Under The Big Sky

Closeup of Private Property No Tresspassing Sign
This is one of three weekly sections of my blog The Anvils Ring which you can find at http://johnjoconnell.substack.com this particular blog post is timely because our legislature will be meeting and there are people there who do not have the public’s best interest at heart when it comes to river access.
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I know I promised some more cowboy stories a couple blogs back but I’m a bad planner. Last week Kerry’s article about Christmas in Montana during WW2 needed to come out on Christmas. Now this week I read an op-ed about Montana’s stream access law and the fear that the legislature, led by our governor, a game law violator himself, may want to change that law so private landowners, like him, can lock up access to rivers.

 I promise the cowboy stories will get written. This one is timelier, I think.

Our very progressive stream access laws in Montana are unique when compared to the rest of the nation. Basically, if you can gain legal access to a river, say from a fishing access or right of way, and then stay below the high water mark you can recreate anywhere you want on the river. This of course irritates some private landowners who believe the rivers belong to them because they own river frontage.

I have had experience with these legalities because these same rules applied back where I’m from in Connecticut when it came to the shoreline on Long Island Sound where we fished for Striped Bass and Bluefish. However, the access laws did not apply to the rivers and streams. If you were fishing in a river surrounded by private land no matter how you got access, you were trespassing. Someone told me it had to do with tax law and paying property tax on the river bottom which meant that technically you could float on the river ‘s surface but you couldn’t touch the bottom. Dumb sounding? You bet! Maybe they have changed the laws back there, but I wouldn’t count on it.

The shoreline rule, however, upset Connecticut beach front landowners who believed they paid property tax to the water line, which meant they owned the beach the seaward boundary of which changed every six hours with the tide. I know this because I had a late-night encounter with such a landowner. Dumb? You bet! A cop had to come and tell the landowner to go to bed or get cited for obstruction. Not the first time this had happened, the cop told me. It’s a stupid game they play hoping to keep the riffraff out of their ocean view.

What many folks in Montana don’t think about is that while you may be perfectly within your rights to be fishing in a river you will still be harassed by the landowners or their minions. Now, it’s illegal to harass hunters and fishermen in Montana who are recreating within the law, but most harassers hope you don’t know that. They want to ruin your day just enough that you will never come back.

I know what you’re thinking. The harassers are the new people who moved here. That’s true but there are just as many “Real Montanans” who play the same stupid games landowners played on the shore in Connecticut. I remember my first introduction to the Montana Game.

It must be 15 or 20 years ago that I was invited by a friend to check out the fishing on his new ranch. He had a mile or two of frontage on a wonderful trout stream. The best part was, I would have it all to myself. All he wanted was a report on my success and a little intel on productive runs and pools. I rarely could afford a day off to go fishing and almost never got to go on private land, so I jumped at the chance.

I drove down the ranch road towards the river on a beautiful summer day when the high water from snow melt had calmed down leaving the stream crystal clear and wadable for a crippled horseshoer. Mayflies and caddis were hatching, the birds were swooping around snatching the bugs in midair and trout were rising everywhere I looked. And I was all alone. I was entranced. This is why we came here in the first darn place. I wished Kerry didn’t have to work because she would have loved this scene.

I’ve learned over the years to not go rushing in and start casting even when confronted by an ideal situation like this one. I sat quietly on my pickup’s tailgate, eating a sandwich, and drinking coffee from my battered thermos, watching the water carefully with binoculars.  Big fish rise to floating insects and were often quite close to the bank unlike their smaller brethren. Little fish splash a lot and hang farther out in the river in general.

I spotted a good fish upstream as I finished lunch. This was going to be tricky, but it also was a situation I live for. The trout was sipping little yellow mayflies, Pale Morning Duns we call them. This fish was right next to an undercut bank that had young willow saplings growing on it that bent over the water, effectively forming a roof over his head. The willows provided great protection from ospreys and fishermen, but presented a casting issue for me. How do I present a fly without spooking him?

The good news was that I never saw a bug get past him, so he wasn’t being fussy. If I could sneak up behind him in the knee-deep water and cast across my body and left shoulder, I should be able to get just the fly and a little tippet around and upstream of the willows. That would allow the fly to float down to the trout’s lair without spooking him and maybe I would get lucky.

