Gone Fishin'

Britain's streams are lovely, clear, and deep. And private.


For an avid American fisherman like Clifford Russell, nothing is quite like fly-fishing on the Allen River in England. On a mile of "beautiful, productive, and challenging fishing," he says, you have "no worries about who—and how many—may be around the next bend. No fear that you are fishing over a pool emptied by the careless wading and casting of some competitor. Better one week per year of bliss than every weekend on one of Pennsylvania's crowded limestone streams."

Anglers who want high-quality fishing undisturbed by others find special pleasure in Great Britain. Even along the best trout and salmon streams, they don't crowd one another. "Beats" on such rivers as the Allen, the Test, and the Itchen contain trout that are wild and challenging. Weeds in the water are regularly cut, the banks are protected from cattle, and pollution is nonexistent.

Fishermen stateside, on the other hand, complain about excessive crowds, overfishing, too few sites, pollution, and the restocking of streams with hatchery-raised fish that offer less challenge. On Montana's remote Madison River, as many as 150 boats ply the five-mile stretch between Varney Bridge and Eight-Mile Bridge on prime fishing days. This disturbs the trout, sending them deep into the water and reducing the catch.

Yet here in the United States we have a Fish and Wildlife Service that spends $200 million a year in its fisheries program, and state budgets for sport fishing totaling $341 million. And what do they have in Great Britain? The market. There, the right to fish a stretch of stream or a particular lake is a private, transferable right. People can buy, sell, and lease this right. And that's how Clifford Russell could achieve a week of bliss, "renting" a stretch of fishing territory that had, not surprisingly, been well maintained by its private owner.

Of course, as with most things in Britain today, the government also gets into the act. It owns some fishing rights and operates reservoirs. Regional water authorities regulate pollution and share responsibility for taking care of the banks. (They also run the nation's sewage treatment plants, making the government the nation's chief polluter!)

Yet it is estimated that about three-quarters of all angling in Britain, where only "rambling" (walking) is a more popular participant sport, is done on private waters. And every angler expects to pay to fish and to follow the rules set by the water's owner.

Leigh Perkins, chief executive officer of the Orvis Company, an American fly-fishing supplier with a British subsidiary, explains that it isn't even necessary to post "No Trespassing" signs, because "it's common knowledge that all water is private and one only fishes with a permit and fee."

Privately owned streams and fishing-for-a-fee doesn't mean that angling is the preserve of the wealthy. As we found on a recent visit to Britain to check out the private fishing system, there is the same range in this market as there is in everything from shirts to cars.

In the south of England, the Houghton Fishing Club comprises about as exclusive a group of fishermen as you can get. The club owns fishing rights on about 17 miles of the Test River, and the total membership of the club is 22 or 23 people. (The Prince of Wales is known to fish on Houghton Club water as a guest.) One observer estimated that the value of the Houghton's fishing rights is on the order of £20 million ($37.8 million at current exchange rates).

Nevertheless, it is also easy for the average person to find a place to fish. Many anglers, we learned, belong to clubs that lease stretches of river or lakes. Such clubs range from fly-fishing "syndicates" of the wealthy to inexpensive clubs organized around local pubs.

One member of the upper crust told us that he pays £500 ($950) a year for membership in a rather "starchy" and exclusive syndicate that provides the right to fish one day a week. In contrast, membership in a coarse fishing club (where anglers use bait to snare such "coarse" fish as pike, bream, and chub) might cost £20–30 a year, with a right to fish perhaps once every other week. Such opportunities are widespread. A 1980 survey found that skilled manual workers account for 47 percent of coarse fish anglers.

Fishing by "day ticket" is also available, some of it on publicly owned reservoirs. The cost can be as low as a few pounds. Fly-fishing by day on premium trout streams is harder to find. There are fewer such streams, of course, and syndicates and clubs have predominated—undoubtedly contributing to the "starchy" image of fly-fishing.

This is changing, however. The Orvis Company is looking to expand fly-fishing by offering day-fishing and angling classes. John Russell, the company's managing director in England, is trying to attract "the coarse fisherman aspiring to be a fly-fisherman."

For about £120 ($225), you can spend a day on a beat on the Test or the Itchen in Hampshire, about 75 miles from London. The price includes a "gillie" to help outfit you and guide you to the best places. At these rates, the beats usually fill up during the fishing season.

Not far from the Orvis beats and in the middle of Houghton Club territory, The Greyhound Inn, a bed and breakfast in the town of Stockbridge, owns a few hundred yards on the Test River, which runs behind the inn. The owner, Andy McCall, allows two fishermen at a time to fish the beat, for £30 ($55) per day per person (without gillie). A little cabin and some picnic tables are nearby for fishermen. This beat too is popular at these rates.

One can readily combine vacations with fishing. For example, we selected from an array of salmon and trout resorts an old sportsmen's hotel on the River Tay in Kenmore, outside of Aberfeldy, Scotland. There, a visitor can stay at the hotel and fish the Tay with a gillie on hand.

A little investigation also showed how private interests in water help control pollution in Britain. The owner of a fishing right (or an anglers' club that leases this right) can take a polluter to court if fish in its beat are killed or threatened by pollution. Fishing rights were rarely used to control pollution before 1948, probably because of the expense of litigation. By the mid-20th century, however, growing prosperity and leisure time made fishing more attractive and the rights more valuable.

