The Future of Fly Fishing Depends on Access

by Kirk Deeter

As an editor-at-large for Field & Stream and the editor of Angling Trade (, I’m often asked what I believe is the biggest challenge the sport of fly fishing faces…now and in the future.

It isn’t the steep learning curve. After all, the fly fishing learning curve has been around for years (it’s often considered an attribute) and it’s really only as steep as you want it to be. It isn’t the high price of gear. There are now more quality fly fishing products available for reasonable prices than ever before. And no, XBox 360 hasn’t corrupted the minds and motivation of “generation next” beyond repair. Video games aren’t keeping kids off rivers.

The number one threat to the viability and value of fly fishing for present and future anglers is shrinking access to opportunity. Plain and simple.

It’s all about having a place to go, or the lack thereof. We can talk about fishing for carp, bass, and panfish, which can indeed be caught in a lot of accessible places, even with fly rods…and sure, the oceans are wide open (provided you have a boat to fish them with), but the foundation of the fly fishing world is, for better or worse, trout fishing. And for that, we need rivers, streams, lakes and ponds with cool, clean water. The more we have available, the more fly fishing will prosper.

A recent study by ( told us that almost 20 percent of anglers last year cited “lack of access” as something that stood between them and their fishing plans. That’s terrifying, whether you’re a fly shop, a rod maker, a guide, a magazine writer, or an everyday angler who wants to take your grandson or granddaughter fishing.

That’s also why it’s important to protect what resources we have. You nay-sayers from my last post on conservation funding cuts (http:// funding-cuts-could-devastate-fly-fishing-resources) should realize that, like with medicine and car repairs, an ounce of prevention is far more effective and affordable than pounds of cures. So it’s financially responsible, in the long term, to fund conservation efforts.

But it’s also troubling to see states like Utah, and now possibly even Montana, backpedal on stream access and take rights away from the fishing public. In Montana, House Bill 309, introduced recently by Jeff Welborn (R-Dillon), defines a “ditch” (off limits to anglers) as any water with irrigation equipment on it. This broad definition would restrict access to key stretches of water, including parts of the Bitterroot, Big Hole, and other popular fishing rivers. Seriously? We’re redefining “ditches” in order to find new places to hang “no trespassing” signs?

Montana…your rivers are great, but the real reason you’re the envy of people like me and others from states like Colorado (and the reason you make millions in fly tourism) is that you have enlightened stream access laws, rather than the “feudal” systems other anglers in other states are stuck with. Take that away, and you watch and wait (not long) for the dollars to disappear.

I have no problem with anyone who wants to buy their own little slice of heaven and keep their favorite fishing holes protected, if that’s what the existing laws allow. I don’t even mind rod fees, and pay- to-play. It is what it is. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with getting off your duff and hiking to find pristine solitude on public water.

But I think the deepest pits of fly fishing purgatory are reserved for those who would violate and ruin a landscape on one side of a state, and then use the profits they made by doing so to buy a stretch of clean river on the other side of the state, and build a fence around it.

And I think that to backpedal now on resource quality and the rights of the general public to access these rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds…well, that will kill the sport of fly fishing, dead as a door nail. Avoiding that should be a shared priority for anyone who really cares about the culture of fly fishing.