Thursday, May 31, 2018

My First Bonefish- Some Premature Observations

Authors note: I wrote this a few weeks after returning from a cruise to Mexico in November, 2017. I didn't post it in a timely fashion, but still wanted to share it, so here it is.

Authors note 2: It seems I broke the photo card from this trip. Didn't know it was possible. Two months after this trip I went on a week-long trip with Louis Cahill in which the bonefish fully lived up to the hype.

The first flat was empty, and seemed so devoid of life that it caused me to question our guide. Alberto identifies as Mayan. He has been guiding since 1986, so I keep my own counsel and remind myself not to be impatient. This is a half day trip, my first for bonefish, so it is hard not to count the minutes. Alberto motors through the cut that separates Belize and Mexico, into the shallow expanse  that is Chetumal Bay. He kills the motor at the first mangrove shoreline, and immediately we spot forked tails dancing above the surface.

I have been on a cruise ship for five days now, and as enjoyable and relaxing as it has been, I really needed this adventure. I ran the track on the upper deck the first morning (four laps= 1 mile) and we snorkeled in Cozumel and then the barrier reef at Belize on consecutive days, so I've gotten some exercise. But being here, on the front of a panga, scanning the shallow water for shadows and tails is where I need to be.

Our final stop of this cruise is in Mahahual, Quintana Roo, Mexico. The cruise lines have built a port there in an attempt to wring yet more money out of its credulous passengers. You hope that some of the locals are benefiting from all this, but once you leave the tchochke farm that is the cruise port, you find yourself surrounded by a grittier reality that makes you think all the profits from the tiki bars and shops selling rubber dog shit are just a front for said cruise lines. But I'm being cynical.

It's an hour taxi ride, mostly through mangrove swamp and jungle. Our driver has to swerve to avoid the chachalacas strutting in the road. We also see a fox and a wild pig. When you run out of good road you have reached Xcalak, a tiny village on the Mexican frontier with Belize. Here there be bonefish, and Costa de Cocos, the beach resort we have booked our fishing through.

I brought a rod with me on the ship, but then I read that they provide gear. I didn't trust my reel, and so my gear stayed on the ship. There are two TFO rods on the panga, and luckily one is rigged for a lefty. Some notes about the rod- it's heavier than my TiCRX, and the plastic is still on the cork. I'll get back to that later.

We beach the boat next to mangroves, but those first tails disappear. I make the mistake of casting to swirls that turn out to be needlefish, and learn to wait on Alberto. We cross a small creek dumping cold water into the flat, and I wait for Alberto to move the boat. I can see tails dancing further and further down the shore. But as we resume our slow progress up the shore chasing tails, small groups of grey shadows dance over the sand in our direction, and Alberto says what I want to hear, "one o'clock, fifty feet. Cast!".

And I blow the first two shots. Too short. Too close. But the third time is the charm, despite my conking the lead two fish on the head and nearly blowing the school out again. Three twitches of the fly and a bonefish turns sideways. I soft-pedal the hook-set, and I'm attached to a bonefish in spite of myself. It cuts a zippy half-circle before heading straight away from me, but it stops its run before it gets to my backing. He quickly comes to hand, a beautiful silvery fish. I would say bonefish are long on speed and short on endurance. And there it is- my first bonefish. It ate a Crazy Charlie I tied myself before the trip. Tip: don't come here without all the flies you'll need.

After that I blow a perfect shot at about forty fish headed our way because I don't see the lead fish over a dark patch of bottom. Right after that a small pod turns back. It's a forty foot cast, and two strips later I'm hooked up. Another bonefish, another merry fight that ends quickly.

When we reach the end of the mangrove point we are following we turn back. The tide had turned almost from the moment we first stopped the boat, and the fish seem to be slipping into deeper water, no more tails dancing above sand. They are still within casting distance, but we have to look harder for silver flashes over the darker grass.

The next fish I am proud of, because I saw it before Alberto and surprised him with the cast.

