Paying For It

A disturbing trend in fishing has begun pervading the US with the advent of fee-based fishing. The typical arrangement involves an entrepreneur who leases access to a fishing area, creates a pseudo-club, and sells memberships to people who want to fish there.

One of my fears about the future of fisheries in this country is fee-based, or pay-to-fish, angling. I’m not referring to commercial ponds typically found in urban or tourist park situations, where stocked trout are caught on cheeseballs and paid for by the inch. What I’m concerned about is another pay-to-fish format, one that is proliferating across America, especially on western trout streams: An entrepreneur approaches a landowner who has quality fishing water on his or her property and obtains a lease that sets up recreational access.

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The entrepreneur then forms what is euphemistically called a club. It is not a club but a business. Still, it cares a club, and “members” are charged an initiation fee, and must pay annual dues. This gives them the right to share access to the leased water, typically on an advance reservation basis that includes a daily rod fee. One club owner in Colorado told me he currently controls 38 tracts for which he charges daily rod fees ranging from $20 to $90, averaging $42 (plus a $5 reservation fee). The initiation fee is $240; annual dues are 55. At present, he has more than 1000 paying members. Another club, in California, charges a $1500 joining fee, plus $650 per year, plus daily

One club owner in Colorado told me he currently controls 38 tracts for which he charges daily rod fees ranging from $20 to $90, averaging $42 (plus a $5 reservation fee). The initiation fee is $240; annual dues are 55. At present, he has more than 1000 paying members. Another club, in California, charges a $1500 joining fee, plus $650 per year, plus daily rod fees of $50 to $150. This club would not disclose the size of its membership or the number of tracts it controls, but when all the addition is done, the money is apparently rolling in.

A single businessman can sew up 30, 50, 60 tracts, which might comprise half or more of a region’s best fishing water. Get two or three such individuals working in one area and the combined impact on ordinary fishermen is brutal.

Many landowners traditionally have granted free access–especially in the better, least-populated trout-fishing states such as Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho–and would most likely have continued doing so had they not been approached by business clubs. It’s hard to blame a landowner for taking the money. Why give away what you can sell? But what happens to fishing once it’s been turned into a market commodity Elitism: The wealthy can afford the best angling while the average fisherman cannot. This leads to the kind of caste system now prevalent in Europe, where the quality of one’s fishing is determined not by skill or effort, but by the depth of one’s pockets.

In Iceland, for example, the rich can catch salmon on the finest Grimes beat, while the commoners flail away on the fringe side flows. What’s more, since the demand for good fishing is high and since no one can make new rivers, once it is made fee-based, fishing becomes a highly inflationary commodity. For instance, a day on the Grimes now costs $3700 per rod; the price will only go up. On the American scene, fee-based angling will also continue to get more expensive, and therefore more exclusive. The wealthy will buy the best private water, while the rest of us get to bunch up on public rivers.

Do we want America’s prime trout water managed by businessmen who sell access for profit? Currently, there are no regulations on who can start a fee-based club, or on how a club is run, or on the impact it may have on the water. Some clubs are simply out for a quick buck, soliciting the largest possible paying membership without regard to the impact on the fishery. The owner of the Colorado business club says he adheres to strict catch-and-release regulations, but one wonders how such a rule can be enforced simultaneously on 38 tracts. Abo, wouldn’t most fishermen, having shelled out a lot of cash, feel entitled to bring home one or two trout for the table?

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To Find Better Ways of Managing Private Water

One does not have to look far to find better ways of managing private water in this country, and while doing so, tend to the interests of the landowners, the general angler and the resource alike. I point this out to dispute the fee-privatizers’ favorite rationalization: that they are saving these fisheries from the public, which, they say, too often trashes what it has access to.

Of course, no one with sense would ask that everyone have unlimited access to everything–that would lead to ruin. But there are alternatives to the either/or fallacy that says private waters must be either fee-based and preserved, or accessible to the public and trashed. For instance, real sportsmen’s clubs,’not motivated by profit but by love and concern for the fisheries, could work in conjunction with landowners and regional biologists to manage private water for the welfare of all; pitching in on cleanup and stream improvement, doing fish census taboos, and so on.

State governments could provide tax incentives and even conservation money to reward landowners for proper management, stipulating an amount of permission-based free access that is resource healthy. In short, there are options. All are based on cutting out the middle-man profiteer and bringing in people who care first about the health and quality of the environment, people who see the trout and the stream for their intrinsic worth, rather than as a cash-crop.

The owner of the Colorado business club likes to justify, his imposed rod fees by equating them with green fees on a golf course, a revealing analogy. Fishing is not, and never should be, like golf. Golf is a fabulous game, but a large part of the point is just that–it’s game, played on a course maintained for increasing throngs of players. Where golf is virtually tame, fishing is mainly wild. A trout stream is a living entity, complex and fragile, easily degraded and impossible to reproduce. And trout, it should not need to be pointed out, are not golf balls. Trout are sentient, elusive creatures, and the pursuit of them involves uncertainty, discovery, patience, knowledge and passion.

Real trout fishing can never happen on any game board or “playing surface” manicured like a golf course, whatever its gardenlike beauty. Golf is built on the artificial; fishing is destroyed by it. Indeed, with fishing one can measure the loss of quality by the degree to which the fishery is made more plastic and less mild. The pay-pond is the qualitative opposite of the wild stream. Equating green fees with pay-to-fish rod prices misses what fishing is all about, and debases its essence.

Some things can’t be bought with cash, and some things, if sold, can only be sold away, this is a hard lesson that consumerist America is just beginning to learn. As a trend, fee-fishing for profit is ominous, a wrong turn, one that endangers sound management, fair access and even what might be termed the spiritual preservation of fishing itself. Turn fishing into a fee-based game, like golf, and the final price will be greater than any of us, individually or collectively, will want to pay.

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