Good Life / Muse / Sporting Life

On Private Water

When I was a kid, our family had a little cabin in Beech Mountain North Carolina. It was a ramshackle ski chalet. I was blessed to be able to walk over and jump on the lifts and slide down the ice as much as my heart was content and my ass could take the blows. The family was always in the house, fire burning and hot chocolate at the ready. When I discovered fly-fishing, I stopped skiing. I would do anything to catch a trout- even if it meant wading over frozen water and deicing my guides and line between casts. In college, I would skip class and drive across North Carolina to fish. I was addicted. Fishing in Carolina and over the hills to Tennessee and Virginia usually meant catching a whole bunch of finless stocked fish. On special occasions when time allowed I enjoyed deep hike and fish trips. The net was usually a day of catching very small native brook trout. As an acumen for finding these pure trout increased and my catalogue of secret spots grew- this was my mission. The grey and lifeless stockers seemed artificial. Occasionally, I had the opportunity in my early days to fly out West and fish Wyoming and Montana. These father-son trips for large wild fish made delayed harvest and stocker fishing seem silly, but they added to my appreciation for the little wild trout in the unique ecosystem of North Carolina’s hidden streams. 

At about 27ish years old, I’d worked out all the kinks in my fishing and was probably at the top of my game. I spend the summer pulling teeth and doing root canals for the Indian Health Service at the Shoshone reservation in Lander, Wyoming. The folks in Chapel Hill probably had no notion of why I chose to go there instead of the VA hospital in Durham. Fishing around the Wind River Range had the same since of adventure as speck hunting the little streams of home- little napkin maps and rumors. I found cutthroats everywhere I went- long hikes, cold rivers cutting through high hot desert, and alpine mountain lakes. Fishing on the reservation itself was a political game. To those with any familiarity with reservation life- to say the least, my redheaded- freckled self was not welcome. This was perhaps my first venture into “private water”. Despite being a pariah inside the the reservation, I did make a few friends here and there. I was invited to a sweat lodge- details of which shall be omitted. I did, by grace, do some dentistry that was rewarding for a native and he valued it enough to take me deep into the reservations waters a couple of times. Let’s just say, Wyoming- uncut, 200 years ago- the stuff you see in movies. 

Later that summer I returned home and had a bunch of catching up to do. I fished a little, but the transition to our streams psychologically was both a balm for the calm feeling of home and disappointing from a pure angling sense. While visiting family, a neighbor invited me to fish with him. When we got to his fishing hole, we signed in where he was greeted by name by a river steward. It seemed to fit his pattern- new BMW for a first car, played Pinehurst just as much as the Governor. I felt like I was out West again. My experience in Carolina for the previous decade was that if you planned on catching a fish over twelve inches, it was either luck- you would be sharing the stream with a hobo chucking corn with a spinning rod flanked by a five gallon bucket full of finless stockers- you get the point. We were the only people there. A private game warden came by and politely checked us, approaching my friend by name- it was mostly a social call. All catch and release, barbless, serene, and massive fish.  I couldn’t complain. 

As the years when by I imagined how public water could be managed in a way to replicate just half of that experience. It was a guilty pleasure and frankly privilege. It did not seem natural though. The fish were no easier to catch, they were huge- but something felt wrong about the way they were pellet fed.

My longtime partner in crime, Ron Nason in the Bridger Wilderness.

At the turn of my thirtieth birthday, life changed. I had a career, the kids started coming. Fishing became less about sneaking out for long days and more about scheduling out for dedicated weeks. It meant booking float trips in Tennessee on the calendar- flying out West. It meant putting up your elbows to claim the time to be able to fish. With the experiences few and far between, I wanted to promise myself success. I estimated the salmon fly hatch on the Madison successfully several years in a row. I took up offers to fly out when the spring creeks opened around Jackson, flew to Alaska . . .

I don’t regret any of the great adventures, but always wished inside- with all the mountains and cold water right around me, that fishing could and should be as easy as getting in the truck after work with a rod, a small tin of flies, a couple of cold beers after work. 

Now with three little boys in tow, I went to a father-son weekend at a friend’s mountain cabin. It was a golf cabin and he was a golfer. I’m not a golfer. He said bring, “bring your rod, there’s a little fishing on the golf course- maybe you can show me something- we have permits to fish it- it’s private.” This is when I termed the phrase, WHORE HOUSE FISHING. It was the same experience I had 15 years prior. Pellet feed, no one around, absolute monsters. Whore house fishing because your paid for it.

Fast forward to 2020. For all accounts- for everyone, this year has been a disaster. One shining light on the year has been the refuge I have in Blowing Rock, NC. As if taking some sort of sabbatical, I’ve spent more time up at the cabin than usual. Despite my aversion to whore house fishing, I bought a lot in a gated neighborhood ten minutes from the cabin with my dad and younger brother as partners. Noting fancy- just an investment- with perks. It’s a trout whorehouse. The water there is very private, patrolled, groomed, stocked, pellet fed. Everything that I’ve grown to love and hate. The fish are massive and dense. My dental practice shut it’s doors on Corona just about the time the frost was breaking and the deed was signed. I wasn’t at work during the week and the neighborhood’s weekend warriors were hours away. I was able to slip up a half dozen times. The fishing wasn’t easy- just because they are there doesn’t mean they bite a line with drag or a poor fly selection—- but when they bite! When my office opened back up two months later, I was back to the weekly grind. I was drawn to those waters like Bilbo Baggin’s ring. Learning the holes, watching the bug changes through the first set of seasons. I attempted to go over several weekends, but the beat board was full- every time with the weekend regulars. Taking it as an “is what it is”, I figured I’d just have to make plans to shape out a few weekdays throughout the year to enjoy the privilege and investment. Furthermore, I imagine it might get a little old catching the same fish over and over- so I wouldn’t turn my back on the hikes and the specks and a few good weekend floats with my old Tennessee guide buddies.

Typical Whorehouse Brown

Then the POA came into play. As much as they try to rationalize fairness, an owners association (which governs the fishing here) can seem like a despotic government. Within months of finding a fishing Valhala and getting acquainted with it- it felt like a full scale pissing match was going on over who and when you could even get into this place. The beauty of it are the rules, the ugly of it are the rules. Kinda of like a golf club, the guys with the lowest handy-caps and the most tee-times get the best lockers in the club house. They’re more likely to pitch into the capital fund and thus feel more entitled to the use and ownership. When you look at a guy that just wants to fish once a month out of 4380 opportunities a year to sign up on the beat board (6 beats x 2 daily sessions x 365 days/year), you can imagine the frustration of driving over or all the way up the mountain with a rigged rod to find out the same old guys are in there every time. It might actually cost me way more per “session” than them, considering my visits are few and far between- but they’re the guys that pitched in the bigbucks in donations to the stream- you see how it works. Don’t want to bitch or get into particulars- but nothing beats public water access and private water fish. The outdoors are supposed to be fun, not political. The “ownership” of game and its access aren’t new. The North Carolina mountains are starting to feel like you need a King’s Grant. 

From the beginning of my days fly-fishing for trout I’ve wished a few things. I’ve wished there was no such thing as keeping or killing a trout. I wish all the effort at delayed harvest was put toward catch and release only, good habitat management, good stream access, and good policing. I’ve watched miles of stream, the stuff I grew up on, go private. The more and more our state grows, the more folks move here from other states, the more dense and wealthy we become- the worse it gets. I’ve admitted my guilt this year- I’m struggling with the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em decision”.

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