This is the first of two contributions authored by Carl Ochnio, an avid freshwater fly angler who lives in central Connecticut. Carl is a former higher education professional who now finds as much time as he can wading in moving water. All photo credits belong to Carl. email@example.com
While on an extended fishing trip, I regularly call home to check in. My wife will often ask how my day went. Sometimes my reply will be “disappointing” as I happened to bump into another angler. Yes, I do like my space and in today’s world it is getting harder to find.
Sharing the water is good…
While fishing in southern New England, I have accepted sharing the water with other anglers. A forty-five-minute drive to a popular river during the peak of the spring Hendrickson hatch might be followed by thirty minutes of driving around to search for an unoccupied pool or pull-out. If it’s an exceptional hatch and the surface of the water is boiling with rises, I’ll certainly deal with the crowd and of course, they with me.
On the other hand, there are times I will travel a few thousand miles to lay down fly line in water that is supposedly “off the grid.” A day in the Rockies might begin by traveling twenty-five miles on an unimproved road to reach a trailhead. Then hiking into a wilderness area to fish a pool I have been dreaming about all winter. When I finally arrive, it’s somewhat soul crushing to discover an angler already standing in that exact “go to” spot.
But having the water to yourself is better!
When heading out for the day, I am ideally looking forward to the following: being completely alone on a beautiful and secluded stretch of river, hooking up with a few fish and having the opportunity to learn something new. I take particular pleasure in seeking out-of-the way and off the beaten path locations. It’s mind-blowing just how much my mood improves as soon as the tires of my SUV touch a dirt road.
To quote country artist Rodney Akins, I always “wanna put a little gravel in my travel.”
I admit that I enjoy wading unpressured water probably as much as a skier enjoys fresh powder.
When I retired, I pictured miles of rivers deserted of anglers during the work week. There would be no more weekend fishing for me. I confess being somewhat delusional. What a surprise it was to consistently find those rivers filled with folks. Often compelling me to question whether anyone actually worked anymore?
The economy of fly fishing
I’d describe myself as J.A.F.F. (Just Another Fly Fisher) and certainly not a person with deep pockets. Like many anglers, I fish public waters and have yet to toss flies on a private river or stream. I know the opportunity is always there for me to do so, but it comes down to that little matter of “exchanging money.” The added concern is if I did indulge, it would spoil me on ever returning to places I have always fished. It’s been said that once you fly first-class, it’s hard going back to coach.
Does it seem like there are more people than ever on our public waters? Well, here is some raw data and one can extrapolate from there. In 1952, the population of the United States was reported to be approximately 152 million people. In 1969 it was around 200 million. In 2023, the number has risen to 339 million. You can see how these numbers lend some credence to those gray bearded and sage anglers who fondly speak and reminisce about the golden fishing days of yesteryear.
It stands to reason that as our general population continues to expand, it proportionally increases the number of anglers taking up the sport of fly fishing. This is great news for fishing gear companies as they have a larger market to reach. Not so much for those seeking space and solitude.
In 1956, in response to the growing population and to improve our national defense, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act. The bill resulted in the creation of a 41,000-mile highway system that would alleviate traffic jams and any obstacles getting in the way of “speedy and safe transcontinental travel.” Sounded good, but as the population continued to swell, it wasn’t long before the highways were jammed with additional cars and trucks. What was the solution to this problem? Simply expand the roadways.
The expanding population impact on fly fishing
It’s unfortunate this same remedy can’t be utilized on our rivers and streams; they cannot be widened to handle the ever-increasing angling pressure.
Expanding population is one of the reasons why it is harder to find solitude. Another culprit is the extraordinary advancements in technology. Hard to believe that just about thirty years ago, most anglers lacked easy access to the Internet, GPS, Google Earth or updated stocking reports.
As an example, in the 1970’s, if one wanted information on current river conditions, it required a trip down to the river to take a peek. Another option? Call someone who lived near the river, or a local fly shop to listen to what they might be willing to share.
Today, we can simply use a smart phone or computer to “uplink” to a satellite orbiting the earth to check water flows, a fly shop’s river report or actually view river conditions on a “real time” webcam. Anglers can find out which waters were stocked in the past week or in some cases, even the past twenty-four hours. There are days where this level of detailed information will dramatically influence the number of folks who choose to slide into their waders. Google Earth alone has helped to unleash a whole new breed of anglers who now refer to themselves as “blue-liners.”
No doubt, today’s anglers are also considerably more mobile. Years ago, should someone mention they were heading “up north” to fish, it generally meant a car trip to Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine. Today, it literally can mean getting as close to the Arctic Circle as possible. Anglers seeking adventure are able to watch videos on YouTube highlighting great fishing destinations around the world. Then quite easily plan a trip to get there. While traveling during the summer, it is hard not to notice the folks hopping onto planes carrying rod tubes. It’s not just fish in your local river that are seeing an increased number of flies constantly passing over their heads. Fishing pressure has risen most everywhere as our world seems to have quickly become much smaller.