This Week's View

by Deanna Lee Birkholm

November 29th, 2004

The Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin Hood and Men in Tights

There's been a discussion on FAOL recently on private waters and pay for play fishing. The article which started the discussion is from the New York Times and has to do with a private club, "Spring Ridge on 125 acres at the confluence of the Little Juniata River and Spruce Creek, [Pa]. More important for its members, the club leases almost 10 miles of trout-fishing waters, with "beats," or sections of river, on Spruce Creek, the Little Juniata, Yellow and Penns Creeks and Warriors Mark Run." The opinions were mixed, and some quite unhappy.

I thought a bit of history might be in order.

The idea of private ownership of property is actually quite new. For many centuries the 'upper class' the noble and their entourage owned all the property. The whole country was owned by the King. Kings 'gave' out pieces of property to those noblemen who supported them. The noblemen allowed lesser people to live on the property, farm it, serve as servants, or as members of their court. Life was pretty good if you were at the top of the heap. If you weren't it was pretty bleak. Some domesticated animals were kept, cows, horses, pigs, chickens, ducks and so forth. However, all game (and fish) belonged to the nobleman on whose land they existed.

The King of course laid claim to all of those too, but allowed the Lord of the manor to hunt them, or have his gamekeeper hunt them for the Lord's table. There were river keepers way back when, and they and the gamekeepers were probably what we would call game wardens now. They couldn't arrest a violator, but the Sheriff was brought in and justice was administered. (Or what passed for the Lords idea of justice.)

Enter Robin Hood. You already know that story...

People were hungry. Depending on the country and who the King in power was, the plight of the surf (those not of the noble class) could be very bad. People poached fish, game, whatever they could find to eat. In some countries it could be worse than starving, the punishment was death!

Fast forward to the settling of the New World! America!

No more noble class. No kings. No Lord of the Manor owning all the land and everything on it, including the people.

While all the other reasons for fleeing to America were certainly valid, the one which bares on our discussion here is the right to own property. The 'common man' could own a piece of land! HIS LAND. To do with whatever the owner pleased. He could farm it, grow things, cut the forest, plant other things, build a house, a farm, develop a trade and a business - anything he could achieve on his own - or with the help of friends or family. Groups did get together and built communities, business, a whole successful culture.

Amazingly property could be transferred. You could sell your property and buy another one - or more!

And the overriding concept was it was YOUR property. You could choose to keep people off, or allow them to come in.

As this country grew and expanded, land which was 'new' - that is not yet owned by anyone was 'government' land. Parcels of this land were given away for free simply for going there and living on it. Some land-grants required 'improving' the land. Claims for mining property required certain work to be preformed, and the 'proof' of the claim be shown. For the most part, the early grants stayed in the families for a good many years.

Water rights for those properties varied a great deal. Mostly depending on how plentiful water was. Scarcity required management for watering stock, growing crops and development of communities. It should be pretty obvious that these water rights were very well tied to the ownership of the land.

As commerce developed, people who made large fortunes bought more property. Built homes, summer homes, hunting and fishing camps and expanded their holdings. Water rights usually went right along with the deeds to the land.

Many of the very rich were hunters and fishermen. Fly fishers. They developed their waters, enhanced the fisheries, and managed the waters carefully. After all, it was part of their investment. The value was not lost to them. And they had a certain image to uphold!

Fast forward again to Henry Ford and the automobile.

Travel had been by horse, train, stagecoach and not many common people were traveling to fish. If they fished it was local and on either their own water, or 'public' water set aside by the State.

With the advent of cheap travel, a car, people did travel. Maybe not what we consider travel today, but the common man went fishing, camping, the beach, to the lake - anywhere his Ford would take him. Quite often the family outing or vacation (a new concept to the common man) was to a church camp, or a commercial camp with rustic building, these could be anywhere, but often on lakes. Again, private property.

The idea of "national parks" didn't happen until Teddy Roosevelt's administration.

If you want to dissect a little further, those early travel and church camps were no more or less than what we today call pay to play. You paid for the privilege to stay there and to fish the waters. Some places offered boats to rent, or launching ramps for those who owned their own boats. They did usually charge boat rental or a fee to use the ramps.

Fly fishing as we know it really did not become 'popular' with the common man until after World War II. Yes, there were folks who fly fished, but usually the wealthy who had the leisure time and money to spend.

Enter Men in Tights (well at least waders).

But the returning GI, wanted more. Many took advantage of the GI Bill and obtained a good education. They found good jobs, built homes, raised families and had the leisure time and money to pursue other interests. Fly fishing, ownership of property on fishing waters was all part of the good life.

It was the returning WWII vets who designed, built and used the first fiberglass fly rods, it was their generation who started conservation organizations like Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy and others. It was also this generation who conceived the idea of catch and release.

Of all those who lived before us, in my mind the "greatest generation" as Tom Brocaw so aptly calls them, left us the greatest legacy. It is their work and sweat which has provided us with the fisheries we have. The laws which protect our waters and fish did not exist before they interceded.

I am immensely grateful to all those who have worked so hard.

Sure there are problems, and there probably always will be. We don't live in a perfect world. Pollution needs to be stopped and cleaned up. Zoning is needed to provide green belts on any development which could impact our watersheds. Verifiable limits are needed for ocean and near shore commercial fishing - slot limits and/or no kill restrictions need to be imposed in many places. More public access is needed, as are more trained conservation officers (fish cops) - the list may be endless.

Putting everything in perspective, the ownership of 'private water' is probably the least of our concerns. The history of private waters will out-live any of us, and the choice of those owning private waters is to use them however they see fit. If the conditions and fishing are lousy they won't have any takers. If the conditions and fishing are great, does not everyone win?

Conversely, how many times have we seen public waters terribly mismanaged by state or federal government? Perhaps local management, with a vested interest, does a better job?

Before you get your shorts in a twist, it might serve you well to take a look at how we got here, and what happens when we are gone. There is more than one side to the story. ~ DLB

If you would like to comment on this or any other article please feel free to post your views on the FAOL Bulletin Board!

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