"No!" he said, then "yes, yes, yes" and "three feesh!" right as I hook up. I watched those three fish peel out of the school and up over the sand. This one almost made it to the backing but stopped short. We pause to land and release the fish, and savor such a beautiful moment. We are barefoot, standing calf deep on soft white sand. It is about 78 degrees, with a steady, pleasant breeze. There is no one else around, and all we hear is the lap of waves and the occasional splash of fish. It is perhaps the most pleasant moment of the entire year.
Hooked up on a good bonefish with Alberto giving encouragement
Back on the panga we eat the sandwiches from the cooler and sip on water. Alberto wants to pole into the wind. At one point I see two tails and Alberto shouts "permit!" but we are on top of them and they are gone before I can cast. A few casts later, a bonefish takes and comes off before I realize it has eaten.

After the sandwich I reapplied sunscreen, and now, with greasy hands, the plastic on that rod cork has become a liability. Alberto keeps shouting "two o'clock, seexty feet!", but my hand is slipping so bad on that damn plastic that I cant get any juice into my cast. I don't know why I didn't just cut the plastic off. Who leaves that on anyway? But it is getting late and with just minutes left before we need to make the run back to the resort, our taxi, and the ship, Alberto has a change of plans. He wants Marsha to catch a fish, and so we go to a channel and troll Clouser minnows for some smash-n-grab jacks.

This all feels very familiar, as if I have been here before. If you have ever stalked flats in the Great Lakes for carp, then you know this game. Perhaps the Golden Bone moniker is not so inapt. The sand, the waves and wind, spooky fish over shallow water, the need to accurately present small flies often at great distances- no matter where you are doing this it is all the same.

The bonefish didn't quite live up to the hype that day- they were fast and fought hard, but not a single one touched my backing. Perhaps it was the cool weather, or maybe the small sample size. My first two years of fishing carp, not a single one touched the backing. In the several years after that it seemed like every fish went so far into the backing as to make me seriously sweat my knots.

I'm not complaining- the bonefish fought hard, and are one of the most elusive fish for the fly angler. If all you have ever caught are trout, you will find them extremely challenging. Being from the Great Lakes region, I have caught a lot of big, fast fish, including salmon and carp to thirty pounds, and double digit steelhead. All of them run fast and make you chase them. If you catch enough of them you learn how to fight big fish, how to set your drag, when to let a fish run and when to put the cork to them.

What I'm slowly getting at here, is if you have access to carp flats such as they have in the Great Lakes, don't ever think it's a second rate training ground for the salt. It's not. The differences are cosmetic- fresh versus salt, which bushes happen to be lining the shore, the bird species flying overhead. The wind, the water,the casting, the behavior of the fish, the speed and intensity of the fight are the same. The major difference is that it is more difficult to get carp to eat than bonefish.
carp fishing is a great way to bone up for bonefish

Monday, May 28, 2018

Monday Morning Coffee- 5/28/18

Yyyyuuuurrrrppphhhtttt!!! Yawn, stretch, scratch, repeat- let's have some coffee!

I'm drinking some rather fine coffee I get at Costco now from Mayan Organics. It's a little too strong, but it definitely jump starts the engine in the morning.

It's been so long since I posted here that I'm afraid to go look back and see how long it's been. Is Fontinalis Rising dead, or just hibernating? Time will tell. I've been trying to figure out what to do with this blog since I moved to Georgia. I don't fish as much due to my new circumstances, and FR feels inextricably tied to Michigan. With all the fishing in the nearby Smoky Mountains you'd think I'd have plenty of material, but I don't get out as much as I'd like. I'm hoping to change that.

I do have some material to share. We went on a cruise to Mexico last fall and booked a half day with a guide in Xcalak and finally caught my first bonefish. That story is written and just never published. Then Louis Cahill of Gink and Gasoline called me on a Thursday in January and asked if I could leave for the Bahamas on Saturday, so I ran off for a week of chasing bonefish there. We had terrible weather and great fishing. I caught a bone that was well over ten pounds, the fight of my life, so I'll have to share that story soon. I went on a float with Louis a few weeks ago and had a slow day until he hooked and landed a six pound brown on a streamer. (In searching links for this post I just discovered Louis wrote an account of our float here.)  And last week I got back from a few days of dry fly fishing in northern Michigan with some notorious friends as it was just getting started. It was fantasy dry fly fishing; absolutely superb. Oh, and I'm forgetting my musky trip last fall in which we each caught a musky in the first hour of fishing.