In 1948, the Anglers' Co-operative Association (ACA) was formed and began helping members—individual anglers and clubs—obtain injunctions or damages in pollution cases. Later, regional water authorities also began to fight pollution, but the ACA takes pride in a record of environmental protection 20 years before the general public became concerned and put pressure on the government to act.

The association won its first major pollution case in 1951 against two chemical companies and the city of Derby for pumping untreated sewage, hot water, and tar products into the River Derwent. It has lost only one case since and in 1985, for example, returned £25,000 in damages.

Most cases are settled out of court with the polluters' insurance companies. Claimants are paid the cost of restocking the river or lake plus costs reflecting the "loss of enjoyment" (such as the club's annual income).

Some people minimize the role of the Anglers' Co-operative Association, giving more credit for pollution reduction to the water authorities. Yet the authorities are polluters themselves. In 1987, in fact, the ACA won a case against the Thames Water Authority for fouling the Thames River. Skepticism about the ACA may stem from the fact that with several celebrated cases in the 1950s, legal actions had established enough precedents that the system can be effective simply by the implicit threat of litigation.

Perhaps the most attractive result of private ownership is entrepreneurs' efforts to enhance recreational fishing. Indeed, the popularity of fishing is partly due to these entrepreneurs.

After the Second World War, owners of excavated gravel pits filled them with water, creating reservoirs that they then leased for fishing and other water recreation. (Publicly built reservoirs for drinking water also increased, providing additional recreational opportunities.) Today, as we have seen, the Orvis Company is trying to entice coarse fishermen to become fly-fishermen. While this could occur with or without private fishing rights, Orvis's ownership of prized beats on Hampshire trout streams gives it an edge.

In Scotland, even more dramatic changes are evident. In recent years, many Scots have been alarmed at the deterioration of salmon fishing, primarily because of commercial ocean netting that depletes the number of salmon returning to their spawning grounds in the streams. The Salmon Conservancy, a lobbying group, has appealed to the government to shorten fishing seasons and restrict commercial netting, but to no avail.

Now the private sector is acting. For example, Salar Properties purchases commercial salmon and sea trout fishing rights and resells them to recreational fishermen on a time-share basis. It does so, says spokesman Andrew C. Coombs, "where we see an opportunity to substantially improve the management effort, and consequently hopefully improve the fishing and its value."

The Atlantic Salmon Conservation Trust, a nonprofit organization formed in 1986, also aims to "conserve and enhance dwindling resources of wild Atlantic salmon." Formed largely out of frustration with government inaction, the trust is buying up fishing rights along the Scottish coast. These commercial netting points, owned in some cases by the government and in others by private parties, give the owner the exclusive right to fish from that point.

The trust has gotten owners to agree to sell their rights on 280 netting points, many of them off the Moray Firth, at a cost of £1.4 million. Trust officials figure that closing these netting points will reduce the ocean netting catch by 25 percent.

The British experience with private fishing rights suggests that many activities performed in our country by fish and game commissions—trying to control pollution, for example, and restocking fished-out streams—do not have to be a government function. In fact, protection by owners may well be more effective, since the owners have a direct, personal interest in, and knowledge of, the resource. Not only do private owners restock streams when necessary, but it appears that careful private management in Britain has reduced the need to restock, enabling anglers to catch wild trout and salmon even within a day's drive of London.

The Scottish example—with the private sector taking action even as the government remains paralyzed—might be applied to the northwestern United States, where commercial fishing is reducing salmon and steelhead stocks. Since commercial fishing is controlled by licenses, private groups could buy up the licenses and retire them.

Without the same tradition of private rights to water use, it is difficult to imagine the establishment of private fishing rights in the United States. But something like them may be evolving. Clifford Russell, the avid fisherman who found bliss in Britain, is also a resource economist. He believes that as fishing becomes more popular and therefore more crowded in the United States—25 percent of the adult population fishes, compared to 8 percent in Britain—quasi-private fishing rights will expand. Clubs will buy land bordering attractive fishing streams and prevent nonmembers from using the streams by blocking access. This is already beginning to happen, but sporadically.

In Montana, a few landowners with small trout streams that surface on their property have long provided fishing to the public for a fee. They control access, protect the stream banks from their livestock, set up catch-and-release rules, and so on, all to make fishing from their streams more valuable. Nelson's Spring Creek in the Paradise Valley and, across the Yellowstone River, Armstrong Spring Creek are world-renowned for their trout fishing. The landowners charge $30 per person per day.

The danger is that government may severely limit opportunities like these. In 1984, the Montana Supreme Court decided that because the water in these streams is publicly owned, landowners cannot keep out anglers who walk up the stream bed. Since access on such small streams is easy, the court decision drastically reduces the incentives of these custodians to care for the streams. The courts' expanding use of the "public trust" doctrine—the idea that water and perhaps other natural resources cannot be truly owned by private parties but are held "in trust" for the public—could further shrink the semblance of private stewardship we have today.

The British experience indicates that expanding private or quasi-private ownership will do more to enhance fishing habitat and the environment than curtailing it. As rules governing outdoor recreation evolve through the courts, maybe we should send some judges to the River Tay and the Moray Firth.

Jane S. Shaw and Richard L. Stroup are senior associates of the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana.