There is a gift every fly fisher needs in order to experience success.
I’m grateful for a couple of folks who have provided it for me over the years. One is a farmer near Coon Valley, Wisconsin, and I don’t even know his name. The other is a well-known media mogul and philanthropist — Ted Turner. Both have allowed me to fly fish on their property.
It’s not that I’m well connected with friends in high places. Both Turner and the unknown farmer offer this gift to all fly fishers. It’s the gift of public access.
Technically, public access is not a gift.
Some say it’s a right. I don’t know about that. No doubt I pay for public access through license fees. The landowner sometimes benefits too. But I’m grateful that the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) in Montana and Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have provided a generous amount of access points for fly fishers on some fine rivers and streams.
One of my favorite stretches on Montana’s Gallatin River is Ted Turner’s property south of Bozeman. I understand that he is responsible for the ample parking area at Williams Bridge. It’s a gift to park there and then walk up or down the river to some fine runs.
Here are a few tips for protecting and making the most of the gift of public access.
1. Don’t trash these sites!
There should be no need to say this.
But there are always a handful of folks who are too lazy to pick up their trash—water bottles, beer cans, cookie containers, candy wrappers, leader packets, etc. We can help protect this gift if we make the effort to pick up after others. And pick up after ourselves, including used leaders and tippet.
2. Leave the gates as you found them
If you’ve been around farms or ranches, this is rather obvious. Shut the gates you open so you don’t let the cows out! Or, if a gate is open, it’s open for a reason. There’s no need to try to be polite and close it.
3. Give livestock a wide berth
Again, this is common sense.
Dave, my podcast partner, and I often fly fish in a spring creek where the Coon Valley farmer (mentioned above) runs some cattle. We have nothing to worry about, because there are no bulls in the herd. Still there’s no need to agitate the cattle by getting too close to them.
Our unknown friend would not appreciate it. Besides, we don’t want to push the herd through the stream before we fish it!
4. Know your legal rights and limits
The Montana FWP website says:
Under the Montana Stream Access Law, the public may use rivers and streams for recreational purposes up to the ordinary high-water mark. Although the law gives recreationists the right to use rivers and streams for water-related recreation, it does not allow them to enter posted lands bordering those streams or to cross private lands to gain access to streams.
I’ve rarely run into any problems, but I’ve had a couple occasions on the Boulder River in the mountains south of Big Timber, Montana, where landowners have tried (unsuccessfully) to get me to stop fishing the river as it ran through their property. On both occasions, I had entered the river at a legal access and stayed below the high-water mark.
Knowing the law kept the discussion civil and brief. I respected the landowners, and they ended up respecting my rights.
5. Know how to find access sites
Thankfully, this is not difficult. They are well-marked — at least in Montana and in Wisconsin — by highway and streamside signs. You can also purchase maps that show the location of these sites, but I’ve never needed to buy one.
6. Walk farther than anyone else
For Dave and me, this has become our mantra. If the run just around the bend from the access site looks terrific to you, then it looks terrific to every other fly fisher who spots it. So keep walking. Go an extra mile or two, if possible.
The farther you walk, the more you’ll enjoy less-fished water where the trout have not seen every kind of beadhead prince nymph known to fly fishers.
7. Don’t forget the water near the access point
No, I did not have a brain freeze after #6.
I’m talking here about access points on rivers which fly fishers commonly float. Most folks in a drift boat are getting ready to take out (when they are up river from the access point) or are still getting adjusted the first hundred yards or so into the float. My parents lived about a hundred yards from a fishing access site on the Yellowstone River in Montana’s Paradise Valley. I used to cross their fence to the access and then walk up about a hundred yards and fish under a bridge along a pylon, and I caught a number trout there over the years.
So thanks, Ted. Thanks, Coon Valley farmer. Thanks, Wisconsin DNR. Thanks, Montana FWP. Thanks for the gift of access to the charming spring creeks and stunning rivers. And thanks to all of you who buy fishing licenses and use these access sites with respect.
The future of fly fishing depends on this gift.