Ok, so I'm just lazy. I have written a couple posts about the Bahamas for Louis that you can read here and here, with a couple more in the works. And after I got back from the musky trip I wrote a gear review piece for MidCurrent you can read here.

Nick Johnson manning the counter at Tuckaseegee Fly Shop
I did go out on a scouting run to North Carolina yesterday. There is a whole lot of good fishing there that is only two hours from my living room, including trout, smallmouth, and musky water. We drove straight up to Sylva and stopped in at the Tuckaseegee Fly Shop. The guys there were more than helpful, sold me a few flies and sent us off to a creek nearby due to sustained high water conditions on the main river. As I write this we're experiencing rains from the first tropical system of the year. Anywho, due to my lack of familiarity with the area, I missed the access and kept driving all the way to Bryson City and stopped in at Tuckaseegee's other fly shop. The guy there was just as helpful and sent me to fish Deep Creek right up the road. We drove up there, but due to it being the holiday weekend and an access to the national park, it was a total shit show. It is said that if you just follow the trail upstream a mile or so, the fishing gets pretty good, but we couldn't even find a parking spot, so we turned around and drove back to Sylva to look for the accesses we missed on Scott Creek. We found them, but by then rain was pelting down on what was already a high and stained creek that thunders down a narrow ravine. What can I say, it was a scouting trip, and I plan to keep at it until I find some quality fishing. This is just the beginning.

So, my coffee is done. I'll leave you with a few photos from the various trips to tide you over until I get an actual post done.

Enjoy what's left of your Memorial Day weekend. Let's get after it.

Tom Hazelton with a great musky from last fall
perhaps the only shot I have that survived from Mexico
guide Ronnie Bain with my big bonefish on Andros
Louis with a great brown from a few weeks ago

Monday, December 4, 2017

Book Review- From Lure to Fly by Dave Karczynski

used with permission by Dave Karczynski

New Book Helps Conventional Anglers Make the Transition

First the two-part disclosure. Dave and I have been good friends for a number of years now, and we try to fish together at least a couple times a year despite living at opposite sides of the country. Our friendship began as a mutual admiration for each others writing, so suffice it to say I write this review as a fan.

Second, I appear on the cover of this book (holding the fly rod) and in several photos throughout, so that could also impair my objectivity.
Neither factor takes away from the fact that this is a really good book for both gear and fly anglers to add to their library.

A very large percentage of us fly anglers fished with spin and baitcasting gear before we took up the fly rod, and still do from time to time. I personally have talked to many conventional anglers on the river who say they are curious about fly fishing, but not sure how to get into it. This book can be the bridge to stepping into the fly world.

While this book is not directed at people new to fishing it could help them. Where it shines is the fact that it is directed toward conventional anglers who have always been interested in fly fishing but not made the jump. Dave builds off the knowledge that conventional anglers already have of fish and fishing techniques, and uses that as a basis to introduce them to fly fishing. Fly fishing also suffers at times from a reputation for snobbery. Dave’s friendly manner and easy delivery helps remove this perception from fly fishing, and his love of the sport and desire to pursue challenges in fishing work to beckon conventional anglers into taking up the fly rod.

Dave began fishing with conventional gear, and fished avidly with it for many years before taking up fly gear. Due to this fact, he speaks the language of conventional anglers and is able to translate the jargon of fly fishing in a relatable way. For instance he explains early on that the term “fly” means to fly fishermen what the term “lure” means to conventional anglers- both refer to whatever offering you are tying on to your line, and thus a “fly” can imitate a bug, a minnow, a crayfish or even a mouse.

"From Lure to Fly" walks anglers new to fly fishing through the gear, flies and techniques, and introduces fly terminology at a pace that allows the reader to absorb it as they go. He also has divided the book up by freshwater species in a manner that allows anglers new to the sport to learn progressively more advanced techniques. It starts with fishing panfish on spiders and poppers, a fairly simple and rewarding way to start fly fishing, and moves progressively on to more difficult and advanced techniques and species, like swinging flies for steelhead, or fishing for carp. Throughout the book are excellent photographs and charts that help illustrate the subject at hand, as well as a variety of quotes from various experts and authors that express the beauty and mystique of fly fishing.

