Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What's A Dude To Do?

It seems like everywhere I look, or fish, water is disappearing.  I'm not talking about losing it to ice like we do in winter, or to weather like we do after rain, I'm talking about losing it to ourselves.  All of you have seen it or heard about it before.  At home, the amount of public access and "unposted water" on the southern shore steelhead streams has never been lower.  Nothing sucks worse than rounding a bend in the river and seeing orange and black signs on trees that tell you that you can't fish water that was previously "yours".  I'm not saying that we're justified in feeling this way, but the funny thing about fishermen is that the water we love becomes the water we own, regardless of if its actually ours.

Can't fish here anymore...

I've heard all the arguments about why landowners are wrong for posting their property.  However, the simple truth is that most of them have pretty damn good reasons for doing, and if it was my land I probably would have done it a lot sooner.  Maybe that makes me an asshole, but if so, then I guess that's just the way it is.  If you've fished around our area for a while you've also heard about lots of half-hearted efforts to restore access, change the laws, and give the fishery back to the people.  Admittedly, I shouldn't be one to criticize.  I've participated in some stream clean-ups, but I don't belong to any clubs, and would never say that I've participated in a "grassroots movement" to bring the water back to the hordes of greedy anglers all looking to get tight to a big, sloppy trout.

This was one of the aforementioned big, sloppy trout.

Being young and on a tight budget doesn't lend itself to charitable donations or paying for club memberships; being an angler doesn't lend itself to being overly generous with your fishing holes either. Looking at it all now, my conservation efforts have been pretty selfish.  I pick up the trash that I find when I'm out fishing the places I like to fish and don't leave behind any of my own.  Instead of lobbying for the rights of the masses, I knock on doors with the intention of finding places to escape them.  I guess with the way things are Ohio now that's kind of what you need to do if you want to have a place left to fish in solitude on a Saturday.

Survival of the friendliest? To the talker go the spoils?

There are lots of days where I think that if all of us were a little more selfish we wouldn't have this problem.  The last thing I want to see when I walk down the bank is a plastic bag, a cigarette butt, spawn sack netting (sorry to all you bait chuckers out there - I couldn't resist the opportunity), or any other trash in a place where I go largely because this sort of stuff doesn't belong there.  So I pick up what I find, and hope that at the end of the day I made it nicer for the next time I come back.

By this point you're all probably wonder what could possibly have set me off on this when nobody has been fishing our streams for the past six weeks, so here it is.  The states that have high-water-mark have always had a special place in my heart.  I just think there's something really cool about a state who's citizens, landowners, and government value the rights of a sportsman so much that they fight to protect them and provide them with the freedom and ability to pursue the hobbies and passions that they have.

Montana was one of those states, but that is currently in jeopardy.  For those of you who don't know me very well, I've spent a lot of time in Wyoming and Montana since I was very young.  It’s where half of my family is from, where my grandfather first taught me to fly fish and tie flies, and now I’m drawn back there to continue those things - but also to guide and to share that experience with others.  Every summer when I return it feels like I’m home - coming back to a place where the air is cleaner, the water clearer, and the fish more plentiful and willing to take a dry fly with no regard for their own well-being.  It’s the birthplace of my passion, where exposure to fly fishing started me on a trip that hasn’t ended, and I doubt ever will.

Big brown trout, and being able to fit in while wearing a sweet 'stache builds Montana's case as one of the greatest places to fish in this country.

After you become a licensed guide in Montana, the next thing you do is join F.O.A.M - the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana.  It's a good group - they do their best to protect the rights of their members, to provide a certain degree of quality control in the guiding industry, and to keep the folks involved in the business informed about things happening in government that might matter to them.  The other day, this email from F.O.A.M. arrived in my inbox:

"FOAM members: 

House Bill 309 is an attempt to modify Stream Access Law by redefining the term 'ditch'. Remember that recreational use of water in a ditch without landowner permission is prohibited in current stream access law. HB309 has two key points that FOAM opposes: 
 1) A live, flowing braid or channel can be defined as a ditch if there is any kind of control structure at the head of the live channel, including 'natural features incorporated into the water conveyance system';
 2) Recreational access is available only with landowner's permission on water bodies created at least in part by waters diverted from a natural water body where the diverted water is the principal source of water in the water body - think about low flows in August and September and the many Montana rivers and streams with side channels and braids that have diversion structures on them where return flow could be considered the 'principle source of water' in the river or stream.

