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In response to new fishing technology, Montana Fish and Wildlife commissioners are looking to ban the use of drones and remote-controlled boats to target fish and carry bait.

Phil Kilbreath of the FWP Enforcement Division said his division has been receiving questions about whether it is legal to use drones and remote-controlled boats to fish in Montana.

State regulations impose penalties for using drones to track animals during hunts, but don’t specify whether or not the regulations also apply to fishing.

At a Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting conducted via Zoom Thursday, Kilbreath presented a video of the Sky Rigger, a new drone accessory developed by the Australian company Sea Ulcer.

Sky Rigger is a drone attachment that holds fishing line, enabling operators to “safely fly a bait or lure out and silently target fish from above,” according to Sea Ulcer’s website. When a fish strikes, the attachment automatically releases the line and anglers can reel in the fish.

Videos of people fishing with this attachment and similar attachments have circulated around the internet.

FWP’s enforcement division has received reports of anglers using remote-controlled boats to transport lures and bait to the closure zone of Libby Dam. In other states, the mini boats are commonly used to access no fishing zones, Kilbreath said.

Many remote-controlled boats are now specifically designed to help anglers spot fish and transport bait or lures to desired areas. Operators can attach their line to these boats, which are often rigged to film fish underwater. Some boats can even land fish without an angler controlling a rod or line.

Kilbreath said Montana law bars individuals from using a gun, trap or “other device” to entrap, catch or capture fish. If drones and remote-controlled boats are considered “other devices,” FWP has the legal authority to regulate them, he said.

Since drones and remote-controlled boats enable people to move their fishing tackle to locations they couldn’t otherwise reach, many could argue they are “other devices” and should be regulated, according to Kilbreath.

However, others might argue drones and remote-controlled boats are like downriggers and planer boards, which are legal, in that all allow anglers to fish areas they wouldn’t otherwise be able to fish, Kilbreath said. Downriggers and planer boards are used to adjust the depth of a lure or bait according to the angler’s preference, enabling anglers to fish at great depths.

Kilbreath said he thinks it would be difficult to argue that such devices are unlawful for fishing, as operators are still ultimately in control of their line and tackle.

Commissioners at the meeting generally supported prohibiting drone and remote-controlled boats used to fish.

“We can compare this to a downrigger or a planer board, but those are essentially ancient technology people have been using... for hundreds of years,” said Shane Colton, Fish and Wildlife Commission chairman. “This is a very detached way to harvest fish.”

“If we do not have enough statutory regulations put in or a commission rule, I think we should adopt one,” said Richard Stuker, a commissioner.

Tim Aldrich, another commissioner, said he supported adding a new rule, as he doesn’t want to allow this to become “run of the mill technology for so-called fishing.”

Laws prohibit drones from being flown near wildfires and within national parks. They also can’t be operated in state parks without permission.

Commissioners requested that FWP begin drafting proposals for new legislation that prohibits using drones or remote-controlled boats to fish.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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