter to the pooter." It's a phrase used by BBQ pork aficionados, and translates to using all parts of the pig, from the snout to the tail. Two thousand miles from this adage's southern roots thrives a Montanan whose fly-fishing business runs on the same concept. For Dan Vermillion, the "whole hog" includes fishing lodges, adventure travel, guide education, fish and wildlife management, public lands advocacy, and legislative action, all thickly marinated in environmental stewardship.
Vermillion and his two brothers have owned and operated Sweetwater Travel (sweetwatertravel.com) for more than two decades. Based in Livingston, Montana, the company emerged from the brothers' collective desire for adventure and the opportunity to foster the health of unique fisheries. Their first operation developed a remote camp for Mongolia taimen. Today, Sweetwater Travel has ten adventure fishing destinations across the globe.
As their global fishing business developed, so did the opportunity to provide employment to ambitious and capable fly-fishing guides and lodge staff. Vermillion says Sweetwater Travel is intent on providing jobs for residents in each lodge area. But often, the staffing demand extends beyond what the local workforce can provide.
"There's a specific skill set when it comes to guiding and working in fishing lodges," says Vermillion. "So we decided to give any potential employees the opportunity to benefit from a top-shelf, hands-on education before venturing into that world."
In 1997, Sweetwater Travel Guide School held its first weeklong session, boasting a curriculum of entomology, fisheries biology, hydrology, client interaction, drift boat and raft rowing, river safety, advanced casting, knot tying, jet boat maintenance, and more.
As the program grew, the Vermillion brothers appointed Ron Meek—a 20-year veteran of Sweetwater Travel—to the helm of the guide school along with senior guide Steve Wilson. Wilson and Meek now lead sessions through the spring, summer, and fall on Montana's Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers. Vermillion says most students who complete the weeklong, $2,700 all-inclusive course are trained for their dream job.
"A great fishing operation isn't just about the place or the fish," says Meek. "It's about what the right guides can do in that place, and with that fishery, to create an unforgettable experience. And we have students who go on to be fishing managers and even lodge owners. One reason they do great in the profession is they were committed to investing in their ability to get a job."
Vermillion applies his former experience as lawyer to the guide school as well, padding the curriculum with content on the outfitting world's laws, systems, business structure and regulations. "Even beyond guiding, there's a lot of opportunity out there for people who want a career in fly fishing," says Vermillion.
Vermillion says the notion that working in the industry jeopardizes personal fishing time is a farce. "You should always make time to fish, especially if the whole point is to be an expert," he says. "Almost every lodge offers hosted trips where guides can go with their clients to experience other operations, so it opens the chance for guides to fish all over the world."
Conservation isn't merely a segment built into the syllabus at the Sweetwater Travel Guide School. It's a fiber woven into the overall study. Vermillion wants students to recognize their responsibilities as conservation leaders before moving on in the profession.
He says guides need to be equipped with the powerful belief that their role in environmental sustainability is important. "When you enter into guiding, you can affect positive change," Vermillion says. "And the people you're spending all day with on the boat are helping fund conservation initiatives and supporting the brands in the industry that make a big difference."
Public lands issues are often discussed throughout the course, as guides must be keen on the land and water access rules in the various states where they work. A passionate public lands advocate, Vermillion says most would-be guides are eager to learn how land management can impact their careers. "They realize it can be lost, so they're inspired to protect it. Many of these participants have seen firsthand what's been lost where they live all across the country in New Hampshire, New Jersey, California—it's not the same as it was 25 years ago."
In the decades that the school has been training and placing guides, Meek says increasingly more women are enrolling, an important outcome in an industry where increased female participation is a high priority.
"About 20 percent of the participants are women, and we'd like to see this number increase. A lot of them want to be guides, but some also want to become a better anglers overall," says Meek.Dan Vermillion has been a Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commissioner since 2007, and in 2018 is running for state senate in Montana's District 30. (Photo by Lynn Donaldson)
Considering a big picture directed by his moral compass, Vermillion says his business and peace of mind are lifted by a global fly-fishing industry that protects and enhances sustainable fisheries. As his guide school groomed new waves of potential river conservators, Vermillion simultaneously cranked the heat on his own environmental stewardship in 2007 by stepping up as Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commissioner for Region 3.
"Like a lot of people, I thought FW&P did things that didn't make sense but, after becoming a commissioner, I learned that they are so good at what they do. Realizing what good people the department has was an eye opener," says Vermillion.
"As a commissioner, we sometimes hear feedback that guides and outfitters are making our rivers too crowded. I disagree. I'd like people to look at the value guiding brings to the rivers. Guides do, and should, play a positive role in the management of our aquatic resources. Like when there was a massive whitefish kill on the Yellowstone River a couple of years ago . . . it was a guide who called it in."
When the commission is considering a fishing regulation changes, Vermillion says they run it by the guides, and work closely with the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, and concerned stakeholders from all parts of the community.
"It's heartening when the various agencies, industry professionals and the greater public work together around the same passion for our rivers," says Vermillion.
"We know these regulations impact a lot of people, so we want it to be the right thing. We don't just look at how it affects recreational or professional anglers, we look at how it affects landowners, tourists and future generations of fish, wildlife, and humans. "
Leadership of Montana's fish and wildlife commission isn't always an easy wade. Vermillion says he spends an hour or two on the phone each day talking with concerned hunters and fishermen about elk, wolves, or trout. He admits that trial and error has led him to certain management philosophies.
"We do a lot of listening to the public and to fisheries biologists. Sometimes what we're hearing between them doesn't match up, and we have to make a decision one way or another. It can be stressful because the decisions hold a lot of weight. So we take it very seriously."
Vermillion will leave his post as a fish and wildlife commissioner at the end of 2018. And by then, if all goes according to his plan, he will have a new role in public service. Vermillion is running for state senate in Montana's District 30. A typical guide school class has students of all ages and from all walks of life. Front row from left to right: Callan Wink, James Young, Wesley Hodges, Jared Zissu, Ed Beacom, Frank Flux, and Scott Montross. Back row: Lizzie Strazza, Caroline Schlegel, Ron Meek, Steve Wilson, and Mark Endres. (Photo by Ron Meek/Sweetwater Travel Company)
"I'm running because there are good people whose livelihoods are centered on the outdoors, and there's a need for leadership to protect these special resources that sustain us," says Vermillion. "I believe in the legislative process and its ability to build futures for communities, and I want to be a part of a structure that's helpful and meaningful."
Vermillion hopes his choice to run for office will set an example for others who have the ability to positively impact their communities, but have shied away from politics. "We can all be part of the process," he says.
"I've found in the fishing business that there are some people contributing a lot, and some contributing nothing. I want to contribute more to my community, and I encourage others to do the same in whatever way they can."
Vermillion's leave-no-river-rock-unturned approach has produced a successful fishing and travel business, fostered the training of hundreds of new fishing guides, helped shape fish and wildlife administration and allowed him to share a meaningful life with his wife, Lynn Donaldson and their three children. His story is that of a complete angler, with a head-to-toe resolve that might impress the shrewdest of pork BBQ fans.
Hilary Hutcheson started guiding fly-fishing trips when she was a teenager in West Glacier, Montana. After a short career as a broadcast news anchor, she established the PR and marketing company Outside Media, and began hosting Trout TV. She now owns the fly shop Lary's Fly & Supply in Columbia Falls, Montana, where she lives with her two daughters.