Let's Talk about Private Waters

The comparison of fishing pressured public waters to private regulated-access waters is enlightening for anyone interested in fish behavior.

Fly fishing the Uncompahgre River, Colorado
View from a braided channel on the Uncompahgre River, Colorado

May 2023

We talk A LOT about fish behavior, fishing pressure and even ways of spreading out within fly fishing. Fishing pressure will always be elevated on public waters, and areas with high fish densities will always be more popular than remote, hard to access streams. As a result, private fisheries have popped up offering an angling experience away from heavy crowds. As a public land owner this feels weird, we shouldn't promote paying to fish, but instead promote access to more public waters. So would it surprise you if I said that I think in some respects every angler should try fishing private waters at some point?

The comparison of fishing pressured public waters to private regulated-access waters is enlightening for anyone interested in fish behavior. Based on my experience in pay-to-fish waters, the lifted weight from fewer people is something every angler should get to enjoy at some point. To get a sense of how fishing used to be... or how fishing might feel if you were truly the only one on a river. There are countless stories of westward pioneers pulling huge fly-naïve fish from rivers and lakes that feel like tall tales these days, but what would it be like to experience that, even if only briefly? That being said, certain private waters still feel like an amusement park and less realistic than what’s naturally found in wild waters, even under increased angling pressure or human disturbance. Pellet fed trout and unsustainably stocked private fisheries aren't really what I'm referring to with my comparison of public vs private waters, I'm thinking more towards inaccessible stretches on trout rivers, where wild fish can live undisturbed by constant angling pressure. This is the experience I think everyone should search out at one point, but it still rubs me the wrong way that these places are restricted behind arbitrary fence lines.

There's a paradox with private waters. We all share the right to access our rivers and our public lands. Why should I have to pay to plant my feet on a riverbed that’s “privately owned” even if the flowing water is public. In states with restricted public access laws, this is the limiting factor. How bizarre is it that floating a river can be considered "legal" but scraping a rock through private property tips the scales to trespassing. In Colorado, that's a reality. If stream access laws were ever to change, think of all the new waters that would open up for anglers, but then again....many are still technically waters we should have access to already. Further, think of how this could further disperse anglers and re-equilibrate the pressure cooker of public waters, or highly pressured popular fisheries. But still, paying a nominal fee does give access to otherwise completely locked away places.

But it's complicated...

Would we rather lock up more fisheries to help control angling pressure or open up water to improve public access in hopes of spreading people out? Both would work as partial solutions to alleviate overcrowding. As previously written about on Due West Anglers, some researchers who specifically investigated the behavioral effects of angling pressure on trout suggest that limiting angler presence might offer the best solution to ameliorate negative effects from anglers. The other option, however unrealistic, is to change stream access laws and open river access for anyone. Opening up more river access simply cannot hurt the situation of overcrowded rivers. But both can’t coexist.

It’s even messy within organizations like Trout Unlimited. Often the largest donors are those most interested in maintaining private waters, according to CEO Chris Wood. So TU won’t fully go to bat for sweeping stream access reform. Even in states with more public friendly stream access rules, private land owners don’t care to follow the laws. Testimonials from Montana (where access is granted to anyone below the high watermark) recount anglers getting shot at through stretches of private property, despite full legal access in the eyes of the state.

Supply and Demand

If you want to pay for a more private fishing experience I completely understand, however if you think about the economics of supply and demand, it may only get more expensive over time.

If supply is limiting and demand increases, price must increase (Popovic, 2020)

Supply of high-value, low-pressured fly fishing waters is limiting. Assuming demand continues to increase, either from new anglers or veteran anglers looking for alternatives to highly pressured waters, without an increase in supply, prices will inevitably climb to fish private waters. The only way to keep costs down of fishing private waters is to increase the supply (pushing the red line to the right), meaning opening up more pay-to-fish access. Is that what public land owners should support? How long would it be sustainable?

And yet still, a quiet secluded river can be worth it, up to a point...