ANGLING FOR FISHING PROPERTIES IN THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN WEST
By Jim Taylor – President of Hall and Hall
Since the Rocky Mountain region is home to the best trout fishing in the United States, it should come as no surprise that those seeking a prime recreational ranch property would consider availability of trout water as a major determining factor. Time and again prospects have tended to focus their search on a ranch that offers on-site fishing. In fact, a quality fishery has consistently come second only to privacy on a typical buyer’s wish list.
Although the Rocky Mountain West covers a large geographic expanse, the availability of the fishing resource associated with ranch properties is more finite than one might initially suspect. The major rivers that are hallowed names in the chronicles of trout fishing include the Yellowstone, Missouri, Madison, Big Hole, Bighorn, Gunnison, North Platte, Colorado, Rio Grande, Henry’s Fork of the Snake, and on and on. The Rocky Mountain West is full of them. For each of these reputation freestone streams, there are countless others, less well known, that provide outstanding trout fishing. Add to this compilation the many spring creeks - both renowned and those never mentioned - and it seems as though quality fishing properties should be available in abundance. Why then should it be so difficult to locate and buy a quality fishing property?
First of all, there are many other buyers who have placed this same criterion at the top of their lists. The wonderful thing about the prevalence of catch and release fishing is that one can basically fish all day every day throughout a long season without depleting the resource. It is perhaps for this reason that interest in fly-fishing has exploded over the past three decades. It was inevitable that its popularity has evolved into a widespread desire to actually own a fishing property. Over the years many people who regularly vacation in the Rockies ultimately decided that they would like to own a property on a good stretch of water. Of course the demographic of the retiring baby boomers has exacerbated this trend. In short, high demand has resulted in scarcity.
Secondly, when it comes to considering a purchase, most prospects gravitate to the concept of private fishing water. It may well be that it was the wide variety of water available to the public that attracted them to the region in the first place, but exclusivity and the privacy which it brings are important to most when it comes down to actually owning a property. This emphasis on privacy eliminates a lot of possibilities. Many famous rivers and streams course their way through stretches of public land, guaranteeing access to any and all. Furthermore, all of the Rocky Mountain States, by law, allow float fishing. This means that a piece of water bound on both sides by private land can be floated and fished as long as the entry and exit points are public or permission is granted. Accessing fishing waters by means of a boat has become a highly effective way to fish many Western rivers. States in the region differ on the issue of setting foot or anchor on the river bottom without permission, but all allow floating and fishing from watercraft.
So, the first decision to be faced is whether you will be satisfied with a property that borders a stream or river easily accessed by the public, or whether you will insist on a stream that is private - either by law or because its geography makes it inaccessible to the public. For those who are content to share their fishing water with others, ranches of varying sizes are more commonly available and tend to be less expensive. It may be that one desires fishing water, but other selection criteria hold equal or greater weight in the ultimate decision. It might be that, while one desires to live on a trout stream, the real enjoyment comes from fishing a variety of water. Consequently some traffic on one’s home stream is not much of a detriment. It is also true that, while some streams are heavily fished at certain times of the day, they are completely deserted for a good percentage of the season. As a result a resident on that stream can have it to himself or herself most of the time.
You might choose to consider a property on a public stream knowing that the stream will not be busy all season long. The Smith River in Montana, for example, is heavily floated early in the season during high water but float traffic by mid-July is severely limited by reduced flow rates. From then on, adjacent landowners enjoy near exclusive use of the river. Natural characteristics of a stream may also serve to limit the amount of float traffic. Montana’s Boulder River is a challenging boulder strewn river that can only be floated in inflatables. Even then it requires an experienced helmsman. Irrigation draw down makes this float all the more challenging. For practical purposes it is a wade stream from mid-summer on.
If, on the other hand, you place a stronger emphasis on absolute privacy, then the number of potential choices decreases significantly and the price goes up pretty dramatically. Streams can be private by law. An example of this would be a Wyoming or Colorado stream that is too small to float. The law in these states prohibits an individual from placing a foot on the stream bottom without asking permission. This means that even floaters are not allowed to anchor or pull off to wade fish during the course of a float.
Streams can also be private due to their physical circumstances. An example of this would be a stretch of water on a Montana or Idaho stream that is too small to float, where the ranch is so far removed from a public access point that one would only be able to access it by hiking several miles up the streambed. Montana and Idaho law allows people the right to fish virtually all waters in the state as long as they stay below the average high water mark. Initial access must be via public access point or permission from a private owner. In Montana then, insistence on complete privacy means a smaller stream that eliminates both access and floating possibilities.
