The home owner who erected the sign above is a newcomer to the river, one of those guys who has arrived to the valley in the last 10 years. He reigns from Colorado, where the laws are different from that of Montana. The slick in front of his house was renamed Prick Slick, because of how this guy treats anglers who walk the bank (below the high water mark). In fact, I was there the night this name was conjured up and it was a result of how this guy treated us as we snuck by the pool full of rising trout that he was fishing to. No, we didn’t spook the fish or fish to them, in fact, we gave the guy a wide berth and didn’t fish 100 yards above or below him – even though he called us various names and threaten us, all because we were on “his land”.
|The Big Hole River at Brown's Bridge during some of the high flows of 2012. photo courtesy of Stonefly Inn|
Joe goes on to explain how it is good river etiquette "to give an angler ample room as to not spook the area he/she is fishing...sometimes called 'high banking'. Walking 20-30 feet off the bank, keeping a low profile, just get around another angler is good etiquette. Some folks call this trespassing; others call it an unwritten rule of the river."
This post struck a chord with me and reminded me of an encounter I had with a "land owner" on the Big Hole about a mile upstream of Browne's Bridge this past summer. I have been fly fishing four trout for more than 3 years now. Certainly not a long time, but, between field work and angling time, I have spent my fair share of time on the water. My fly fishing mentors schooled me in the ways of the river. I subscribe to the same school of good river etiquette as Joe. How to respect the land, the fish, and our fellow fisherman. In Montana, we are lucky enough to have a recreation-friendly stream access law. An access law that allows the public to use rivers and streams for recreational purposes up to the ordinary high-water mark. But, some land owners (in-state and out-of-state) don't seem to have a clear grasp of the stream access law or practices in good river etiquette.
It was late August or early September 2012. I was fishing the east side of the Big Hole upstream of Browne's Bridge. Bucko was working the river from the west bank. With an extremely high runoff earlier that spring (...and summer), the high water mark was well above the high bank. As I progressed upstream, tossing streamers to some unwilling browns on a blue bird day, I noticed a fisherman working some rising fish from the inside bend. Not wanting to "high bank" him, I followed an established path (that was still below the high water mark) a good 30 to 40 feet away from the bank to move upstream.
As I walked the foot path, I heard a shout. "Hey, this is my property," the man yelled. I walked over to the bank to talk to him. From the opposite side of the river, he shouted "You can't fish this section today. This is my property, I am fishing it today." He continued to pontificate about his version of the Montana stream access law, telling me that I was breaking it. I was comfortable in my assessment of the high water mark. He told me that my only option was to walk downstream and stop fishing "his" section. I tried to explain my actions and let him know that I was within my rights to access this section of the river. But, reasoning with this California vacation home owner was a lost cause.
Good river etiquette was thrown out of the window. Words weren't going to communicate my point. I let my actions speak and showed him the alternative to me walking an established legal path along the opposite bank. Even with the "gentleman" across the bank, I crossed the Big Hole 5 feet below the water he was fishing. The fish stopped feeding. I walked up his side of the bank. I crowded him so as to "stay within the high water mark." After walking about a quarter mile upstream, I looked back. He was talking with his friend and pointing in my general direction. Was he going to call FWP? If only I was that lucky. The fishing was no good that day. I was game for a chaperoned discussion with a FWP officer and that "good sir."
Here is a google map depiction of the Big Hole incident.
View The Big Hole Incident in a larger map
Let me know what you think. Was I in the right? the wrong? or the grayest of areas?