It had been a while since I cast a fly rod, so I made a few practice casts well downstream from the big fish. Satisfied with my cast I crept into position. I couldn’t believe my hands were shaking a little. It had been too long since I last stalked a big trout apparently. I stood there in the rushing water taking deep breaths trying to calm myself.

Then carefully measuring out line I began to false cast. I didn’t want too many false casts because he might see the movement and bolt under the bank. Two quick ones, sidearm and low, was all it took to get enough line, and I let it fly. Short and left! I just let everything float past the trout and began again. This one was perfect. It drifted right down the seam that he was holding in. He sees it! He slowly started to rise…

“Do you have to do that right there?”

The shouting voice came out of nowhere, startling me so badly I jerked my fly out of the water and got it stuck on one straggly willow. The trout bolted under the bank of course. Who the hell is yelling at me?

I looked behind me to where my truck sat. No one was there.

“I said, do you have to do that right there?”

It came from the other side of the river. An unimpressive looking man in tan clothing and aviator sunglasses was standing on the bank with his hands on his hips. He was obviously annoyed with me.

“I’m sorry “I said. “Who are you?”

“I own the property over here and the house up there.” he replied pointing behind him.

I looked where he was pointing, and I didn’t see a house. I wasn’t even on his side of the river. This situation was weird and vaguely familiar.

“My friend Bob gave me permission to fish on his place…” I started to explain but the little man interrupted.

“That may be, but we can see you from our deck. I would like you to fish somewhere else.”

(Something you should know about me is that orders and threats, especially when given to me by self-important bullies, never end in the intended result.)

“No, I cannot fish somewhere else.” I replied in a less than friendly manner.

“What do you mean you cannot?” said the now confused little man.

The vaguely familiar situation crystallized in my mind. This was just like Connecticut, and I used the same line I had used then.

“Call a cop.” I said. “I’ll wait.”

“What?” he asked incredulously. Obviously, he was not used to being disobeyed.

“Call…A…COP” I yelled. “I… WILL… WAIT!”

The man turned and disappeared into the trees. I looked again for his house on the opposite hillside. Maybe a house was up there but all I saw was trees.

I went back to fishing and caught a few but I couldn’t concentrate. The magic was gone. I was mad and couldn’t calm down. I waited a full hour for a cop or game warden to show up but no one came. Me being me, I started to second guess myself. Had I done something wrong? Was this some kind of misunderstanding? Maybe I should have just moved.

 I finally went home, my day ruined by a jackass in aviator sunglasses.

Once home, I called my friend immediately. I figured the jerk was going to call and I wanted to warn him. My friend answered the phone laughing. He had seen me on his caller ID.

“Hey John. You had an interesting day!”

“He must have called you. I’m so sorry but he just set me off.”

“What exactly did you say?”

“I told him I had permission to fish and to call a cop, I would wait,” I said to uproarious laughter on the other end of the phone.

“Yeah, that took him off guard! Pay no attention to him. I explained the law to him, he is a lawyer by the way, and I told him if seeing you was so offensive, he needed to put up screens on his deck. You have my permission to go there anytime you want. You don’t even need to call. There is plenty of river there for everyone.”

We chatted for a while about the fishing and he made me promise I would go back and not let the idiot ruin it for me. Several weeks later I did go back and brought my brother who was visiting. We went a mile upstream from the spot where I was yelled at and we did very well. Then I saw the little man’s house. One mile from where he yelled at me. If they could see me from there through the leaves of the trees, they would have had a telescope. I realized he was just trying to buffalo me into going away just like the guy in Connecticut.

The brief episode with the little man across the river was a wakeup call. Back then I was relatively new to the area and people in general were welcoming and kind. That proved to me that my preconceived notions of Montana were right. Montanans would be far more agreeable and open compared to standoffish, clannish, nouvelle riche Connecticut. In reality, what I was proven to be was naïve.  

I’m thankful for our river access laws. People are people no matter where you go, and while many are decent human beings with generous hearts there are also many that are self-interested, greedy, and mercenary blights on humanity. I’m a small government kind of guy but the former need laws to protect them from the latter, yet I’m concerned the latter rules us in Montana. We all need to keep an eye on Helena. There are too many there that do not have our best interest at heart especially when it comes to hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation in general. There is constant talk on social media, in coffee shops, and in bars about how good things used to be in Montana. If we want them to be good again, we need to speak up, show up and vote until it happens.

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