Is Pay-To-Play Fly Fishing Good For Anybody?

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Photos by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

If you pay hundreds of dollars for the chance to catch a really big trout on someones private water, are you doing the right thing?

Pay-to-play fishing is a hot button issue. It came up in conversation the other day so I thought I’d put my two cents in. I don’t have any data to back this up, but my guess is that a pretty small percentage of anglers regularly pay to fish private water. I’d guess that a fare number of us do it a time or two and move on and a very small number do little else. On the other hand there are an equally small number who would never consider it.

What you figure out pretty quickly is, whenever pay-to-play comes up, there’s going to be an argument. The fur usually starts to fly when fish size becomes the topic. If you are boasting about catching a trophy size trout on your local pay-to-play water you’re very likely going to hear how, “That fish doesn’t count,” or how, “That’s bullshit.” 

It’s true that there is no comparing a hand fed pet to a wild fish of the same size. Perhaps there is no comparing the effort or skill that went into catching those fish, but there is certainly no comparing how unique, special or important those two fish are. Wild trophy size trout are a treasure and should be treated as such. All of that said, if you are boasting about the size of your fish to establish yourself as a superior angler, you’re probably a douche bag. If you’re trying to spoil someone else’s excitement by calling their fish bullshit, you’re just as bad. That’s my opinion.

Focusing on numbers or size takes the fun out of fishing for me. I don’t count fish and when I do measure a fish it’s about appreciating what a special fish it is and how fortunate I was to catch it. Not for one instant do I hold to the idea that it makes me special as an angler. I’ve been at this long enough to know that humility is waiting in the next run. I like to hear anglers talk about special fish and I like to talk about them too. I think that’s something we all share, I just think it sucks when it ends in an argument.

So here are some facts about pay-to-play fishing.

So I guess I’ve suckered you in with an inflammatory headline, only to make a balanced and reasonable argument. You should be used to that by now. I’m going to list some things I know to be true on the topic as + for positive and – for negative.

+There are lessons to be learned from PTP fishing. Fishing to fed fish really doesn’t teach you too much about catching trophy size wild fish. Those PTP fish can be very hard to catch at times but for different reasons and they behave differently for that reason. Once you do hook one though, you learn a great deal about fighting big fish. It takes a different set of skills to land trophy size trout and most anglers lose the first few they hook. You stand a better chance of learning those skills where there are lots of big fish to hook.

-PTP fishing can make you lazy. If you spend your fishing life paying to fish where the odds are stacked in your favor, you’ll never learn to do the research and leg work needed to find really special wild fish.

+PTP fishing supports a lot of guides. It’s generally a requirement that you fish with a guide who is affiliated with the owner and that helps support a lot of young guides. These spots are often where guides cut their teeth and learn their craft. Fishing guides are good folks and of huge benefit to the community. They educate anglers and inform innovation in the sport. The more of them who make a living, the better off the community is as a whole.

-Private water, depending on individual state law, limits angler access to fishable water. This is not a simple formula. In some places, these access laws are seen as a violation of rights, while in other places they actually help preserve fish and habitat. You have to take it on a case by case basis.

+Private water protects fish and habitat. While some states do a great job of managing their resources, others do a very poor job. I’ve lived in a couple of those states that do a poor job and have seen first hand how private water allows land owners to enforce quality management the state will not. This is a double edged sword however. It relies on land owners making good stewardship choices in the face of a profit motive.

-Management of private water can be a disaster. Those choices made with the profit motive in mind can have huge consequences. The idea of private water is inherently flawed. A river or a stream is never truly private. That water, and the fish in it, move from one place to the other according to the laws of nature, not the laws of man. The decisions we make on private water affect everyone. Think of that stream like a road. You can put up a fence and some plastic flamingos, but it’s not cool to make up you’re own road signs or shoot at cars. I’ll give you an example.

Here in Georgia a fly shop managing a stretch of private water made the decision to stock a bunch of very large tiger trout, thinking they would offer clients a unique experience. On their half mile or so of water they did just that. They also offered those tiger trout, a notoriously aggressive species, the unique opportunity to swim into the adjacent public section of an important wild trout fishery where the average wild trout is roughly snack size. That shop made a very bad decision, which impacted the rest of us.

These kind of decisions are not limited to PTP water. anyone who owns a stretch of water should be very careful how they manage it. It’s a huge responsibility. I own a small piece of water and I stocked it years ago but thought better of it and stopped a long time ago. Now I leave it natural and ,oddly, never even fish there. If you’re interested in private water management you should read this article on the pros and cons of feeding fish.

Sooooo-ee!!! Calling All Pellet Pigs: What You Should Know About Feeding Trout

I don’t think pay-to-play fishing is inherently good or bad. 

