In a recent survey targeted at fly fishing consumers, Angler’s Covey (www.anglerscovey.com) asked: “What keeps you from fly fishing more often?”
61.4% responded that “The river is always too crowded” as a factor.
When Angler’s Covey owner David Leinweber followed up with a focus group the reply was: “Elevenmile Canyon was too crowded.”
Said Leinweber: “It made me realize that 8 miles of river is getting too much attention and the other 6,000 miles of streams in Colorado must be empty.”
Granted, Angling Trade has keyed public access (and river crowding) as a major factor standing in the way of new (and existing) fly-aficionado participation for some time. See Angling Trade’s “Access” issue, specifically focused on this issue, December 2008 as well as Ben Roman’s piece Fish Free or Die below.
Is access a key issue in your area? And how do we work around this? Going beyond trout? Increasing public awareness of the options already available? Give us your feedback in the comment box at the bottom of this page.
Fish Free Or Die
Written by Ben Romans
I just won the lottery. Bam! Two hundred million dollars, just like that. Who knew a string of ambitious little ping-pong balls stuck in a vacuum tube would decide my destiny? No more of “the man” keeping me down, he can kiss my ass, I quit.
First thing I’m going to do is by my little slice of heaven. River frontage of course, with at least a mile, maybe two, of the best riffle-pool trout water I can find. I’ll build some benches under shade trees; maybe add a small barbeque pavilion. It will be the perfect piece of water—filled to the nuts with 22-inch browns. Everyone will want to fish it. Want to hear the best part? You’re all invited.
I want to redefine what it means to be a riverfront landowner in the 21st century. Go against the grain. Areas closed to the public would reopen, all in the name of the greater good. Damn it’s nice to dream.
I believe humanity is inherently entitled to the gifts of nature, no matter your background or wealth. The outdoors is a band-aid for the soul. When we manufacture the fish, manipulate the water, manicure the fauna, and slap on a price tag, it cheapens the experience, and embarrasses me as an outdoorsman.
Planting abnormally huge, dim-witted hatchery fish and charging untold amounts of money to catch them only adds insult to injury. Pay-to-play cliques hook these marvels of pellet nutrition and the consequence is instant nitro fuel for the ego; a weekend-warrior’s golden ticket to boast like they’re angler-of-the-year after hoodwinking a 26-inch slab of piscatorial Purina. It’s false advertising; the angling equivalent of high-fence hunting operations—instant rewards without the quest.
The rise of pay-to-play and the overall privatization of flyfishing is the death knoll for the industry. It’s forcing more anglers to occupy less public space and one reason participation continues to decline. From a financial standpoint, we can’t afford to lose any more of the sport’s public component than is already lost. The fly shop owner, the gear manufacturer, and the small-town tourist economies depend on “free range” fishing, and the best way to ensure its survival, is through a united front.
I know I’ll make enemies saying this, but Colorado and Wyoming, you guys got problems. Look at Utah, they’re finally getting the picture Montana’s Stream Access Law painted over twenty years ago. You salty-dogs, you’re next. Up and down both coastlines beachfront homeowners are pushing anglers off the sand under the guise that property lines extend to the water.
New Zealand gets the idea. This past September an overwhelming majority passed a bill in parliament that secures public access to the country’s great outdoors. Rural Affairs Minister Damien O’Connor said the “Walking Access Bill,” which creates a Commission to provide leadership on access issues, goes to the heart of what most New Zealanders regard as their fundamental birthright.
“The Bill builds on the legacy of public access established over the last century and a half and creates the Walking Access Commission to clarify, promote and extend walking access to lakes and waterways throughout New Zealand,” O’Connor says.
I’m with O’Connor, we should be creating entry points, not selling them. When a private interest “outbids” the public for access rights, or claims the streambed as their own, it angers me. I feel cheated and take it personally, as if someone is stealing from me.
Such is the case with the Farmer’s Union property of the North Fork of the South Platte River outside Denver, Colorado—once an incredibly popular destination because of its quality fishing and proximity to the mile-high city. For years, these miles of riverbank operated as an open-ended club where 80 to 100 members paid yearly dues, brought guests, and held events like church retreats and weddings. Non-members could access the water with a guide for a nominal fee, strikingly similar to the daily rod-fee structure used on Montana’s famous Paradise Valley spring creeks.
That changed last winter when someone sealed an $80,000 a year, five-year lease agreement with the Farmer’s Union for exclusive fishing rights. The former members, local guides, and other interested parties (like area fly shops) were blindsided, and for Dan Hydinger, owner of The Hatch fly shop in Pine Junction, it was a tough pill to swallow.
“This was a nice piece of water. People from Denver could fish, it didn’t cost an arm-and-a-leg, and it was easy to take your kid or wife. Just a quality experience for the Average Joe,” Hydinger says. “This is the third decent chunk of water we’ve lost to private interests in the last year or two and it’s starting to leave a bad taste in my mouth. Even if people weren’t booking our guides to fish at Farmer’s Union, they were at least stopping in the shop on their way to the water.”
Jim Cannon of the Blue Quill Angler fly shop has a different take. Rather than denounce the new Farmer’s Union arrangement, he insists on looking at the bright side and notes that Colorado is a great place to mix private and public fisheries.
“Let’s choose our battles,” Cannon says. “In reality, Colorado has a tremendous amount of public water, and yeah, it was disappointing to see the Farmer’s Union go, but there are a lot of other places for people to fish. Most of the rivers in this state aren’t very big so crowding is a problem, especially this close to Denver. Our guides primarily fish and guide on public water, but it’s nice to have the private areas for those that want the opportunity to catch bigger fish and get away from people.”