In Colorado and Wyoming it is much easier to find a private stream because there are hundreds of streams that are impossible to access without permission. Basically it is fair to say that, in these states, any stream of significant size that ends up being private for any reason carries a very high price tag.
Having made the initial decision concerning the level of exclusivity desired the search process can begin in earnest. At this point it makes sense to associate oneself with a real estate broker who is both experienced and an active outdoorsman with an extensive angling background. He or she can listen to your thoughts about the generic ideal and translate those thoughts into a list of appropriate choices. Experience here is critical. The right broker can speak to the quality of respective fisheries throughout the region and can also identify potential streams that may slip under the radar. The broker should be able to answer questions considering the amount of public activity on various streams. He or she should also be able to locate credible local experts that can provide greater detail about a particular fishery. Together, you can complete a search that extends through some or all of the Mountain West states depending upon the importance attached to your specific criteria.
Your broker will need to know just how serious a fisherman you are, and just what your expectations are with respect to a fishery. He or she will also need to know whether you prefer wade fishing or float fishing. Some streams are user friendly while others demand a fair amount of athletic prowess.
Stream enhancement and pond development are commonplace these days and it is therefore important to inform the broker of your willingness to spend money on such projects. Doing so can certainly expand the number of potential properties available to you. Armed with all of this information, the broker should be able to develop a list of possibilities. One cannot over emphasize the importance of taking the time to visit a large number of possibilities. It is easy to create a list of optimum criteria while sitting behind a desk but that list will very likely be unattainable in the real world. A successful search most likely involves some sacrifices as the theoretical perfect place likely does not exist in the real world.
This list of possibilities may well include both small and large “freestone” streams. A freestone stream is one that is directly fed by natural runoff. It may also include properties located on “tailwater” streams - streams that are dam controlled and consequently relatively consistent in flows and not usually subject to spring flooding. Many dams release water from the bottom thereby assuring that good cold water is released even during the hottest summer months. In fact some of the very best fisheries end up being lower elevation rivers that would normally heat up in the summer to temperatures that are not conducive to trout. As a result of dams, trout are often able to thrive in habitable water temperatures throughout the year and are even fishable in the winter months since these streams typically do not freeze over.
The list could also include one or more “spring creeks” - streams that are spring fed and therefore consistent in flow and temperature. These are particularly attractive options because they often rise on a property and flow through the same property for many miles before emptying into a river. They are also known for having prolific aquatic insect life providing a rich food source for trout. Spring creeks are fishable throughout the year and are often not accessible to the public in any way.
Finally, it might include properties that possess solid water sources that presently do not offer much as a fishery. These are referred to as “enhancement” candidates. It is often possible to take parts of certain ranches that, as a result of heavy livestock use over many decades, have turned into shallow marshes and restore them into significant spring creeks. This benefits not only the owner of the property but the fishing public at large by providing spawning habitat for the trout coming out of the main river.
Today there are a number of individuals and companies who are well versed in the science of habitat development. These consultants can change the entire character of a stream in order to increase the amount of biomass that the stream can maintain. If there is a sufficient water source, they can even build a completely new stream that in some cases can be even better than the existing stream. In situations where there is available water, but it is insufficient to maintain a trout stream, the construction of a pond or series of ponds may be an option. This provides yet another alternative for the prospect seeking fishing on the property.
Perhaps the most important “other consideration” is the classic conflict between aesthetics and the number and size of trout. As a general rule the most classically beautiful country occurs at the upper end of most valleys beneath the high craggy peaks where there are pine forests and aspen groves. Unfortunately, this is not where the large numbers of trophy size trout occur. The great fishing usually happens further down the valley where the growing season is longer, the hatches more abundant and the streams carry more flow. Of course, as the flow increases so does the potential for float fishing which reduces the possibility of finding privacy.
Another consideration that comes into play is that the lower elevation properties have two important benefits. They tend to be more user friendly for a longer season and they tend to be closer to towns, airports, restaurants, and other services. This might appeal to the non-fishing members of the family.
At the end of the day, angling for fishing properties calls for a number of compromises. These compromises can only be properly assessed from the ground.
While there are many rivers and streams throughout the Rocky Mountain West, the supply of available fishing properties in any given price range is very limited. Obviously private water is the preferred alternative if price is no object and location relative to towns and other streams is of secondary importance. There are actually many good reasons to consider a less than totally private piece of water with price being only one of them. It is essential that one visit a large number of alternatives so that one can become comfortable with what is available and how one feels about the various alternatives. In the end there is no substitute for making some carefully considered compromises.