News & Views
The Lure of Private Waters
November 26, 2004
When Lex Browning, 13, recently landed a big brown trout from the waters of Spruce Creek, he reeled it in, leaned down and kissed the 24-inch, four-pound fish on the head. And why not? It may have been one of the priciest fish ever caught. His father, Keith Browning, a vice president for sales at the Copeland Corporation, a manufacturer of refrigerator compressors and air-conditioning units in Dayton, Ohio, had paid more than $50,000 for the privilege of fishing on the trout-filled waters controlled by the Spring Ridge Club, probably the country's most exclusive fishing club.
Tucked into the rolling farmland of central Pennsylvania, close by the Allegheny Mountains, Spring Ridge offers its members a cluster of cabins, cottages and lodges on 125 acres at the confluence of the Little Juniata River and Spruce Creek. 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. Equally rich in trout, the beats vary in water flow and vegetation. "That's what makes it so interesting," said Jack Rivkin, the chief investment officer of the Neuberger Berman investment firm in Manhattan, and a Spring Ridge member.
There are, of course, thousands of fishing clubs in this country, often informal groups of friends who fish one spot or travel together to legendary streams. But they often have to fish in crowded waters and stay in places far from the streams. And there are also thousands of rod and gun clubs with modest annual dues, but they often have large memberships and limited territory on which to hunt or fish.
What sets Spring Ridge apart is that it combines low-key camaraderie with guaranteed access to miles of trout-rich riverfront. Donny Beaver, the club's founder, grew up fishing in the area. After operating an environmental clean-up manufacturing company, Mr. Beaver ran a local fly-fishing outfitter and then, in 2001, started Spring Ridge. (His adult lifetime goal, Mr. Beaver said, was to be a full-time fly fisherman by the time he was 40. He is now 52.)
His innovation was to lease stretches of river from nearby landowners, giving his members access to many different streams in the area; all of the water runs through beds of limestone chalk, an environment that encourages plant growth, which in turn attracts insects, making a seductive habitat for beautiful large trout.
To get access to those waters, club members now pay a membership fee of about $75,000, plus thousands in annual dues and incidental expenses (members pay for overnight accommodations and meals at the club's main lodge). Over the club's three years of operation, it has grown to 70 paying members, with more spots opening up as Spring Ridge adds new sections of river to its holdings. If a member decides to leave, the original membership fee can be refunded; membership can also be handed down within a family.
Part of the appeal is the on-site housing -- simple but luxuriously outfitted cabins and lodges spotted around the central property. There is a chef, a local cook who prepares notably good dinners in the main lodge, where a huge country breakfast is served each morning and packed lunches can be picked up for a day of fishing.
The idea of paying for exclusive access to resorts and accommodations has become increasingly popular over the last few years, from members-only ski mountains to companies like Exclusive Resorts, which offers members resort residences and lodges everywhere from Whistler, British Columbia, to Florence, Italy. For those, members can pay as much as $375,000 in membership fees, plus up to $25,000 in annual fees. In comparison, Spring Ridge is a modest investment.
Not that economics is a big issue for many of the members, who can -- and do -- fish anywhere in the world. Mr. Rivkin, for instance, has his own ranch with a river running through it in Argentina. But, he said, "Spring Ridge is like home waters for me. I can drive there in four hours, I can take my family if I want, and learn something every time from the extremely patient, knowledgeable guides."
For landowners along the coveted riverfront, leasing to Spring Ridge means they get replenished and carefully maintained waters. Spring Ridge only allows catch-and-release fishing by its members and their guests, and only six fly fishers are allowed at any one time along a mile of stream; then that mile is rested for a day before fishing resumes.
Members say they have found not only a private enclave where they can indulge their fishing habit, but a model for the future of fly-fishing, which has become a victim of its own success, with streams overpopulated by people and underpopulated by fish.
"Not that there wasn't some grumbling along the river," said Lefty Kreh, at 80 an influential fishing writer and teacher, and a charter member of Spring Ridge. "A lot of these landowners had just opened up their streams to anyone with a fishing license before, and people began to think they were public waters."
In fact, the state of Pennsylvania filed suit against Mr. Beaver and others last year over access to a stretch of the Little Juniata River, where, the state claimed, Mr. Beaver and his employees had posted "No Trespassing" signs and erected cables across the waterway to keep out nonmember anglers.
At issue is whether the river should be considered navigable, in which case public access to it may not be denied, as long as those who would like to fish it don't trespass on private land to do so. The case is in discovery and no court date has been set yet, according to Kurt Knaus, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Mr. Beaver said that the river has never been declared navigable and that "we believed that it was private property and we could manage it." Any barriers have been removed until the court finally decides the matter, he said.
River access was not such a problem before fly-fishing surged in popularity in the 1990's, driven in large part by Robert Redford's 1992 film, "A River Runs Through It," starring both Brad Pitt and Montana's fly-fishing country. While there are no hard numbers for just how many people started fly-fishing in the movie's wake, according to a 1999 survey prepared for the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, of the 10.9 million people who had gone fly-fishing in the last year, almost 40 percent of them had taken up the sport in the last decade. "I'm not the only one who hates that film," Mr. Rivkin said.
Now, many old-time fishing enthusiasts say the piscine population has been stressed by over-fishing. "Many years ago, when there were more fish and less people, fly-fishing didn't make much of an impact," Mr. Kreh said. "But now, if a certain amount of public water is not put into private hands, we're going to be in trouble."
In some parts of the country, the native brook trout population is perhaps just 5 percent of its historic levels during Colonial times, said Tim Zink, manager of media relations for the national conservation organization Trout Unlimited. Though most of that fall-off is due to industrialization in the first half of the 20th century, irresponsible fishing and environmental factors continue to harm fish, he said.
Indeed, for many Spring Ridge members, part of the club's appeal is the environmental stewardship and the sense of continuity between generations -- that it is a place they can bring their children to fish and perhaps, one day, leave to them. "Besides the terrific fishing, the idea that I can go with my family is very important to me," said Mr. Browning, who is often joined on his fishing trips by his three children and his wife, Pam.
Robert G. Freedline, the treasurer of Viacom, can spontaneously make the trip from his TriBeCa home to Spring Ridge in about four hours. "I lead a hectic professional life, and fishing takes me somewhere else altogether," he said. "You really can't concentrate on anything else when you're in a beautiful, tranquil setting and focused entirely on catching that fish." With trips to Spring Ridge, plus expeditions to fish everywhere from Russia to Patagonia, Mr. Freedline, who didn't fish at all for almost 20 years, now fishes almost every weekend.
"I don't think many people could pull this off," Mr. Rivkin added, "but I'm hoping maybe Donny can eventually do something similar in other parts of the country. And club members would, of course, have reciprocal rights."
The village of Spruce Creek, Pa., about 19 miles west of State College, is where Spruce Creek flows into the Little Juniata River, joining two of Pennsylvania's finest limestone-bed trout streams. The nearest airport is in State College. Spruce Creek is a four-to-five-hour drive from New York City. It is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Washington.
The Spring Ridge Club (814-632-5827; www.springridgeclub.com) nearby, a private fishing club with its own lodging and guides, leases about 10 miles of trout waters.
The current membership deposit is about $75,000; annual dues for 2005 will be $4,260. Food -- it has a chef -- and lodging are additional. As Spring Ridge adds more streams, it will begin to accept more members, expanding its present base of 70 paying members.