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.


  1. Exactly! Thank you for writing this, it's what we need to be supporting right now. Nothing like native, wild fish on public land!

    1. Thanks! I think there will always be a market for private water, but right now wild fish and public lands need our support.

  2. I agree with much of this; mainly the lack of desire to fish private water, built for capital gain.

    I can't even see the desire to hire a guide.

    That being said, I hope to someday build a series of small lakes and have fish stocked as eyed-up eggs, then let them live and grow as naturally as a wild fish. No feeding, outside of the design of the waters, geared specifically for producing forage for those fish.

    Private (supplemented) water feels hollow and anything caught in such places deserve an asterisk, in my opinion.

    1. Thanks for commenting. I hope your plan works out for you. Who knows, maybe you can buy a lake with fish in it.

  3. Fantastic Article. I'm spreading this one around

  4. This is 180 degrees from how things are here in Great Britain. Public water is usually raped to death, littered (by anglers) and the habitat is impoverished. Private water on the other hand can be protected. Fishing pressure kept down by rules and limited numbers of anglers being allowed access. This is paid for by the anglers. Their money funds the work done to help the rivers and their inhabitants. In the very best of these paid for waters there is no such thing as a farmed fish. The rivers are populated naturally. The work done by the keepers ensures the wild fish can breed successfully, that their offspring can thrive and that we anglers can look forward to fishing for wild fish and enjoy solitude when we want it. Private water in England does not necessarily equate to artificially stocked and fed water.

    Nice blog by the way.


    1. Thanks for commenting. There is a bit of the kind of private water you describe here in the US, but those clubs are often extremely exclusive. Literally for the 1%. A lot of public water here is as you describe, but there is also plenty of public water that is in good condition, has lots of fish and good public access.

  5. I had 2 days to fish on vacation in CA last summer. No room to carry my own gear, no time to do my own research for just 2 days. My wife wanted to fish one day. Rather than have her fight the wild fish on the Truckee that I targeted for my second day, we fished private water. She caught about a dozen fish, including fish up to 4 pounds/20 inches. Yeah, it wasn't my favorite thing for the day, but to see her eyes light up on some big fish was worth it. In general, I'm not crazy about private water. I hate some of what has happened to water access where I grew up in PA. But, sometimes, it's a shortcut with a purpose.

    1. In the end it's a personal decision. I hate to see it publicly embraced at a time when issues concerning wild fish and public lands need our support. It feels like a slippery slope for a conservation organization like TU to applaud it on their website.

  6. Yes, yes, yes. I agree with all of your points.

    Own land on a stream (in a state that has unfortunately poor access laws) with wild trout and you want to charge to access? I am for liberal access laws and public lands, but fair enough. It will ease the pressure and poachers. It is within your right. I can understand this.

    However, what really grinds my gears is the private water that is full of fat pellet fed fish. Number two and number three are what really worries me. Is it really that big of a victory when you hoist a 5lb rainbow out of a creek that historically couldn't support anything bigger than a 8 inch brookie? This is common in the south.

    What really worries me is the hyping of big fish on public water engenders the thought "Why should I care about trout habitat? River X always has big fish in it!" The fight for clean, cold water looks like it won't end soon, and we need as many people as we can. It has taken decades for many waters to recover to support wild fish, and all it takes is a few clearcuts, coal mines or other pollutants to take it all away again.

    1. That sentence should be "...big fish on private water..."

    2. Thank you for so eloquently stating that. Big private water fish allow us to create the appearance of a healthy ecosystem. It is a deception. Then good luck with conservation battles, when all these people believe everything is fine.

  7. Great article! I have lived in North Georgia my whole life. While 99 percent of my fishing is on the few wild trout streams we have, I'll admit I do fish private water around once a year. I will say this about private trophy streams in the southeast I think they keep guides making money year round. That being said I completely agree with your point that private water does not need to be held in such high regard right now at a time when our public lands, wild fish, and clean water are under threat. We really need to show our support for wild trout on public lands! I don't know if since moving down here if you have heared about The section of Dukes creek that runs through smithgall woods, it's a maneged trophy trout stream that is catch and release artificial barbless lures only with a limited number of anglers a day and only a parking fee to be able to fish there. While the fish are extremely hard to catch I still consider this section of Dukes creek to be very similar to the same more expensive private trophy streams around here, the fish could not get as big as they are on that small creek under normal circumstances. Here in North Georgia Dukes is praised in the highest regard as the best place for trout fishing in the peach state, it's just a shame to me that people outside of Georgia probably think the only real trout fishing here is either stockers or pellet fed private water trout.

    1. I signed up to fish Duke's once and didn't show. Later I heard they supplementally feed there as well. I don't know if that's true. Unfortunately southeast states have a lot of marginal water that they try to turn into trout streams. The shame of it all is that they have beautiful native brookies that could use some more love and protection. I've managed to find some wild trout here, including some big ones, so that's where I'll concentrate my efforts. That and wild brook trout.

    2. I should add too that I'm trying to chase native species like bass, bream, and saltwater fish here too. There is some fantastic small stream fishing for bass that reminds me of brook trout fishing. Just as fun, and wild, native fish.

    3. I have heared from volunteers of smithgall that they do supplementary feeding on some off the days of the week Dukes is closed to fishing. Yeah the native southern Appalachian brookies here in Georgia get no love. Have you tried fishing for shoal bass yet they are a native species here in Georgia they are super fun they fight really hard and kinda act more like trout cause they hang out right in the shoal's.

    4. I fished for shoal bass, redeye and Bartram's on the Chattooga last summer near 76. It was just like trout fishing. Clear water, rising fish, lots of fun.

  8. You said "If there is one thing I respect in America, its private property rights." What part of this article would lead anyone to believe this? You state the opposite in the next sentence.

    I agree with many of the points but you sound holier than thou start to finish.

    Also I hope you respect more than one thing about America.

    1. I disagree with your analysis, but thanks for commenting. Holier than thou? OUCH. It's difficult maintaining the right tone while making a strong statement of principle.

  9. Right there with you, "shooting" fish in a barrel is not what the sport should be. Half the fun of fishing is finding the fish in the first place.

    1. Yeah, and we live in a time when the ascendant powers want to strip away protections wild creatures and places, take our public lands, and herd us all into theme parks and take our money. I won't go willingly.

  10. G'Day,
    Here in Australia, most rivers and lakes have free public access. Water catchment areas are usually out of bounds. There are some pay to fish lakes that boast numerous and large stocked trout but they usually come with a high cost and are way beyond my budget even if I did want to fish them, which I dont. I usually fish small streams and creeks as well as a few small lakes that are tucked away in the old pine plantations nearby.They hold wild brown trout, some growing to a pretty decent size.
    I agree that the aim of fishing isn't to catch the biggest and mostest. Being virtually guaranteed a trophy sized fish at a price doesn't feel right---it would probably be cheaper and almost as satisfying to hook a fish out of a trout farm! Breaking a trout down to just a money figure cheapens it as it does any animal that is raised for profit. If someone wants to experience fishing and catching a large trout from a pay lake, then that's fine for them but it's not for me.
    Excellent article and I agree fully with the thoughts you have expressed.