A few years ago, my brother and I were dreaming up a trip of a lifetime kind of thing for my dad. In the end it didn’t quite come off that way, but it did mutate into an annual trip that is now one of my favorite traditions. In fact I just got back from the most recent installment and maybe that is why I am thinking back to the first go round.
While we were planning the thing, we looked all over the West for where we might go fishing—Canada, Alaska, even the far flung, mythical region known to the locals as Wyoming. We looked at guided trips and DIYs. In the end we hired a guide for one day and fished by ourselves the rest of the time (results were about the same).
We also looked closely at spending a day on some private water. Some piece of H20 with massive, hungry trout and very little pressure. These places are often referred to as “hogpens” or some other slightly demeaning yet strangely apt moniker. In the end we didn’t pull the trigger, but I never stopped thinking.
Some part of me wants to take pride in the fact that I have never fished anything but public water. But if you dig for the truth you’ll find that “public-only” part of me is only there because I have never had the means—be it financial resources or social connections—to fish private water. And if given the chance, I’d probably jump at fishing a private river or lake. In fact, I know I would. That first part of me is slightly disgusted with the rest of me, but I don’t really know why.
There is nothing really wrong with idea of private trout water. At least there is nothing illegal (in most cases). Someone managed to get a piece of the pie and now they are selling it, one bite at a time. Sure there are murky areas and snake-oil salesman who have duped someone to get something they don’t deserve as well as tales of other strange goings on, not too mention the ethical gray area of public funding being used for a private fishery, but I think these are probably the exceptions rather than the rule. Overall I would guess those folks who run private fisheries are a decent upstanding bunch. They just maybe have a few more dollars (and maybe different priorities) than me.
Still, there is something elitist in the idea of private fisheries and private clubs where one has to pay to play. And I suppose its that part of it that my moral center objects to. Fishing seems for some reason like it should be an equalizer, like no one should be disqualified for reasons beyond their own control.
That, of course, is a falsity. Fly fishing has an inherent financial gate that some cannot pass. Rods, reels, waders, boots, flies, line, tippets, and leaders all cost money and we pay while some cannot. Then there are several internal gates. Can you afford a drift boat? Can you afford a guide? Can you afford a flight to an island where bonefish live? Can you afford a Sherpa and/or a float plane? Answers to these questions have a pretty severe effect on your fishing opportunities. I get that and I think that is why I know I shouldn’t care much about the ethics of the pay-for-play places, about the less than level playing field, because in reality the field was never really level in the first place.
All these dilemmas are forgotten when I see pictures and video of some these private waters. Todd Moen’s film (Heads or Tails) in the latest issue Catch Magazine was filmed on a private Spring Creek about two hours away from my house. When I watch that footage, I only want to fish there and I could really care less about the rest of it. I even start trying to figure out how I can afford it.
Yet, my gut still whispers that catching a big fish in private water is cheating, or at least its different than catching a fish that everyone else has access to. If I do ever fish private water and I manage to catch a massive trout (both of these are unlikely occurrences--and not because I don't want to), I will probably score it a little differently than other big fish I have caught, the same way I might caveat a big hatchery triploid compared to a big native cutthroat. Sure they are both big trout, but they are hardly the same.