Is “Rare Waters” an answer to the public-private riddle?


It’s not the average ‘private fishing club’ approach…

By Kirk Deeter

Let’s get a few things on the table right up front.

First, I think there’s a special place in Hell reserved for people who would take public fishing waters, privatize them, build high fences around them, and grant access to only the ultra-wealthy for a handsome price.

Second, since the pandemic fishing “boom” began, some of America’s most classic trout rivers have turned into daily clown shows with too much pressure.  And that’s not just an aesthetic issue. It’s time this industry wakes up and realizes that catch pressure and angler habits are as central to the long-term sustainability of many trout fisheries as climate change, dams, pollution, or anything else we consider conservation issues. Angler pressure is a conservation issue.

Third, the days of asking Rancher Bob if you could fish his piece of river for an afternoon are over, because Rancher Bob knows there’s money to be made by granting that access. The big question right now is… to whom?

I’m a longstanding advocate for public access, and I’ll let my editorial record in that regard stand on its own accord.  I’m also a member of a private fishing club (I got granted a free membership for advising on its formation), and have been for nearly 20 years. I live in Colorado where stream access is not a public right in all situations (though that does get challenged) If you’d have asked me 10 years ago if I would trade my private water membership for a statewide stream access law similar to Montana’s, I’d have done it in a heartbeat.

Now, having seen the guide boat armadas, the piles of trash and crap (literally) in the public access areas, having been low-holed more times than I can remember by eager (I’m hoping clueless) newbies… well, I’m not so sure anymore. And I really struggle with that philosophically.

As I’ve been wrestling with that, I’ve also learned more about an upstart company called Rare Waters. Founded by Brenden Stucky, who is relatively new to the Colorado and Rocky Mountain fly-fishing community, the idea is pretty straightforward: secure river access by working with property owners, and then grant that access to anglers who want a little more solitude. The average cost to fish those properties now is around $150 per rod, per day.

When I first heard about Rare Waters, I thought I was going to relive the Donny Beaver story.  I’ll spare the details of the Spring Ridge Club, that lost a fight to cordon off a section of Pennsylvania’s fabled Little Juniata, or the HomeWaters expansion into Colorado. Just suffice it to say I thought all of that comprised probably the greatest PR blunder in fishing history, and it still motivates the troops around causes like stream access in Utah and elsewhere to this day.

I’d have puked had I heard another story of how building fences around rivers would be the answer to river crowding.

But as I talked more with Brenden Stucky, it became clear that this message was a little more nuanced—to him it’s more “blue collar” by nature.

“We really see it as a matter of opening the gates on the fences that already exist, and offering access to those places that anglers wouldn’t normally have access to at all,” said Stucky. “We think we’re opening opportunities, not closing them off.”

Of course, it’s business, and Rare Waters makes money by working as the de-facto access broker, serving both the land owner (river owner in states where property includes the river bottom) and the angler. But the key is it doesn’t cost tens of thousands to join up.

Is that a completely revolutionary concept? Of course not. The Rocky Mountain Angling Club has endeavored to do the same type of thing since 1992. But there’s some serious investor mojo, a plan, and an expanding staff behind Rare Waters these days. In fact, the company just appointed RJ Hosking, who formerly led the fly-fishing product effort for Patagonia to be its new CEO.

“We want to go about this the right way,” Hosking explained in a recent call. “It’s important for us to work with a perspective of knowing the angling community, and what anglers want, as well as what the land owners can expect.” He said the company is exploring add-ons like camping access on certain properties, and the plan is to grow from dozens of water options which the company offers now, to hundreds, all within the next three years.

I’ve bounced the concept off a few guide/outfitter friends, and their reactions were mixed. I won’t name them, or put them on the spot. One was up in arms, basically because he doesn’t want to compete for private access with another group, and he makes a lot of his guide trip money on private water. Another was totally for it, conceding that there’s a very important segment of the fly-fishing consumer market who’s feeling squeezed out by the pressure on many public waters. He worried that the merchandise end of his business (especially flies) would suffer if we lose the dedicated consumer who buys lots of stuff because the rivers are crowded with never-evers or dabblers who might not engage long term. Yet another saw it both ways.

I also see the potential. I swore I’d never be one of those “it was way better back in the day” guys, but I can’t believe what some rivers have turned into. I’m not pointing fingers, I’m just saying it’s not my jam. I cannot afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars for another club membership. And I don’t necessarily feel like paying several hundred dollars for a guide trip just to experience solitude on the river.

The thing of it is, I don’t think I’m alone. I buy stuff. A lot of stuff. Other consumers similar to me—call us the motivated fly-fishing proletariat—will probably benefit from having more “semi-private” river access that they can fish on their own accord, at least in states where rivers are now private. I think that’s actually a complement to the modern retailer, not necessarily always a competitor. And I’m curious to see if opening (for a fee) another 500 miles of fishable rivers, for example, could alleviate some of the pressure concerns many people have.

It’s certainly worth thinking over and talking about.


1 Comment

  1. Coming from the midwest and being a prominent Guide in my region I find this whole “Private” thing very distasteful and a slap in the face of those of us who believe in the freedom of this country – I also see your points about waters that are already deemed private due to water owner regulations. I doubt I’ll ever be a fan of the scenario that is now playing out in some portions of the country, i.e. mostly some western & southeastern states, but I can also see it as inevitable as we head farther down the “Capitalism at all costs” road. Yes my business thrives because I live in a region with lots of water, lakes, rivers, Great Lakes, but I can tell we are running low on water even here in the upper midwest and I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before even the pay to play anglers who now ply the western states will be crowding my favorite waters as they look for the ever diminishing water we all want to play in. I agree it’s a conservation problem and we better get ahead of it before things get uglier!

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