Dave is an incredibly experienced and advanced angler, having fished the bass ponds of Wisconsin to the high Himalayas of India for Mahseer. His joy and enthusiasm for fishing shine in this book. Dave is also a humble person, enthusiastic to learn. Because of this he is one of the most well-connected people I know of in the fly world, and he draws on this very wide field of experts, many of whom started out fishing conventional gear, and it adds considerable depth to this book.

Dave Karczynski with a muskie from a recent trip

While “From Lure to Fly” is targeted at “gear” anglers, it is also a must read for any fly angler who wants to broaden their knowledge and reach. If for instance your fly fishing has consisted mostly of nymphing the mountain streams of the Southeast United States and you’ve always been curious about flats fishing for carp, this book can help you make that transition without feeling like a complete newbie. If you have always wanted to go after muskie on the fly, this book will help you make the transition from your five weight and Adams fly, to an eleven weight and ten-inch long Buford. In short, this book is a must-read for anyone who wants to grow as a fly angler.

I wish it had some information on saltwater fishing, but at about 220 pages I think he had to draw a line somewhere, and this book certainly provides a large enough template you can apply to the salt- choose your quarry, find out what line weights, rods, reels and flies you’ll need, and use the knowledge you have to pursue your game. It certainly shares enough knowledge about presentation and fish fighting to apply to salt.

So I highly recommend this book to conventional anglers looking to break into the sport, but also to fly anglers wishing to grow and expand the techniques they use and species they pursue. It will make a great gift for the angler in your life who says they always wondered what that fly fishing thing is about. To quote Dave:

"This book comes with a warning- you will end up fishing more. More creatively, more attentively, more deliberately. The one thing that attracts and unites fly anglers- and those hoping to learn the sport- is a desire to get more from their experience on the water.”
You can get your copy here on Amazon.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Taming of the Box

I'm heading north soon to fish with some friends, and in part I'll be chasing toothy critters like muskie and pike. This has been an annual trip, but due to my move to Georgia I missed it last year, and it feels like forever since I've gone. I fish with my friends Tom and Dave and an assortment of other characters who have wandered in and out of camp over the years.

It's kind of a last hurrah of the fly fishing season in the north.  From dawn until dusk we cast giant flies to dark water with 400 grain sink tip lines until our hands curl into useless claws and our tendons twang like guitar strings. Then we retire to camp to sit around the fire at night, nurse our wounds, drink libations (it's hot tea for me these days), tell lies, and howl with the wolves.

I tie as many of my own flies as I practically can. There are a lot of great flies you can tie that will catch you a lot of fish, and can be tied without having to be a master at the vise. I am not a master by any means. I have some basic skills and a large pile of materials. I do what I can.

I'll probably never master dry flies. The learning curve is too steep, and small details matter. I can buy dry flies for less than the materials I would need, and it would take me at least 100 flies per pattern to get the techniques, proportions and finish down to where fish would actually eat them.

Streamers are an entirely different proposition. The price per fly is much higher, and for me the concepts are easier to grasp and execute. At twenty to thirty dollars a pop those big musky flies don't come cheap. It's worth my time at the vise to hammer out a few patterns, and if they're not perfect (they're not) the pike and musky don't seem to care.

I learned to tie a lot of this stuff from Mike Schultz (Schultz Outfitters). I think there were three of us at the class, and we tied Bufords and a Schultzy original he calls the Kickin' Chickin'. Despite Mike's best efforts my flies turned out to be a mish-mash of bad color combos and clumps of flash sticking out at odd angles, but they looked great in the water and worked on hammer handle pike all day long.

With this trip coming up I've done what we all do and perused my pile of fishing gear to see what I had and what I needed. When I opened the musky box it looked like unholy hell, just a jumbled pile of hair, hooks, beads, and wire. Some of the flies are one-eyed and mean looking. Some gave me pleading looks, begging me to end their misery and put them down.

what a mess

So I took every fly out of the box, except the two that have actually caught musky, and started over. Like Dr. Frankenstein, I'll be salvaging parts from those old flies. I ordered a bunch of materials from and got to work.