#2 above could potentially turn side-channels of rivers, streams, and possibly whole rivers into ditches where recreational use is allowed only with landowner permission. The bill was 'heard' on second reading yesterday in the House and passed by a vote of 55 Yes, 44 No.  It will face a similar vote today and probably pass by another close vote..."

For most of you, this will never matter.  But for me, and for lots of other anglers - it might - and that's a shame.  There's always lots of jargon and vague wording involved in stuff like this, but the bottom line is pretty simple.  If this passes, there's likely a lot of places that anglers won't be able to fish anymore.

This is no "ditch", but parts of this stream might be classified as one if this bill goes through.
As a group, we anglers need to stop giving landowners reasons to keep us away from the streams that we fish.  So go join a club, or pick up some trash, or knock on a door just to say thanks to a property owner for allowing us to do something that all of us at one point or another take for granted.  Be selfish about what you do while you're out fishing - take care of the resource for yourself, because it gives you some sort of enjoyment when you're out in it.  If we all act this way then maybe - just maybe - we'll stand a chance of reversing this trend.


  1. Brother your words are music to my ears but unfortunatly they people who need to hear the music are deaf! Was this on an Eastern Stream by chance?

  2. Excellent pst Brett. Now is the time for us outdoorsy folk to start publicly calling out those less thoughtful brethren to gain back some credibility.

  3. This bill is a total sham and further evidence of the corruption of politics. It's hard to not believe that guys like Ted Turner and Huey Lewis haven't had a stake in this bill.

    That being said, you'll have to forgive me but I think it's kind of odd that you are so passionate about this when you guide and personally fish on the most well known "posted" stretch of Elk.

    I understand that these people have reasons for posting, but I'm just calling a spade a spade here. If you are against posting and so in favor of public access, why guide on and fish private water on your days off?

    Don't take it as a dig, I just am a bit confused and would love to hear another perspective on this.

  4. I'll consider myself lucky, in Wisconsin nobody owns the stream bed. When in doubt... keep your feet in the water. Nice post ;)

  5. InTheDrift,

    You bring up some good points; here is my take on some of them.

    First, let me be clear about my stance on all of this: If I had a chance to rewrite Ohio and Pennsylvania property laws today, I would base stream access off of a high water mark on every stream. I'd gladly give up "private water" in favor of universal access.

    Of course, our laws are different, and landowners have the right and ability to prevent anglers from fishing on their property. Some of the responses I've had when I've approached a landowner about fishing their posted land have been jaw dropping. I've gotten everything from "Aw shit, those signs were for those damn kids drinking beer and running four wheelers around, not for you fishermen" to "Some S.O.B. fly fisherman relieved himself in my plain view of my wife in the kitchen window, and nobody will ever fish my property again as long as I live." Of course, the responses in between are the most common, and have largely to do with issues of littering, property damage, and trespassing without permission. In certain cases a conversation and getting to know some of these folks has been able to assuage those concerns, and thus, get me access to places where most people can't go. However, there's still lots of miles of river that I used to be able to fish, no longer can, and probably never will be able to again (including some of my old favorite and most productive pieces of water).

    So in some ways it boils down to this question: should I pass up on opportunities to fish certain areas because not everyone has the opportunity? It seems that in doing so, the only person I'd be hurting is myself.

    However, back to the original point of my post, if we all pick up after ourselves, and take care of our own business on the river, things just might change. Probably not everywhere, and certainly not all at once, but some of these landowners have opened their minds to this more so than they have in the past. Unfortunately, all it takes is one bad apple, or one bad experience, for them to make the decision to post their property. After hearing about some of the experiences, none of us can blame them for taking the actions that they have. However, with a sense of self-awareness and by taking responsibility for our own actions and that of our fishing peers, we might be able to reverse that trend and change a few people's minds.