Guest Blogger: Mary S. Kuss, Life-long avid angler, licensed PA fishing guide, founder of the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association

Most of us have mixed feelings, if not outright hostility, to the concept of privatized fishing waters. Except, of course, for those of us who have access to them.

This aversion to private water may arise, in part, from our cultural history. The Europeans who arrived to colonize the Americas came from places where the aristocracy exercised iron-fisted control over the best natural resources, including fish and game animals. How wonderful it must have been for people who had never had legal access to fish and game to arrive in a place teeming with them, free for the taking. Americans quickly came to regard the use of this bounty as their right. In this new land there would be none of the oppression their ancestors had suffered in The Old Country. It should be noted, however, that they had no problem oppressing the original Native people who were here before them.

It didn’t take long for Americans to create a plutocracy as a substitute for the European aristocracy our ancestors fled. Those who were able to accumulate sufficient wealth, by whatever means, began to take control of natural resources and to exclude the common people. Resentment was inevitable, and still persists. I can recall very well my first encounter with private water. I was so naïve, it came as a complete shock.

The late Ernest Schwiebert had a tremendous impact on my fly fishing experience, right from the beginning. One of the first fly fishing books I owned was the first he published, Matching the Hatch. As soon as it was published I added Schwiebert’s Nymphs to my growing angling library. He would later issue a massive two-volume set on this topic, which I also acquired, but this was the earlier single-volume version. The dust jacket was a bright shade of turquoise, with the word “NYMPHS” down the spine in large white letters. The book was full of Schwiebert’s beautiful color drawings of the immature stages of various macroinvertebrate species. Visitors to my college dorm room would walk over to the shelf, take the book down, open it briefly, and say “Oh.” before putting it back.

When Remembrances of Rivers Past was added to my Schwiebert collection in 1972, during my sophomore year at college, it immediately became a checklist of places I hoped to fish some day. I sorted the list of Schwiebert’s rivers into three groups: those I would probably fish, those I might be able to fish, and those so out-of-reach that I was only slightly more likely to fish them than to walk on the surface of the Moon.

The Brodheads Creek, in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, fell squarely into the “probably” category. The chapter on this stream pointed out its historical significance to American fly fishing. Schwiebert posited that although the Catskill streams of New York were often cited as the Birthplace of American Fly Fishing, in fact the Pocono streams had a longer fly fishing history. The Brodheads was at the head of the list.

I’d been working on getting the man I was dating at the time interested in fly fishing, with some success. With the energy and enthusiasm and lack of forethought common to people our age, we struck out for the Poconos on a Fourth of July weekend to fish the famous Brodheads Creek. Arriving in the area, we drove past miles of gorgeous trout stream, all of which seemed to be private and posted. Schwiebert had made no mention of that in his glowing description of the area and its fishing.

Near the intersection of Routes 191 and 447 we pulled over to watch a man landing a trout in the beautiful pool below us. I was filled with frustrated longing, having noted the prominently posted Private Water signs. This experience was a crushing disappointment. I now know that not all of the trout waters in the Poconos are posted, but it surely seemed that way at the time.

It was many years before I ventured into the Poconos again.  I’d married, relocated to the Philadelphia suburbs, and landed a job at a fly shop near my home. I met and became friends with a customer who offered to sponsor me for membership in the Anglers’ Club of Philadelphia. This gave me the opportunity to participate in the Private Waters Fishing Program. Most of the Anglers’ Club members were lawyers, stock brokers and other professionals working in Center City Philadelphia. Many of them also had memberships at private trout fishing clubs in the Poconos. The Private Waters program gave them a chance to share their club water with other members and to enjoy a more varied fishing experience.

Early each spring the Anglers’ Club would distribute a list of participating trout clubs, with details as to the host and available dates. Members would make first, second, and third choices and a drawing would be held.  On my first year as a member, I drew Brodheads Forest & Stream, one of the more prestigious Pocono clubs. Beats were assigned in the traditional way, drawn from a dice cup after a meal. I drew Lower Twin Pool for the evening’s fishing.  At long last I would fish the storied Brodheads Creek.