One thing I've struggled with is reverse tying my bucktail. You tie your bucktail in pointing towards the front of the hook, then force it backward and tie a thread dam in front of the bases so that the hair sticks out at nearly a ninety degree angle from the hook shank. This imparts a crazy amount of movement to the fly but if you don't get it just right, a hammer handle pike can pop a thread or shift the hair and before you know it your fly box looks like a 80's night club. All the cool kids are doing it, but I can't seem to get the hang of it.

Then I had a very enlightening conversation last year at a fly show, with Eli Berant of Great Lakes Fly. When I asked him he told me he doesn't reverse tie at all. His flies have accounted for a lot of big musky I can assure you. Be sure and click on the link and check out his flies and fish pics.

So I quit reverse tying, and I'm very happy with the results so far. We'll see what the fish think. I've done a better job of hiding my transitions and hook articulations, and my color combos are looking much better. I haven't swam any of them, but I'm hopeful.

Michigan has a lot of great musky water, but little of the musky culture that Wisconsin and Minnesota have. I haven't done much with this blog since I moved, but I'll try to take you along on this trip. I'll leave you with a brief gallery of my flies.

I think this will be a killer color combo

I was waiting on materials and still need to finish some of these

this one actually caught a musky so it stays

Monday, September 11, 2017

Monday Morning Coffee- September 11, 2017

Hurricane Irma Edition

Yyyuurrggghhpphhttt!! Yawn, stretch, scratch, repeat- It's Monday, so let's have some coffee.

It has been forever and a day since I've posted here and for that I apologize. I even let my domain expire and the site was down for awhile. I was distracted by my garden. I have a lot of interests. But I got the site back up, summer is over, and hopefully I'll have more to share here soon.

It's a sad fact of my move to Georgia, but I don't fish nearly as much as I did in Michigan, and so material is harder to come by. I spent a lifetime getting to know the fisheries in MI, and Georgia is still nearly a blank slate to me. I'm learning that I'll have to expand my vision and take a multi-state approach. I went and kayaked the Nantahala River in North Carolina for the recent eclipse, and can't wait to go back and fish it. Talk about fishy water.

The other thing I've done is begun exploring the saltwater around here. We've made four trips to Hilton Head, Tybee Island, and Panacea, Florida, and I've been actively scouting places to fly fish in the salt. Tybee has some promising spots and no shortage of redfish, but the area from St. Marks Lighthouse to Alligator Point is very promising. The so-called Nature Coast of Florida really appeals to me, as it is very reminiscent of Michigan's Upper Peninsula- lots of wildlife and fish, not a lot of people. Small, proud, gritty fishing towns that appear to have missed the economic boom elsewhere in the state. LOTS of fish. I'll try to do a post about my initial explorations soon. Hopefully it will lead to something good for you to read here.

You would think I would have learned the first time, but I lost a second hard drive and a whole bunch of writing and photos with it, so I took the summer off from writing, but I'm preparing to get back at it. Not sure what it means for Fontinalis Rising, but I'll try to get back behind the wheel. I'm still working on books and novellas, which take some time and effort. I bought a new camera and I have a muskie trip coming up. The weather is cooling off already here in Georgia which means the thought of trout fishing is starting to sound good again. I have a feeling more trips to Florida are in the offing over the winter, so hopefully I'll have some good stuff to put here on FR. Louis at Gink and Gasoline is always after some fresh material, so I'm sure I'll have more stuff up there too.

As stated above, this is the Hurricane Irma edition. How do you ignore that? All of Georgia is under a state of emergency, and we have a tropical storm warning in effect for the day, so I'm sitting it out today. We had family in the direct line of the storm near Sarasota. The worst seemed to skirt them, and as long as they don't get hit by storm surge they'll be ok. To any and all who went through it or have loved ones in the area, my thoughts are with you and I hope everyone gets through it ok. Ditto to the people in Texas and Louisiana. Hell, all you in the West dealing with runaway wildfires too. Stay safe, be smart, and prep yourselves for what is going to be a long recovery. Hopefully it will be over soon and the worst thing all of us have to worry about is what fly to tie on.

Well, my coffee is gone and I have stuff to do. Let's get after it. I'll leave it with some fish pics, albeit fish I caught on fresh shrimp.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


Story and photos by Alex Cerveniak

I can't remember who howled first, the wolves or us.

