Public Access

“Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.”                                                                                                           ~ Camille Pissarro

Woven into most rivers in North America are intervals of private and public water, and the river I fish is no different. I am privileged to have access, albeit somewhat questionable since I only have a passing acquaintance with distant relatives who technically own the property, to nearly a mile of private water. It’s a beautiful mix of long runs, boulder-strewn pockets, and stretches of riffles leading one to the other. There is one place where the private property is interrupted by a stretch of water marked by a short gravel pull-off from the two-lane county road that snakes through the canyon alongside the river. Anyone can fish this stretch, so we suitably refer to it as “Public Access.” It’s well hidden by thick brush and forest, but there are those who know of it and regularly fish it in the busy season and others who occasionally stumble upon it. I imagine there’s the occasional fisherman who’s savvy enough to read property boundaries on a map to find this diamond in the rough.

Sometimes folks get it wrong as did the two gents who were trespassing on the private land nearby early one morning. I encountered them on my daily run up the road as they were ducking through the barbed-wire fence just upstream of Public Access. They feigned surprise when I stopped to tell them they were on private property. They told me they had looked at maps and confirmed this stretch of river was not private. I told them they were dead wrong, you know, referring to the fact they had just gingerly navigated through barbed-wire. Well, that and the sign posted on the fence right next to them that read “Posted No Fishing”.

“There’s a guy up here who walks the banks from time to time,” I said. “Calls himself the Sheriff and takes it upon himself to warn people off the land. Just sayin’.”

They hemmed and hawed, mumbled something about being catch and release guys and wouldn’t stay long. I did my best to encourage them to reconsider by sharing with them a “difference of opinion” I had with the Sheriff a while back when he thunked a 9mm round in the water about ten yards from me last time I was on this stretch. They shrugged it off and I wasn’t about to push the issue, so I said, “Have a good one” before resuming my run.

They must have believed that sneaking onto private property meant the fishing would be better, given the lack of access for regular folks. The idea is that the fishing is best where the fewest go, and I suppose there’s merit to that notion. We fly fishermen look for privacy, for undisturbed streams where fish are not as easily spooked as they are in the well-trodden places. So these seemingly good-hearted men were simply trying to bend the rules a bit, thinking they could fulfill an experience all fly fishermen dream of. Had they only known about the hidden gem a couple of hundred yards away that’s as productive as any water on the entire river, they would have been fishing it that morning rather than risking a confrontation with the Sheriff.

It raises certain questions about private water and provokes controversy about what belongs to all people versus what belongs to the privilege of a few. If one owns the property up to the edge of the river, does he then claim that stretch of water as private water since others can only access it through his yard? Or if folks start wading the river in a public stretch and walk in the water as it enters private property, then assholes like the Sheriff can justifiably shoot in their direction? A fisherman can float his boat through, but the moment he steps out of the boat and onto the rocks in ankle-deep water, is he trespassing?

I’ve given names to most of my favorite spots along the river, a variety of public and private water in which I have been able to carve out secret areas of total solitude. Honey Hole, The Bend, Papa Dad’s. They’re favorites because I rarely get skunked and indeed, Public Access remains as productive as any of them. I surmise the fishermen who know of it are mostly conservation types and return their catch to the river. I certainly appreciate those on the river who would rather sow than reap. So, while this spot feels just a bit more pressure than the private stretches, the fishing is just as damn good.

Public Access is so reliable it seems to always be the place to start walking the river, just to feel the tug and get some endorphins coursing through the system. As it’s a short walk up the road from our place, we also can get on the water quickly. The conversation with the boys usually goes like this:

“Where do you want to start fishing this afternoon?”

“How about Public Access?”

“Sounds good. We usually do pretty well there.”

Pushing through the brush and willows at the river’s edge to the open bank, the key is to stay low and not spook what is invariably a nice brown trout holding close in the skinny water about ten feet out. We alternate who gets the first crack each time we hit that spot. With knees bent in a low-profile crouch, a simple back cast with a #16 bead head Prince Nymph gets that guy’s attention pretty much every time. Then it’s a matter of spreading out and slowly working towards the deeper runs in the middle of the river.

My friend Dale and I were nearly trampled by a moose at Public Access. Well…my friend Dale was nearly trampled by a moose. As we entered from the road, a medium-sized bull moose (medium-sized being relative since even the youngsters are 600 pounds of massive mammal) was ahead of us on the trail to the river, and our presence pushed him through to the river where he hung out just downstream of us as we reached the water’s edge. Dale and I stood side by side, and he began fishing while I kept my eye on the moose. I suppose there’s some science on moose behavior that I wasn’t aware of that says they could become agitated if you decided to have a staring contest with them, which in essence is what I was doing. I think I pissed him off enough that he walked a couple of steps towards us, then trotted a couple more and in a matter of seconds and with those long legs quickly covering ground, he closed the distance and was nearly upon us.

Dale wasn’t aware that I had covertly but unintentionally picked a fight with a creature weighing over a quarter of a ton, not that he was oblivious by nature, but he had a tendency to focus when he fished. All I could process in those three to four seconds was that it would be prudent to get the hell out of the way, and so I backed up into the stand of low willows at my back, leaving a clear path for the moose to hit Dale.

I said, perhaps a little too matter-of-factly, “Dale, watch out.”

Dale turned and was instantly startled by the sight of the moose bearing down on him just a few yards away. Well, startled is a bit of an understatement as I’m certain Dale’s ass-cheeks at that very moment were puckering up a few inches into his abdomen. All he could do was freeze. When the moose was almost on top of Dale, about eight feet away from head-butting him, it stopped, turned left into the shallows of the river, and slowly walked downstream.

I eyeballed Dale, and Dale turned towards me, not breathing, with an incredulous look that seemed to be accusing me of not exercising good judgment (a look he has often given me, most of the time for very good reason). “That was the warning I got? Dale, watch out?”

I said, “Sorry buddy. I can’t believe he stopped, but I sure am glad that he did.”

As Dale remained stuck in place, puckered parts relaxing, I walked to the hoof track in the mud of the riverbank closest to Dale. A moose hoof splays under its heavy load, so the size of the print was exaggerated and impressive. Walking towards Dale heel to toe, and estimating my shoes to be about a foot long, I measured the distance from the last hoof print to my friend. Sure enough, right at eight feet. That was close.

I’m not sure what compelled the moose to stop. What prevented him from taking just one and a half more strides, which would have been enough to cover the final gap before knocking Dale on his behind? I suppose that same science on moose behavior that I wasn’t familiar with would have mentioned that they occasionally marshal a false charge. But if it hadn’t been a bluff, it could have resulted in some serious stuff like bruises and broken bones and death, so I suppose I experienced a fleeting pang of guilt for not protecting my friend.

Not that I was going to allow him to see that, of course. So all I could think of to say to Dale was, “So are you going to catch a fish or what?”

From time to time I’m disappointed to see a vehicle parked in the pull-out at Public Access, so I’ll push upstream and take on the private water. After all, the Sheriff seems to have ventured out less and less over the years. In fact, I haven’t seen him since he shot at me. I suppose the years are placing an increasingly heavier drag on his false bravado and warped sense of entitlement. I’ll continue to work the water, to find pockets of privacy in public areas, to fish on the off days and the off-seasons.  After all, it’s not so much about the catching as it is about hanging out at the edges of water and time. And finding solitude in an increasingly crowded world.