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The American West is a big place with lots of good trout waters, but the truth is, it is getting harder to find waters that provide a high-quality experience. By high quality, I mean relatively unpressured and off the beaten track. One way I have addressed this problem is by joining an organization called Rocky Mountain Angling Club (www.rmangling.com). RMAC is a 20-year-old, family-run club that holds leases on about 80 miles of streams and rivers, mostly in Colorado, but also to a lesser extent in Wyoming. These include some prime sections of the Colorado’s noted big-fish rivers, including the Colorado, Roaring Fork, Gunnison, Arkansas, and Yampa. In addition, the club has leases on many small streams, as well as more than 20 lakes and ponds that are perfect for introducing youth to fly fishing. All of the club’s waters are catch and release and many require barbless hooks.
Here is how the club works. There is a one-time $350 initiation fee. In addition, there are annual dues of $120, plus daily rod fees for days fished. A new member receives a property description binder that contains detailed descriptions of the more than 45 properties under club lease. The descriptions are designed to give members enough information on each property to enable them to self guide.
During the year, members receive eight newsletters that contain updates on conditions for each of the leases, as well as timely advice. Members can book a property by calling the club’s 800 number during office hours (8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Mountain Time, seven days a week). The daily rod fee varies from lease to lease from a low of $45 to a high of $130. It averages about $65. Members may be accompanied by non-member guests. Each guest must sign a one-time liability waiver. The member is charged a rod fee for each guest. There is a reduced daily rod fee for youth, defined as someone 13 to 17 years of age. Children under 13 are free on most club leases. As an alternative to full-day reservations, members may also book half-day reservations at a reduced fee. These are available only for afternoons, however, and they must be reserved the same day you want to go fishing.
The club currently has more than 1,700 members, but don’t let that high number put you off. In 2011, the average number of days fished by each member of the Rocky Mountain Angling Club was fewer than one and a half days. And, to assure the highest quality experience possible, there is a daily limit on the number of anglers allowed on any particular lease. The daily angler limit varies from two to four on most leases. For example, the lease on Lake Fork of the Arkansas, a small tailwater, is only three quarters of a mile in length. It is rated for two anglers (or three anglers, if all are part of the same group). To cite another example, the lease on the main stem of the Arkansas at Gold Camp is rated for a maximum of four anglers. This is a much wider stretch of water, however. This lease has a suspension bridge allowing access to both sides of the river. Overall, I have found that the daily angler limits are appropriate. They provide members plenty of solitude.
Importantly, many of the club’s waters are easily reached from major cities of Colorado’s front range (Denver, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, and Pueblo). Other leases are located near some of Colorado’s most scenic vacation spots (Aspen, Crested Butte, Leadville, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Steamboat Springs). Many of these popular vacation destinations offer convenient non-angling activities such as golf, horseback treks, and hiking. Other leases are on quality waters in more remote parts of the state and in southern Wyoming (e.g., the White River in the west, the North Platte River and tributaries in the north, the Conejos River in the south, and the Little Laramie River in Wyoming).
For high rollers, a Rocky Mountain Angling Club membership offers additional benefits. Members receive special package rates for New Zealand North Island fishing trips booked through Distant Waters, a Denver-based adventure angling company. Members also qualify for a 15 percent discount on stays at Ted Turner’s Vermejo Park Ranch.
At more than 900 square miles in size, Vermejo Park is the largest privately owned contiguous tract of land in the United States. Vermejo Park is located just south of the Colorado border, in New Mexico. Guests are housed in a grand lodge on the ranch. The ranch offers 31 miles of stream fishing, plus stillwater angling for large (and rare) Rio Grande cutthroat trout, rainbows, browns, and brookies. Much of Gary Borger’s video of Stillwater fishing techniques was filmed on the 21 lakes and ponds situated on Vermejo Park Ranch.
Of course, private fishing for a fee raises resource policy issues in some minds. That’s particularly true in Colorado, where landowners are deemed to own the entire bed of rivers and streams that cross their properties. This means that anglers in a driftboat may not drop anchor or wade sections of rivers bordered by private land, even if only to relieve nature’s call. This is true even if the river is considered navigable.
To provide for Colorado’s burgeoning angling population, as well as anglers visiting from elsewhere, the Department of Wildlife (DOW) has an aggressive program of leasing private property, providing public access to some of the state’s premium trout waters. These leases augment angling on public lands. In a recent New York Times article one DOW official put angling access issues in Colorado into this context: When clubs provide access that otherwise wouldn’t exist, that’s a good thing. However, when businesses compete with the state to open these areas but provide access only to those who can afford to pay, it raises questions about the commercialization of wildlife and has the potential to harm efforts to get new people into outdoor sports like hunting and fishing.
So, why do some landowners in Colorado work with Rocky Mountain Angling Club instead of the State of Colorado? I have had some personal talks with landowners in Colorado, and one factor seems to be peace of mind. An owner of a ranch near Crested Butte and an owner of a trophy trout water on the Yampa River near Steamboat Springs both told me, they like having advance knowledge and control of the number of anglers using their properties. They said that a DOW lease would not give them the same level of security.
Of course, these are just random comments, not a scientific sampling of opinion, but they do illustrate that some property owners have legitimate concerns that make working with Rocky Mountain Angling Club an attractive alternative to working with the state. As for the ethics of locking up waters for the enjoyment of a moneyed few, I think it would be a mistake to conflate the situation out West with the situation in many eastern and Midwestern states where there simply aren’t many places to fish. Colorado, and the entire West for that matter, is rich in public lands. There is no scarcity of places to fish. All considered, I’m personally comfortable with what Rocky Mountain Angling Club is doing and I recommend their service to fellow subscribers.
For the traveling angler with limited time to spend at a destination, assurance of a quality angling experience is valuable. You can get that, of course, at many of the West’s lodges and dude ranches, but you will pay a heavy price for it. Rocky Mountain Angling Club offers traveling anglers a quality experience on a wide variety of waters for a relatively reasonable price. I suggest you check it out. Bill Owen.
Postscript: Subscribers who have fished Rocky Mountain Angling Club waters in Colorado or Wyoming are urged to weigh in with reports. Send them to [email protected].