Myself and a couple friends made the last minute decision to head north across the Mackinac Bridge for the opening weekend of trout season. We were planning to skip trout to chase steelhead in the heart of the Hiawatha National Forest. Wild, forgotten fish decades removed from the stocking truck.

We crossed the mighty bridge spanning over the Straits in the dark after work on a Friday night, loaded up on provisions at the gas station in St. Ignace, and brainstormed on a place to camp. Someone threw out the idea, "Let's try the river mouth!"

When we got there, we couldn't believe what we saw. The smelt run was on, the parking lot was at capacity and both the north and south banks were lined with families and camp fires. Somehow, one of us had enough foresight to bring a smelt dipping net. If you've never seen a smelt dipping net, its a poor container for water, but the perfect tool to strain pasta-- if pasta could swim.

Ethan and I rebuilt an abandoned fire while Jason faced upstream in the waist deep, black water making paddling motions with the net. Every now and then he'd look inside and pull a smelt out. A few hours later we had already drank all our beer for the weekend, but had an empty Jack Links beef jerky bag full of smelt. Who brings a bucket on a fly fishing trip?

Since the river mouth was too populated to camp, we got in the car and drove upstream to another, more remote access. The only problem was, there was still several feet of snow on the road, unmelted because snowmobiles had packed it down through the winter. So there we were, speeding down a snowmobile trail, unable to stop or turn around, miles from pavement, out of cell range, in a Pontiac Grand Am.

Almost as soon as we realized how screwed we were, we were stuck. The three of us got out of the car to investigate, and almost immediately, Ethan's dog, Luna, hit the lock button and locked us out of the still running car. I can't remember what we used to break the window, but the glass shattered into a billion pieces. We killed the motor, grabbed all of our gear, and under the pasty light of the full moon, backpacked towards camp.

The low, deep, guttural moans of the wolf echoed through the cedar swamp we were staggering through. Without hesitation, one of us howled back. The howls volley'ed back and forth, only stopping after we started uncontrollably laughing at each other.

We built a fire, set up camp near the river and passed out almost immediately. We were covered in ticks when we woke the next morning. The river was blown out, several weeks away from being fishable. We cooked the smelt for breakfast on a single burner stove, dug that Grand Am out with sticks, and defeated, headed back south across the bridge to find fishable water.

Alex Cerveniak is a writer, photographer, fly tyer, and owner of Northern Michigan Fly Fishing guide service.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Everyone Gets a Trophy

Why Private Water is Bad For Fly Fishing

I have seen quite a lot on social media lately about private water. Bloggers have blogged about it, and the Trout Unlimited blog has shared two posts recently highlighting private water here and here. I believe support of pay for play private water is not a positive trend. Here's why.

"It's not hunting if you have to pay for it"- The Hound, Sandor Clegane, Game of Thrones Season 1

I have fished private water a couple of times. The first was the private pond of a guy who had been after me for a while to come fish his private paradise. He had a little spring-fed lake that he had stocked with Nipigon strain brook trout and he wanted the Fontinalis Rising guy to come fish it. Paying customers paid around $400 a day to fish it. No quid pro quo was ever explicitly stated, but I think it’s obvious that he was hoping for a little press. 

Only I couldn’t write it.

I went and caught brook trout from 16-22” inches, all beautiful fat fish. He fed them minnows he bought from bait suppliers (he had them stocked directly into the pond) and said that despite all the fish, the bottom was crawling with crayfish that the bigger fish lived on. I never did do a blog post about it. I couldn’t. It felt wrong.

It’s not just that I was fishing his private stocked fish and it was basically a goat rodeo. It was that the entire time he was rowing me around in a tight circle he kept saying “why would anyone want to go fish public water, fight the crowds and catch small fish, when they could come here?”

I felt dirty. 

I had built my blog around fishing for wild fish in wild places, and to have this guy denigrate that experience and propose that his little lake, with his stocked and protected fish, was somehow superior to the genuine experience? It was insulting. Raising pheasants in a backyard coop doesn’t make you a great bird hunter. Fishing his little lake wasn’t a genuine experience, no matter how similar the mechanics.