I was given driving directions and took the dirt lane upstream from the clubhouse. I found my assigned spot easily. I geared up and headed down the trail from the parking pull-off to the water. Once there it took only a moment for me to look up at the road high above the water across from my position and make the connection. I realized that this was the very pool I had seen that lucky angler fishing all those years before.  Trout were rising in the upper end of the pool. Several fly changes were required before I tried a Hare’s Ear wet fly fished upstream in the film. I caught several very nice trout, but I don’t remember them well. I recall only the poignant sense of having come full-circle.

Thanks to my Anglers’ Club membership, I’ve had a chance to see both sides of the Private Waters argument. I’ve suffered the disappointment of being excluded. I’ve also had the pleasure of fishing exclusive waters, and enjoying the comfortable accommodations and perks that some clubs provide for their members and guests.

I still hate to see fishing access to water that had previously been available to the public taken over by a private entity. This is often for the purpose of establishing a private club or a fee-fishing operation. Many landowners allow the public access to the water on their property. But there is never any guarantee that opportunity will continue indefinitely. The land and the fishing rights it provides are always at risk of being sold off to the highest bidder. In the future we will have to pay for our fishing more and more, whether by club membership, fee-to-fish, or by having our tax dollars used to procure more public access.

I don’t know how common this situation is in other parts of the country, but there is no denying that private sportsmen’s clubs in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania have historically provided tremendous benefits to the streams and their watersheds. The area is littered with private, gated vacation home developments that follow a common pattern. A peat bog was mined out, a dam constructed to form a lake, and the rest of the parcel built out in houses.

Although the fishing clubs are also private and exclude the public from the land and waters under their control, they are far less damaging to the environment. Some clubs control thousands of acres of headwater streams and their watersheds. These areas have been protected from development and many still exist in a near-wild state. Most Pocono streams have public stretches, usually downstream from the private water, and the fishing those areas provide is immeasurably better than it would have been if their headwaters were not so protected.

My greatest fear is that some of the private Pocono clubs seem to be struggling in recent years to maintain adequate membership to pay expenses. I have no doubt that developers are lurking, waiting to pounce. I know of one huge parcel of land that has been held by several generations of the same family, and run as a private fishing club throughout that history. It’s now for sale on the open market.

As with so many problems we face these days, the issue of private fishing waters is more complex than it might seem at first glance. New solutions will be needed going forward. We may not be able to continue the current model of buying a fishing license and having largely unrestricted access to all public water most of the time. Often the best waters wind up being “loved to death,” so crowded that no one can have a quality experience, full of fish with torn mouths and hook ulcers. In some cases, fishing pressure may need to be selectively managed by lottery.

It bears some thought by all of us.

11 Comments

  1. Hi Mary. Very interesting article! I live in western Colorado, and I grew up in the small mining town of Leadville Colorado, where the headwaters of the Arkansas River begins, which is the longest freestone River in the state. As a young boy I had the opportunity to fish a large portion of that River, and like yourself encountered a large portion of that River closed to fishing due to private ownership. I haven’t fished that River since I left that area and relocated in Grand Junction Colorado, but my understanding is that, the once private waters where I fished are now open to public access. With that being said, there are very large portions of the rivers on the western slope of Colorado that are private, and the ones that have public access are over run by anglers. Several private waters are not owned by fishing clubs here, but by private individuals who will charge, or would like to charge a very large trespass fee to fish those waters. There has to be a solution to this ever growing problem, and I would hope as outdoorsman and women that together we can be a solution to this problem. Thanks again.

    1. Thanks for your comments, John. It’s going to be interesting to see how the solution to the problem of fishing access evolves. No matter how that happens, the process is bound to be controversial and will take some time.

  2. I have been an avid fly tier and fly fisher since I was 8. I used to run into “private waters” constantly in Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan and Wisconsin. I would find the owner of the posted water and ask permission as well as ask why it was poster “NO FISHING” or “PRIVATE PROPERTY” and 99% of the stream owners stated to me “It’s because fishermen are lazy, leave trash everywhere (which included soda cans, beer cans and bottles, sandwich wrappers, plastic bags and even tires)” and I promised to clean up all “trash” I came across if they allowed me to fish the stream. Many allowed me to fish their streams but wanted me to bring the trash I collected back to their residence to prove I would do as I said I would (they did not believe me because others made the same promise and never returned and never collected any trash), and I actually did take the trash back to their homes and most came outside to see exactly what I collected. Most of the Private Waters were over run with trash that others had left. Most “public” waters are over run with trash as well. Just always remember to take out all that you bring in and take as much trash that you find out, as well.