I think it’s like Al Frankin said, “A hammer is a tool. You can use it to build a house or to kill a coed.” I encourage you to make your own mind up if it’s for you or not. If it is something you want to do, even just once, consider doing your research and booking with an outfitter who employs responsible management practices. Some outfitter offer private water experiences that are essentially wild and natural fishing on water where angler numbers are restricted and those can be fantastic. If you prefer to fish to pellet fed fish, that’s fine too. Just understand what you’re doing and it may affect you and how those outfitters may be affecting public fisheries.

Let us know about your experiences with pay-to-play fishing in the comments!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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12 thoughts on “Is Pay-To-Play Fly Fishing Good For Anybody?

  1. President Eisenhower used to come fly fish a set of private ponds up near Parshall, Colo. The guy who owned the ponds fed the trout pellets and they got big. The President’s staff would call and let him know when he was coming and the owner would stop feeding them a day or two before the President got there. Those fish would eat an apple core if you tossed it in there. The President always had a photo in the newspaper a day or two after he left, holding a nice trout. Those of us who knew the background just shook our heads.

    I’ve also seen some big investors purchase land with a trout stream on it that we used to be able to get on. They locked it down with barbwire fences, locked gates, and threatening signs. Perfectly legal and their right to do so. Then they started selling rods on the stream. It just felt wrong. Most of us refused to give in and went elsewhere. Some poached it because it felt good.

    I’ve also seen private owners take over and spend a heap on repairing riparian habitat, putting up fences to keep cattle away, and generally improving the stream. The trout fishing of course got way better. They then started letting a few anglers fish it for a fee. The money was used to make further repairs and improvements.

    So like you, I’ve seen good and bad associated with private water. Usually, if it’s just for financial gain of the owner, and they stock it with pellet fed triploids, it produces some big slobby fish but doesn’t help. If the owner actually cares about the stream and the habitat, and keeps it as natural as possible, it usually helps improve the fishing because it reduces the fishing pressure and human driven impacts.

    Personally, I try to avoid paying to fish. More on principal than anything else. I think there’s still plenty of public water if you’re willing to work for it.

  2. The Douglaston Salmon Run in upstate NY is a ptp section of the Salmon River, which flows into Lake Ontario. The salmon and steelhead there are fresh out of the lake, as the section of the river that encompasses the PTP is the final section of the river before it enters the lake. Therefore it is the first section to see fish as they enter the river.
    Management runs a good outfit, with limits on the number of rods, and rules of conduct, high water closings, patrols to enforce fishing rules and for safety reasons. They don’t mess with the fish in any way, so the fish are wild and natural.
    I don’t go to the Run, as I find that I can catch all the fish I need upstream of the PTP, and don’t understand why you would want to pay for it when it is free just one foot upstream of the upper boundaries. But it takes some pressure off of the spots I fish, and the daily published report is useful for determining when pods of fresh fish are on the way upstream and estimating when they’ll arrive at the spots I fish. I am retired, so I have the luxury of being able to fish mid-week, when the river is not crowded (usually), so the advantage of fishing the PTP to avoid the crowds is not necessary.

  3. In Colorado we have many sections of private water. I am even fortunate to guide many of those sections on wild trout water. I believe that some of these sections are sanctuaries for trout to spawn and reproduce and be left the hell alone.

    My biggest issue is when it comes to feeding trout pellets and stocking fish with genetics that do not belong in that river and have not evolved in that river system. We cannot say for certain that we know the impacts of stocking inferior genetics into a wild trout stream but to an experienced angler we intuitively know that it makes a difference somewhere down the line.
    Even more apalling is throwing trout chow in the river three times a day to make the same fish grow to obese proportion’s.

    On the blue River downstream from Green Mountain reservoir is a section of water owned by Paul Jones the stock market guy from New York; He has taken upon himself to completely redesign the water, introduce fish of inferior genetics, and put trout feeding stations along the entire stretch of the river.

    When I was youngerI thought this was cool and loved floating through there with the intention of hooking a 20 pound plus rainbow. As I have gotten older I see how damaging this can be to a fragile fishery like the Blue.

    Just as we do not know the consequences of stocking fish in a wild trout fishery, we certainly do not know the impacts of throwing trout chow in the river which floats for miles downstream. I for one cannot believe that Colorado Parks and Wildlife allows such a practice. It is just another example of rich man douche baggery and selfishness on a scale that impacts everyone around them.

    Are used to do guided trips occasionally at Boxwood Gulch on the north fork of the South Platte River here in Colorado. The last time I guided there I had a 14 year old kid on his first day ever and hooked a 27 inch brown trout on his third cast. His mother was telling me to get as many pictures as possible of this astounding fish. About 10 minutes later the same kid hooks and 18 inch beautiful rainbow trout. As I slid the net underneath the fish I heard the mother saying it’s just a little one kick it back into the river. I knew that that poor kid was ruined for life and his experience in Fly Fishing would be tainted by this day. I have never returned to that section of water since.