The other piece of private water I fished I was far more excited about. It was the private stream of a wealthy businessman in Michigan that was going to be guided by a local outfit, and a buddy of mine was running the program. He invited me to come along and check it out. What I was excited about, is that with Michigan’s liberal stream access laws, almost no water like that exists in the state. Here was water that had hardly been fished at all for maybe twenty years and hadn’t been stocked in that time. I wanted to see what a wild stream looked like when left alone, wild and un-fished. It was great. It was fishing, and we had to work for the fish we caught. We both lost fifteen inch brook trout, trophies in that part of the state. I broke off a two foot long brown that evening as the sun went down. 

They stocked the river with cookie cutter rainbows the next day. For me it destroyed the magic.

My experiences fishing private water illustrate that “private water” is no one thing. It ranges from wild streams managed with flies only, barbless hook, strict catch and release practices, and quotas that limit the number of anglers per day or week, and have nosebleed membership fees, to Bubba’s roadside tourist attraction trout pond, with broadcast pellet feeders on the banks, and the cheesy plywood rainbow trout out by the road advertising “feed the trout” and “no license necessary.”

I have since moved to the southeast, living in North Georgia. Wild trout in the state are hard to find, diminutive in size except in a handful of waters, and very difficult to come by. It requires a lot of effort to even find them, and the rewards can seem small. Private water with big fish is very easy to find, for a fee. They typically keep their waters stocked with large fish, and to keep the fish on their stretch of stream they have pellet feeders on the banks that daily dispense feed into the rivers. The banks are groomed, there’s fish in every hole, and it’s easy to have a great day catching big fish. A lot of them install wire netting at both ends of their property to keep the fish in. I'd say most of the fly fishing guides in North Georgia derive at least a portion of their income guiding this water.

If there is one thing I respect in America, it’s private property rights. Georgia doesn’t allow the public to access small streams that flow through private property. It’s a shame, but it’s the law. And if Georgia allows private entities to stock their waters and feed the fish, that’s their prerogative. Ditto for guys who want to plunk down some money to fish their water.

But don’t think for a moment that it is good or healthy for the sport. Here are my concerns.

1. It undermines support for public lands and wild fish.

2. It engenders false expectations concerning fish numbers and size that aren't sustainable naturally.

3. It erodes support for conservation efforts ongoing and future.

4. It undermines the notion of fair chase which is the bedrock of sporting traditions and ethics.

5. It reduces fish to being another commodity to be monetized and capitalized.

Let’s take those points one at a time.

1.            It undermines support for public lands and wild fish

Both are under attack like never before in the US. Politicians want to take our public lands and waters and sell them off to the highest bidder. Most of this is to facilitate exploitation by extraction industries, but developers are waiting in the wings too. They know how much you spend on Disney, and if they can turn public lands into a theme park they will. They’ll steal your public lands for a song and sell them back to you in experiences. Fly fishing will be another carnival ride. Like the private waters in the southeast, when sports don’t see or catch the numbers of fish they expect, they’ll stock the waters and feed the fish to meet the demand.

And who needs or even wants wild fish after having experienced the big numbers and sizes of fish on a pellet farm? Wild fish tend to be smaller, they don’t hang out in plain sight, and are often harder to catch. If private water fish are what anglers are used to, or perhaps all they know, how do you get them excited about wild fish? If we don’t understand and esteem the intrinsic value of wild fish, recognizing them as the foundation of the sport, then we are on shaky ground. Wild fish are losing ground to hatchery and stocked fish. Major lawsuits are being fought around the country over the insidious and damaging effects of stocked fish. For anglers to come out and say that stocked fed fish are just as much fun, just as valid a quarry as wild fish undermines support for conservation efforts, and quality fisheries everywhere.

2.            It engenders false expectations concerning fish numbers and size that aren't sustainable naturally. 

Private water operators are able to stock as many fish as they care to buy and put in the water. With supplemental feed they can maintain a very visible, catchable number of large fish. Wild fish populations and size are determined by the abundance of naturally occurring food sources, many of which fluctuate or are seasonal. This limits the distribution, number, and size of fish. Studies in the northeast of large brook trout have shown that almost all of their annual weight gain is achieved in the month of June. If an angler’s first or only experience is on the unnatural conditions of private water, it can be very disappointing to go to a natural stream and environment and fish more challenging conditions. Their response is often to demand that the state stock more fish, rather than learn how to catch wild fish on their own terms.