    1. Well said Mark. That’s the approach I have used for access to private land, when needed. Having grown up on a farm, I recall the reasons for posting land…and it’s nearly always trash or fence damage problem–and one that can generally be resolved with a little communication and a little fix-it service. Generally, anyway.

      – Mike

    2. Mark, you are so right about the problem of so-called sportsmen trashing private property. Talk about crapping on the hand that feeds you! If you can carry a full can of soda or beer into an area you’re fishing, you can surely carry an empty one out with you along with any other litter you generate. And while you’re at it, add to your trash bag some of the stuff others have left behind. Respecting the landowners who allow us the privilege of using their property is the only way to insure that privilege continues to be available to us.

      1. You know, in part courtesy of large fly fishing clubs and organizations and perhaps the elitist image that companies like Orvis and others have successfully marketed about fly fishing, Fish & Game departments do tend to recognize a difference in the “fishery stewardship” attitudes between fly fishing and other kinds of sport fishing that’s more focused on stocking freezers and bringing full stringers back to the dock for the bragging rights. Fish & Game departments already reserve a few key stretches for “fly fishing only,” which is proof that they’re aware our knowledge and focus and art form is all very easy on the fish and that we’re very easy on the stream.

        If the same “elitist” concept were to be “marketed” more universally to private landowners, it could possibly turn the tide in several ways:

        (A) “No Fishing” and “No Tresspassing” signs could begin to give way to “Fly Fishing Only” signs.

        (B) As private land signage transitioned over time, more fisher-folk would likely join our ranks, adding further to our ability to protect fish (and thus fishing) and to sway Fish & Game departments to put policies in place even more advantageous to our own activities than they already are (such as focusing on stream improvement and stocking of fish that can actually reproduce, rather than running the put-and-take “follow the stocking truck to the river” policies we see so much of today).

        The “how” is the question…how to reach landowners with that message better than we have up to now.

  3. Mary,
    Nice piece. Indeed “access” to water is an issue just about everywhere, but unfortunately in our Federalist society, states establish ownership and access rights. Although “navigability” is a federal concept, it is interpreted and enacted in different ways by different states. Living out West, I am not familiar with many of the access issues facing folks in the East, but I do recall my time in Alabama. Apart from major river systems, streams flowing through private property were essentially owned by the property owner. That was state law. We occasionally got yelled at as we kayaked along a small stream, but never once was I confronted with the law. Montana and Colorado are a good case study in how state law drives differences in access. In Montana, the public owns the river and the ground the river flows over. If you can legally access the river and stay below the high water mark regardless of the ownership of adjacent property, you are legal. In Colorado however, the public owns the river, but they don’t own the ground under the river, the property owner does. I’ve floated the Arkansas many times in different sections from Buena Vista all the way to Cotapaxi with local guides. As the floats went through private land, the guides were careful not to anchor or get out of the raft as that would be considered trespassing.
    It is state law that drives access rights. We are in heaven here in Montana because of our liberal stream access law, but many places have state water access laws that favor private ownership and private access for anyone willing to make the investment.

    1. You ran Brown’s Canyon with fishing gear? I used to paddle it in a whitewater kayak. It was technical and challenging at most flows. Had to hit many a roll in Brown’s–I wouldn’t want to risk good fly gear in that stretch.

      – Mike

      1. Ark Anglers runs raft fishing trips in Brown’s Canyon. Made the trip several times. Years ago, we actually did an overnight trip through Browns.

  4. I have heard and read, about very wealthy people, purchasing large stretches of great fishing waters, in several different states, for obvious reasons. Perhaps you have the financial where with all to pay a couple of thousand for a week end to fish, but I sure don’t. I’m 75 years old and am on a fixed income. I have been fishing since I was 6. I see our sport going the way of the DODO. Rich DODO that is. Every ad I see in the fishing mags. for fishing private waters, is more than I can afford. That’s why there are so many people fishing where there used to be few. These are the only places to go that we can afford. Enjoy your lawyers and assorted rich people up where the air is rare:

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