Respond to this Article January/February 2006

The Reel Deal

How some states are ensuring anglers a spot to cast bait.

By Christina Larson

Recent ads in The Baltimore Sun feature a grinning 10-year-old girl with blond hair and ruddy cheeks, perched in a boat. The caption beside her reads, "Take me fishing. Because my wedding will be sooner than you think." A second ad pictures an old man sitting cross-legged in a boat: "Take me fishing. I want to feel like a boy again."

The ads, produced by the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation, are designed to lure Americans back to the lakes and rivers where they used to fish. As with hunters, the ranks of active anglers have thinned, from 23 percent of Americans in 1985 to 16 percent in 2001. The absolute number of anglers has also been dropping; in the Great Lakes region, where reeling in walleyes has long been a hallowed tradition, the numbers of fishermen is down 28 percent in the last decade.

Chief among the reasons for the decline is the difficulty of finding a place to fish, especially for the 72 percent of anglers living in metro areas. Most navigable waterways are by statute owned by and open to the public, but getting to streams and lakes often requires a short trek across private lands. And those who own the ever-more-valuable plots of land next to water are increasingly less willing to grant such right-of-way, especially to people they don't know.

Some states have begun to address the problem. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department contracts with ranchers whose property includes or abuts bodies of water to permit public access. After negotiating appropriate payment, wildlife officers post signs demarcating areas open to the public. Anglers can plan trips with the aid of maps of enrolled properties available online. The program has grown each year since it started in the mid-1990s and now encompasses 225 miles of streams. Survey feedback from hunters and landowners has been enthusiastic, but the most promising sign is boots in the water: While fishing declined nationally in the last decade, angling days in Wyoming moderately increased.

Other states, including Kansas, are developing similar fishing programs, often as sister ventures to hunting access efforts. Among the most innovative efforts can be found an hour west of Denver, in Colorado's Park County ("the real South Park" runs one tourism slogan, a nod to the iconoclastic Comedy Central cartoon whose creator grew up there). The mountainous county contains some of the nation's finest trout streams, but getting to the best waters has been a problem because the streams run mostly through privately-owned ranchland. Two years ago, the county partnered with the state's Great Outdoors Colorado initiative to launch an Internet-based system that matches eager fly-fishermen with ranchers looking for some extra income. Anglers can browse maps and photos of trout streams online, then reserve a spot with a credit-card payment (only two anglers are permitted per property per day to avoid over-crowding), with much of the money going directly to the landowners. For example, a day of fishing rainbow trout on Upper Fourmile Creek Ranch costs about the price of a moderate dinner, $30. With prize trout and enthusiastic word of mouth, during its first year the program reached 70 percent capacity in the peak summer months.

Now Gary Nichols, director of the county's community development and tourism office, is looking to expand the model to turn South Park into a vacation destination not just for hardcore fly-fishermen, but for whole families interested in a nature experience. Currently he's in talks with interested ranchers about what recreation they would like to provide on their lands: wildlife viewing areas (bobcats, deer, coyote, elk, and other animals are all native), bike paths, heritage trails along an old railroad line with markers at historic sites. "We're trying to combine conservation and heritage preservation with economic development and recreation," he explains. Nichols, who was raised in Denver, can remember when he was just a knock on a friend or relative's door from having a spot to go fishing or hunting or hiking: "That was something I knew growing up, and I guess I'm now trying to recreate it."

Christina Larson is managing editor of The Washington Monthly.


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