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.
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