Pay to Play
Pay to Play
When angling pressure gets to you, head for Wyoming's private streams.
- By: Will Rice
- Photography by: Greg Thomas
- , Barry Beck
- , Cathy Beck
- and Will Rice
When i was growing up in southern Idaho, private property meant, “Close the gates behind you and don’t spook the cows.” The rare No Trespassing sign just meant a grouchy old farmer didn’t like his neighbors. But by simply asking permission we were able to hunt pheasants in the stubble-fields and fish for rainbows and cutthroat in the moss-filled spring creeks. In exchange, we occasionally dropped off a couple of fish or a brace of mallards for our hosts.
That was more decades ago than I like to think about, and things have changed; these days in the Rockies locals may still have access to a private spot or two, but if you have out-of-state plates you better just look for public water to do your fishing.
I live in Alaska now, but visit the Rockies every fall, which is why a friend of mine, Scott Heywood, kept inviting me to join him in Sheridan, Wyoming. Heywood is a partner in the booking agency Angling Destinations, and he loves fishing out-of-the-ordinary places. I met him in Kamchatka and I’ve fished with him in the Bahamas, but sometimes your home water is the best, and that is what he wanted to share with me. He renewed the invitation last summer, saying, “We have exclusive leases on a half-dozen ranches near the Bighorns. It’s beautiful country, good fishing, and we’ll have all the water to ourselves. You’ll love it.”
Fishing private water is a common selling point in the West. Often it means that a lodge/ranch can control access to a stretch of river. The water is private, but the lodge guests fish it daily. In addition, there are a growing number of places offering a chance to fish water that is rarely seen. Typically, these streams run through working ranches whose owners have figured out they can make a little extra money by letting a guide or an outfitter bring in a few people over the course of the summer. The guides don’t advertise the exact location of these waters, but some are sections of well-known streams, such as Idaho’s Silver Creek and Utah’s Freemont River. What all these waters have in common is that they provide a fishing experience that resembles what you might have found in the West 50 years ago.
That’s what I found last September during my annual pilgrimage to the Henry’s Fork and Yellowstone National Park, and on a subsequent drive to Sheridan. On that long drive I passed the Madison, Firehole, Clark’s Fork, Slough Creek and the upper reaches of the Bighorn River—some of the finest public water in the country. I was tempted to throw a fly on all of them, but I was more eager to try the small, private waters that Heywood had invited me to fish. And I wasn’t disappointed.
In fact, the first stream we fished sits right on the eastern edge of the Bighorn Mountains, tumbling out of a canyon over Volkswagen-sized boulders, a series of deep pools fed by small plunges. It is clear and cold, and flanked by steep canyon walls and pine trees—one of the prettiest steams I have ever fished. The ranch has a type of raw wildness that is absent in our national parks and on many of the big public rivers. It hosts a healthy elk population, bears are common and wolves have been sighted. A year ago, the rancher put down a horse and took it up the canyon and focused a motion-controlled camera on the carcass. It fed a pair of mountain lions for several days.
We waded in at the lower end of the pools, often waist deep, and cast into the currents. This was a rainbow river, and the trout shot up from the bottom to eat the dry flies we tossed to them. They were fun and uninhibited, and it was clear that on a summer day in the middle of a hatch, you could catch more of them than a person deserved. Most of those rainbows were 12 to 16 inches, but Heywood said that he once hooked a fish in an upper stretch that he first mistook for an otter. Trapped in the confines of the large pool, the fish finally wore itself out, but not before Scott had to dive under a log to follow it. He thought it would go seven pounds.
I was hampered by a soon-to-be-replaced hip, so we didn’t venture far upstream. But that didn’t matter; only a couple dozen people fish this stream over the course of a summer, but those who want to see around the next bend can hike a couple of miles upstream without hitting water that can be reached by other fishermen.
“How did you get access to these places?” I asked Heywood as we were driving out after a great day on the water.
“I’ve known the owner of this ranch since she was a teenager,” Heywood replied. “And we have cultivated all of these relationships for years. Essentially, it’s just a matter of being a good neighbor for a long time. We may call ahead and ask if they need anything from town—save them the drive. They know we’ll make sure that anyone fishing with us treats it as if they owned it themselves, which is mostly just a matter of letting people know things that they didn’t learn growing up in Boston.”
“Yeah,” I laughed. “Close the gate behind you and don’t spook the damn cows.”
The next private stream we fished was completely different. This was prairie water, flowing through flat, uncultivated pasture; it was a stream of riffles and slick runs, with good cover along the banks. We drove down a barely visible dirt track, closing the barbed wire gate behind us. The creek was marked by patches of willows and thick green grass.
