Investors interested in purchasing ranch property that can double as a solid fly-fishing retreat need to consider a number of factors before making a purchase.
Fly fishing property, particularly in the Rocky Mountain West, where much of the quality trout habitat is located on public lands, is in demand. Private land and private water offer investors a unique income option. Guides and outfitters will pay a premium to take clients fishing on less-pressured waters. Ranch owners can even start their own fishing lodge operation if the ranch waters offer good enough angling.
But finding the right ranch that would allow for this kind of enterprise isn’t easy. Investors should know what they’re looking for in terms of trout habitat, the amount of fishable water and the ease of access to that water. And, it’s helpful to know about local wild and native trout populations. If an investor wishes to establish or improve a trout fishery on their property, knowing the species of trout indigenous to the area is important.
What’s good trout habitat?
Trout are cold-water fish. They need clean, cold and well-oxygenated water, all year long. They also need dependable food sources (aquatic insects, amphibians, bait fish, etc.) and solid cover. Investors seeking a ranch that has good trout habitat should consider the following factors:
- Water. It’s the most important ingredient. Does the prospective property have cold, flowing water that runs all year long?
- Willows, cottonwoods and aspens. An odd ingredient, huh? Well, all three are indigenous plants in the Rockies and they perform a number of important tasks in the creation and maintenance of good trout habitat. First, they provide shade to keep water cool during the heat of summer. They also provide cover for fish that like to hold near the banks. Finally, they provide bank stability. They help control erosion.
- Gravel. Again, a weird consideration. But trout spawn in moving water that flows over substrate, like gravel. Without it, reproduction success is much lower or maybe even non-existent.
- Segregated water sources. This simply means that the river, stream or pond on the prospective property isn’t completely available to grazing cattle. Cattle and trout streams can coexist in a very controlled environment. This means that cows should only have access to certain stretches of water for drinking. Cows love to wallow in cool water, and, given the chance, they’ll do so. They’ll also graze right up to the water line and often eat young willow shoots, prohibiting the growth of these shade-producing plants. An overgrazed stream might appear healthy, but chances are, it’s not. It’s likely wider than it normally would be. It’s also shallower than it normally might be. This means it’s also warmer than most trout can tolerate. If you want to raise carp, this is fine habitat. But trout need healthier streams.
- Structure. This doesn’t just mean in-stream structure, like rocks or drowned wood. A healthy stream is in its natural course — it meanders and winds its way downstream. Fallen logs and big rocks are still in the water, which break up the current and provide quality holding water for trout. Even beaver dams and beaver ponds can be beneficial. They slow the flow during spring runoff and offer depth for trout cover the rest of the year. They also offer trout a place to hold during the winter, when the river or stream might freeze over. Beaver dams are also great places to sight-cast to trout. Many ranchers will actively remove beaver dams, thinking that they hold important irrigation water back. Truth be told, beaver dams serve as small reservoirs that recharge groundwater supplies. In most instances, they are beneficial to rivers and streams. And to ranches.
Potential trout habitat
For many ranches, trout habitat isn’t an important consideration. This means that rivers or streams might be overgrazed or that cattle might have unlimited access to the water. It also means that willows or stream-side cottonwoods or aspens might be grazed to the nub. This cuts stream side shade and pushes water temperatures higher in the summer. But, if those assets are there, even in modest amounts, there’s a good chance they can be recovered with the right grazing regimen.
Investors who come across a property that has a significant river or stream flowing across it can identify the water’s potential just by seeing if the ingredients above are present or could be present under the right conditions. It might take an investment of time and money, but most trout streams are resilient. Given the right amount of TLC, like willow plantings, or fencing to keep cows out of sensitive areas, trout streams can bounce back in just a season or two.
If finding a ranch with a quality fishery is important, but you’re not having much luck, consider property with trout habitat potential. The return on your investment might be delayed, but, in time, you’ll see it.
Wild trout? Native trout? Stocked trout?
The Rocky Mountain West is cutthroat trout country. Cutthroats are the only native trout found from northern New Mexico all the way north to Montana. Rainbow trout from the west coast and the western slope of the Sierra and the Cascades have been introduced across the West, as have brook trout from Appalachia. Brown trout are native to Europe and are also found throughout the West.
Other native salmonids include redband trout, which are native to the Snake and Columbia river systems. Mountain whitefish are native in the Colorado, Snake/Columbia and Bear river drainages. Bull trout, which are a native char, are found in rivers and streams from northwest Montana and into Oregon and Washington. Bull trout are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Before you invest in property that has a fishery on it — or a potential fishery — know what kind of trout are presently found in that fishery’s watershed. If you plan to stock fish, understand the impacts that might have on the fishery beyond the fence of your prospective property. For instance, rainbow trout and cutthroat trout can mingle on spawning beds and produce a fertile hybrid. This could spell doom for a precious native cutthroat fishery.
A fly fishing ranch is coveted property in the West. Investors should be willing to pay top dollar for ranch property that already has an established fishery. They might pay a little less for a ranch with fly fishing potential. Trout water has the potential to offer investors a significant return, either as a leasable asset to guides and outfitters, or perhaps as the home water for a fishing lodge operation. Or maybe it’s even simpler than that. Many investors love to fish, and owning a trout stream is certainly one way to have good water all to themselves. Investors should take their time and consider the fishery or potential fishery on prospective ranch property. It could add significant value to the overall investment.