3.            It erodes support for conservation efforts ongoing and future

A USFWS biologist I talked to said that when they go to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and talk to anglers about restoring native Coaster brook trout, you can see their eyes glaze over and they ask “when are you going to stock more salmon.” Too much of angling is self-interested, to the detriment of wild fish and native species. Conservation battles are being waged right now across the US in efforts to protect and preserve wild fish and fisheries. Scientific evidence continues to mount that hatchery fish and stocking are detrimental to wild fish stocks. One of the factors that judges and fisheries managers weigh is public opinion and support. Societal values matter. We can’t fight in court for wild fish, and in public say that stocked fed fish on private water are just as good as wild fish. Not only is it hypocritical, but there are plenty of our opponents in court and in politics saying the same things. Politicians who want your public land and support extractive industries for instance, or proponents of hatcheries in the west and elsewhere. It will be a sad day when a federal judge reads our own words back to us as part of a decision that overturns or denies protections for wild brook trout, cutthroat trout, steelhead, or salmon.

4.            It undermines the notion of fair chase which is the bedrock of sporting traditions and ethics

One thing I miss about hunting is the lack of ambiguity. When you squeeze the trigger or release an arrow, there is no doubt about what is about to happen. You can’t pull your arrow out of a deer and let it go. In hunting, fair chase is essential for important legal and ethical reasons. There’s a reason the Pope and Young, and Boone and Crockett clubs do not allow animals from high fence private operations in their record books. Believe me, the high fence operators have tried. The principles and ethics of fair chase are the bedrock of hunting and fishing.

Catch and release has been a powerful conservation tool, but it has also served to trivialize the sport. Due to the fact that you can release fish relatively unharmed, it can be easy to see things in a relative manner. We say that since you’re releasing the fish anyway, what difference does it make? We make a false equivalence between privately stocked fish and wild fish, because the notion of fair chase no longer seems all that important. An interesting exercise to make is to change out fish species in the discussion and see what happens. Talk to a musky angler and see if he’s interested in hunting artificially high numbers of musky that are given supplemental feed. Ditto permit or bonefish or tarpon. Are stocked tame fish just as good as wild, or have we devalued trout in our own minds so much that it no longer matters to us?

5.            It reduces fish and fishing to being another commodity to be monetized and capitalized. 

Capitalism is a great system for creating and distributing wealth, especially when pursued under a fair set of rules that apply to everyone. Some proponents think that everything should be privatized so that market forces can prevail and benefit everyone. 

But there are limits to everything, including the benefits and rightness of capitalism. For instance, you could sell your children, and the argument can be made that a market exists. But no one in their right mind will say that it’s right to do so, and as a matter of fact our society will send you to prison if you try. There’s a lot of people out there, politicians and corporations, who believe private enterprise and free markets should rule the outdoors. Let our fish and game go to the highest bidder. Sell your public lands and privatize hunting and fishing. When they see angler dollars spent on pay to play clubs, they see a market already at work that they wish to expand to all the outdoors.

There are also many voices in the outdoor world who tout the economic value of fish, game, and outdoor recreation. It’s a useful, but two-edged argument. Public lands and wildlife are extremely valuable for a plethora of reasons. But at some point we have to recognize and protect at all costs, their intrinsic value. At some point we have to say that no amount of gold in the Bristol Bay watershed is worth the risk of destroying the wilderness and fisheries there. At some point we have to step back from human valuations on wild things, whether it be monetary, recreational or otherwise, and recognize the right of wild creatures and places to exist and be protected from us. This is their home too. 

A continued anthropocentric view of the earth and wild things will lead to its ultimate destruction, and possibly our own demise.

We are the cleverest, most deadly animal ever to walk this planet, able to manipulate it in ways never before possible by any other species. But at a certain point we have to face the fact that we are still part of the ecosystem, and that our very survival is dependent on the natural world around us. The monetization of fish and wildlife ultimately serves to cheapen and debase them. Just like any mineral we’ve strip mined, when we have extracted all the value we can from them, we’ll toss them aside. Without recognizing and defending the intrinsic value of wildlife and wild places, their absolute right to exist apart from human valuation, they are all lost. Private water with stocked, fed fish will probably always exist, but like a stream cutting through bedrock, it's slowly eroding the foundations of the sport.