“Don’t plan on catching a lot of fish here,” Heywood said. “These are wild fish, but they aren’t easy. Any mistakes and you pay. But there are some big fish in this river.”
“Tough” was the operative word. This was late season and the stream was dead low, slow and clear. Walking up to the first run, we spooked a pair of whitetail deer out of the willows. They hopped through the middle of the pool and disappeared on the far side.
“We’ll try it again on the way back,” Heywood said.
We slipped up to the next riffle. There were some Baetis coming off, and on the far side were some very subtle sips, the kind that can be mistaken for small fish. Unfortunately, I put down the trout. No worries though: We didn’t have to wonder if somebody else might beat us to the next hole, which was only another 20 yards upstream.
We worked our way along, hopscotching each other. Every run held a fish or two, and they were sipping Baetis. I missed a couple of strikes and then watched Heywood drop his fly next to the willows in a tailout. He came tight and the stream exploded, but after two hard runs the fish—big, according to Heywood—was gone.
The next run was long and straight, with a grass-covered bank on the far side. Very fishy looking. Without saying anything, we both switched to hopper patterns.
“Start here,” Heywood said. “I’ll go halfway down.”
I hadn’t gotten far when I saw that Heywood was into a good fish. I walked down to take a few photos as he tried to keep the trout out of a rootball.
“It’s a good fish, but not as big as that one I just lost,” he lamented.
It turned out to be a beautifully colored brown, and the tape put it at 22 inches. I put away the camera and grabbed my rod. My big foam hopper hit the far seam about 15 feet from where Heywood had just hooked his fish. I was just slipping my sunglasses back on when there was a massive boil on the fly. Having only one hand in play probably saved me from jerking the fly out of the trout’s mouth. After I “set” the hook the fish ran for a rootwad, but I was able to turn it. In hand, it proved to be the twin of Scott’s fish. A pair of 22-inch browns on consecutive casts is good fishing anywhere and something that is becoming more difficult, if not impossible, to do on the big, public and heavily fished waters that are sprinkled around the Rockies. All of a sudden I was really comfortable with my decision to pass those public waters on the drive to Sheridan and, instead, focus on the small private waters that I was fortunate enough to have access to.
By the end of a short day, we had hooked and lost three more fish that size or larger. We didn’t catch many, but our smallest fish was about 18 inches. Heywood said that his two best trout from this stream were a brown and a rainbow that both measured just under 27 inches.
Both of these streams, and one other that we didn’t fish, are close to Sheridan, with its good restaurants and ample accommodations. They are a short hop from the Bighorn River, offering a chance to sample some private water after rubbing elbows with scads of anglers on the heavily fished Bighorn.
The other three rivers that Heywood has fishing rights on are located in the Ten Sleep country of north-central Wyoming, remote even by Western standards. And the fishing there was as different as the setting. These are cutthroat streams, winding creeks lined with willows. Every corner has a small gravel bar and a deep, undercut bank on the opposite side. The pools looked empty, but as a few bugs began to hatch, I could see shadows moving along the edges of the cover. Flashes in the deep portions of the pools and the occasional white of an open mouth showed the fish were starting to feed. We flipped hopper/droppers as close to the cover as we could, wading across the creek occasionally to untangle errant casts. Before long, Baetis began popping out onto the surface and we started to see those methodical rises so characteristic of cutthroat. We switched to Blue Quills and began fooling fish. I quickly realized that the stream, which had appeared barren when we first arrived, harbored a healthy population of trout. A semi-intact beaver pond gave me a glimpse of how big some of them had grown, long dark shadows sliding along the bottom and not another angler around to harass them.
If you choose to fish some of the West’s private waters, with Heywood or someone else, understand that the guide services may not resemble what you see on the mainstream and highly competitive public waters. On these private ranches don’t expect designer sunglasses and Latin entomology from the guides. These are the sons of the ranch owners and although they are good fishermen and know the water, they won’t be telling you how they spend their winters guiding in New Zealand and Argentina.
The same goes for food and lodging. When fishing with Heywood, the nearest motel is owned by a guide’s mother, and dinner is in the local saloon, not at a hoity-toity lodge. As I ate dinner one night, I noticed bullet holes in the barroom floor, dating from the time some cowboy tried to shoot a horsefly. The food was good, and when you walk in with the guide from down the road you will be included in a local culture that could come from a Wallace Stegner essay. This is the real West.
These small, private waters are special, even if they rarely produce the numbers or size of fish found in the big, public rivers. What they do provide is an opportunity to have a stream to yourself, fishing over trout that are more familiar with otters and osprey than fishermen, and you can’t say that about many trout streams these days.
Will Rice is a freelance writer/photographer and frequent contributor to FR&R. He lives in Anchorage, AK. You can see more of his photos at willricephoto.zenfolio.com