And so it goes—two different people with two different opinions. Its one reason why the issue of access has become such a hot potato and the movement to privatize water is splintering some circles of the sport. On one side are those that say privatization is good; that landowners have a vested interest in their property and are ideally suited to safeguard watersheds as they see fit. On the other side of the coin are the majority; public access advocates willing to take their fight to court.
Nobody knows this more than Donny Beaver, owner of the Spring Ridge Club in central Pennsylvania. Beaver became flyfishing’s poster child for greed when he tried to sequester public water for personal profit. He tried distancing himself from the image by playing the “savior” role (in my opinion, a smoke-and-mirrors public-relations stunt propelling the myth his private-land stewardship benefited the river as a whole), but this only provoked his critics.
In February 2007, the courts handed Beaver a smackdown, but it wasn’t a knockout. He had already put his show on the road, landed in Colorado (www.alpineriverclub.com), and locked up private leases with a similar pay-to-play scheme as the Spring Ridge Club. You can fish the river if the price is right, otherwise (to quote ol’ Woody) “If you ain’t got the do-re-mi honey, folks, you ain’t got the do-re-mi.”
His business model is legal in Colorado, but doing something just because you have the right, doesn’t always mean it’s the right thing to do. Look for the Spring Ridge Club in a town near you! He’s planted additional roots in northwestern Pennsylvania on some popular Great Lakes steelhead water—another area plagued by problems with private landowners, crowds, and access issues.
The outcome of the Spring Ridge Club fiasco was important for the Keystone State because it set a precedent. Approximately 83 percent of the land adjacent to Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams is in the hands of private owners. Outdoorsmen need to stay united or risk losing the remaining 17 percent.
Like it or not, “private” is word that sometimes motivates us as anglers—that vision of casting over naive fish is what dreams are made of. Nevertheless, it’s also a marketing buzzword, a catalyst for those with the Benjamins. Punch the words “private flyfishing” into a Google search bar and you’ll see what I’m saying. I’m sure having a personal slice of Heaven is the tops, but there are risks and consequences with closing paradise; namely the future of our sport.
Enter James Cox Kennedy—a malevolent thorn in the side of Montana’s Stream Access Law. Cox owns thousands of acres along the Ruby River, and while the river isn’t one of the state’s “marquee” destinations, it is a well-known fishery frequented by anglers bouncing between the Beaverhead, Jefferson, and Big Hole watersheds.
At some point he decided the Stream Access Law wasn’t his cup-of-tea, chased anglers and floaters away, and erected fences to keep people out—not keep cattle in as he claims. Escalation ensued. Cox replaced barbed wire fences with electric and connected the barriers to county bridges. This angered, but didn’t stop anglers who risked a quick jolt for an afternoon on the water. When the electric fence short-circuited one gentleman’s pacemaker, however, Cox’s henchmen removed it, and restrung barbed-wire to the guardrails of the bridge.
At issue was whether the Ruby was publicly accessible (which meant crossing Cox’s fences) where the road/bridge and river easements meet. After a public exhibition of finger pointing between the Public Land & Water Access Association Inc. (PLWA), Madison County commissioners, and Cox’s attorneys, the dispute landed in court. In early October 2008, District Court Judge Loren Tucker issued a split decision, but in the big picture, the stream-access advocates were clearly victorious.
“His (Cox’s) implicit argument is that a county road may not be utilized in the vicinity of water. That argument is unsupported by authority or by logic,” Tucker said.
What does that mean? Basically, Cox (and other state landowners) can attach fences to the bridge, but the public is allowed to cross and make their way to the water. The burden to ensure fences meet legal specifications rests on the shoulders of the county commissioners.
“We just wanted some accountability,” says John Gibson, president of the PLWA. “We’ve always argued there is a public right-of-way that overlaps where public rivers and public bridges meet. We’ve never asked Cox to remove his fences; we just wanted a reasonable and safe way to access the Ruby. Rather than address that issue in court, Cox and his attorneys tried chipping away at the Stream Access Law; calling it unconstitutional and such. Well, Judge Tucker shut’em down and his decision blew their arguments out of the water.”
The Ruby/Cox case strengthened the Stream Access Law in Montana and set a powerful precedent for other bridge access points within the state. This case, and the decision against Donny Beaver, is proof that unified sportsman can prevail for the greater good. David can still beat Goliath—no matter how big his portfolio may be.
So what’s the purpose of my rant? What did it take me 2,000 words to say that I can simply summarize in one sentence? Simple—we need to protect, enhance, and promote the public resources already available and pursue other public-access options with landowners to help facilitate a growth in outdoor participation. State-managed incentive programs like Montana’s Block Management and Idaho’s Access Yes are steps in the right direction. Overpriced, overrated, overvalued pay-to-play clubs send the wrong message to the next generation of anglers—we should be welcoming them to the water, not asking for American Express.
Public resources are just that—public. We all have a stake in them. Every acre lost to the private sector chips away at the heart of our sport. Get fired up and join or contribute to organizations making a stand on a national level like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (www.trcp.org) and the Trust for Public Land (http://www.tpl.org), or state level like the PLWA (www.plwa.org) and Pennsylvania Land Trust Association (http://conserveland.org). As an industry, and as an angling family, we need to remain vigilant and seek ways to open up more water for future generations. We cannot afford to lose public resource footholds in the name of aristocratic vanity.