    These places will continue to exist and there is nothing I can do about it nor do I really give a shit but I will say that taking shortcuts in anything gives you immediate gratification. I suspect that down the line as you’re reviewing your pictures or showing them off to your friends a little voice inside you will tell you that you are doing just that. Taking shortcuts.

  4. I agree with your over arching thesis. People can do what they want. As long as you don’t force your ideas on me, I’ve got no problem. Catching a nice fish is always fun. Even outside the pay to play arguments I think it is valuable for me to avoid counting and measuring fish. I have found that for me this makes my journey in fly fishing more enjoyable. It’s sometimes hard because I’m a competitive person but when I let go of that, I always enjoy my time on the river more. Let’s let each other enjoy fly fishing how they want. As long as it’s not damaging the fishery I’m cool with it, but it’s not my thing.

  5. If I had to pay to fish I would quit fishing. If I wanted a picture of me holding a big fish I would save my money and photoshop me a picture. I know some real douche bags that “guide” on these pay to play streams and they think they are really doing something when somebody catches one of these hand feed fish. Save your money and go to hatchery supported waters or delayed harvest waters and catch your own pellet pig there for free.

    • Imagine you lived in the UK, or a lot of other places around the world, where the only option was to pay. That’s how it is in a lot of places, except you’re usually paying for poor fishing. At least at the places normal folks can afford. Guess what, it’s headed that way here. The public land battle is, in my opinion, our most important political issue. You know what else? At least half of fly anglers vote for politicians who would ultimately take away your public land. I encourage you to do your research before you vote.

  6. A wise man at the Buffalo Trace Distillery once told me – never criticize the way another takes their bourbon- even if they mix it with Diet Pepsi- shows you value the bottle over the company of the person you are drinking with. Same concept goes for fishing. Dry fly, nymphing, “throwing meat”, chucking corn – we all love to bend a rod. Not all areas of the country are blessed with abundant, wild trout. So, you fish the waters that are available – even private water with pellet fed fish. Learn some tips and techniques from the guides and expect the owners to be good stewards of both the water and the fish. Most of all, respect one another and enjoy this great sport, however it comes your way.

  7. I like the journey. Catching a trout in PTP or “Natural” settings have different journey’s. The PTP streams here in VA are mostly private land with stocked fish. Not stocked and then fed fish. Most of the landowners for PTP repair the stream to hold trout, promote bug growth and create shade and block the stream off from large grazers. They also limit pressure on their part of the stream. The journey is different than fishing a wild stream. Natural streams some that run through private and in state/federal lands offer a different journey. Both have a different feel and both are good.

  8. Globally, I’m rather against PTP. Even PTP is rare in FRANCE.
    If I’ve understood the Louis’s purpose,,I can quickly answer :
    1) PTP finally produces or, more, perpétuates positions between rich and poor people. Remember that!!!
    We can answer that poor people can fish on private river but certainly few times a year…!
    2) for me, rivers belong to everybody as their care
    3) if the private water are better (Perhaps!???), we must reason inversely : why public rivers would be bad? There’s à cause and effect relationship. It would be necessary extende this statement…
    4) again (cf. My last comment about “information and knowledge) : why always searching the performance, the big trout, even THE monster…? And also, why flyfishing videos show us big trouts… There’s really an hard work to educate fishermen and fisherwomen and other people
    5) for me and being excessive, if fishermen (?) want playing big trouts, they can go on special lakes or ponds réservéd for this activity(?). For the others who take pleasure to understand the béhavior of this trout and the right way to grabe it (even without speaking about nature’s beauty and the trout’s size), I hope that we be able (via vote, public rules or laws for instance) to make our rivers cleaner and prolific.
    G. Baudin
    Again : sorry for my english!

    Envoyé de mon iPad

  9. The genetics of mixing wild fish, hatchery fish, and PTP fish in any combination has to be a tangled mess. The priority has to be in the order I listed, with protection of the wild-fish genome most important.

    Until someone can show that PTP fisheries have no adverse genetic impact up the chain to wild fish, I think it’s a stupid and dangerous way to tinker with Mother Nature.

    • Talking about trout’s genetic is perhaps a subject.. Perhaps…! But I’m very surprised for the silence for the social problem. Even we are not ichtyologist , we are also and first human and social beings…
      G. Baudin

  10. Add to my last comment.
    Reading again the title “…good for anybody”.
    For ANYBODY… Certainly NOT… Mostly because you must have money to,pay!!! And as everybody, know,,there’s a lot of people they don’t have money for fishing. First, these people have to spend their money for eat…!
    G. Baudin

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