How the Rich Fish
In their quest for the best fishing, avid anglers are spending $200,000 to $750,000 to create and stock personal streams with computer-controlled conditions.
By Amy Gamerman, Originally
Published On June 1, 2017 in TheWall Street Journal (view article)
Some avid anglers travel thousands of miles to fly-fish for trout in the rivers and streams of the Rocky Mountains. Don Felsinger can cast a line from his patio. Over 2 acres of man-made ponds and streams stocked with native cutthroat trout surround the 8,000-square-foot-home that Mr. Felsinger and his wife, Jenny, built on 15 acres in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in 2015.
"When I only have an hour or two, I will just walk off on my porch and fish my own water," said Mr. Felsinger, 69, the retired chairman and CEO of Sempra Energy who spent about $16 million to create his home and trout redoubt at 3 Creek Ranch—a gated community with a Rees Jones-designed golf course, 3 miles of private trout streams, and a full-time fishing coordinator. "My passions in life are playing golf and fly fishing, and I get to do both."
To lure home buyers hooked on fly-fishing, developers are creating luxury ranch resorts that offer blue-ribbon trout streams along with exclusive amenities. Some anglers are even designing their own private fisheries, with help from a cadre of biologists, stream restoration specialists and water-rights consultants that has grown to meet the rising demand for luxury angling properties.
"When we’ve surveyed clients through the years, the No. 1 critter that is sought after is trout," said Alex Maher, president and co-founder of Live Water Properties, a ranch-brokerage company based in Jackson Hole, Wyo. "Great fly-fishing properties are rarer than great hunting properties—it’s a more finite resource. A lot of the trout water in the West is public, so when you have private trout water it’s pretty special."
In the quest for private trout water, some will spend six-figure sums to improve or repair degraded creeks and streams. "The people we work for are wealthy," said Scott Davis, a fisheries biologist and a principal of Pond and Stream Consulting, based in Bozeman, Mont., who charges between $10 to $50 per foot of water frontage for stream reparation. "We can turn a basically fishless mud stream that has no recreational value other than shooting ducks in hunting season, into something that supports thousands of fish."
At Mr. Felsinger’s home, four computer-controlled pumps regulate the temperature and flow rate of his ponds and recirculating streams. A redwood water wheel made by their home builder, Schlauch-Bottcher Construction, aerates the water; on very hot days, an air compressor pumps in extra oxygen. Undercut banks planted with wetland grasses shelter the trout from eagles and attract tasty bugs. Gravel beds provide a spawning habitat during the spring runoff season, when rivers and streams in the Rockies swell with snowmelt—or in this case, when Mr. Felsinger taps a touch-screen panel to release a gush of cold groundwater from a dedicated well.
"The whole concept was to make the fish think they are in the Snake River," said Mr. Felsinger, who practices catch and release. The fishery is biologically self-sustaining, although Ms. Felsinger, 52, occasionally tosses the trout extra treats. "I call all the fish my boys—I check on them a couple times a day," she said.
Creating a large trout fishery from scratch can run from $200,000 to $750,000, according to Case Brown, whose Clearwater Restoration built the Felsingers’ fly-fishing idyll, collaborating with Verdone Landscape Architects on the design. Mr. Felsinger declined to disclose the cost.
If he ever tires of his own trout, he can fish 3 Creek Ranch’s exclusive trout streams, tributaries of the nearby Snake River. The Felsingers’ homeowners association fees—about $20,000 a year—support continuing maintenance of the fisheries, and entitle them to private fishing trips with Jim Brungardt, 3 Creek’s fishing coordinator.
Sale prices for large lots at 3 Creek Ranch are now meeting or surpassing prerecession levels, according to Todd Domenico, owner of the ranch development’s real-estate company, who said the ranch currently has 81 homes with another 17 under construction; four homes are on the market, priced between $4.1 million and $19.8 million, along with 15 remaining lots.
Over a mile of the Yellowstone River flows through Tom and Edna Gattle’s 220-acre property near Livingston, Mont., a former cattle ranch that they purchased for about $550,000 in 2014.
"It’s not the Yellowstone in its widest spot…but what was really exciting is there is so much character in the river—a lot of shoals, a lot of riffles"—wide, shallow stretches—"that really makes it a better place to fish," said Mr. Gattle, 65, president and co-owner of Terral River Service, a Lake Providence, La.-based river-transportation company.
The Gattles cleared dilapidated ranch buildings from the property and built an 1,885-square-foot contemporary farmhouse on the footprint of the old farmhouse. The three-bedroom home—built with salvaged timbers, corrugated metal and frontier sandstone—sits just 140 feet from the river bank. Mr. Gattle can grab a fly rod and wade straight in to cast for brown and rainbow trout whenever he chooses.
"That house was created for fly-fishing," said Reid Smith, the Gattles’ architect. "We specifically designed the back porch to scoop the sounds of the small section of riffles to the east, while creating shelter from the prevailing westerly breezes."
Transforming a cattle ranch into a fly-fishing retreat has been a continuing project for the Gattles, who have invested $1.4 million in the property to date. In addition to stabilizing about 1,000 feet of riverbank and planting native grasses, they are restoring a natural spring creek on the property that had been turned into a drainage ditch. "It will flow year-round into the Yellowstone, and at certain times of the year that hopefully will allow the fish to come back and spawn," said Mr. Gattle.
When the Gattles don’t have time to fly to Montana, they drive about 5½ hours to their fishing preserve in Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains, which they co-own with two other couples: Madison and Suzanne Murphy and Danni and Bert Jones. The couples acquired a 750-acre property on Big Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo National River, for about $400,000 in 1994 and have been adding to it ever since; the retreat now encompasses about 1,450 acres. The group declined to disclose the cost of the property, but public records indicate that their limited liability company has spent over $1 million on land acquisitions since 2015.
"It’s very pristine," said Mr. Jones, 65, a former NFL quarterback who owns a lumber company in Louisiana. "You can cast into a riffle with the intention of catching a rainbow, and catch a smallmouth bass—and then throw right back into the same riffle and catch a rainbow."
After roughing it for over 15 years in an old cabin with no electricity or running water, the three couples spent over $1 million to build and furnish a spacious five-bedroom house in 2010. "We got to the point where we were ready to flip a switch," said Ms. Gattle, 63.
In Meeker, Colo., the 50 member families of Elk Creek Ranch have exclusive access to 25 miles of the White River and its tributaries. The six currently available ranch lots are priced between $1.1 million and $1.7 million. Homesites are small—about ¼ an acre—but are essentially tickets to an elite fishing club.
"They pick you up when you fly into Meeker airport on your private jet. When you want to go fishing, your guide will be there, and when you get back your favorite bottle of wine will be there," said Ken Mirr, who owns a Denver-based ranch-brokerage firm.
Scott Asbury, a 45-year-old Dallas real-estate developer, spent about $4 million to build a 3,715-square-foot riverfront home in Elk Creek in 2010, as well as $2 million for two additional ranch lots. He pays annual fees of about $30,000 per lot, which go toward the management of the 2,850-acre preserve and support a staff of 35 in the high-season.
Mr. Asbury has listed the home, which he built, in part, as an investment property, for $5.25 million. But he plans to hold on to at least one of his lots, since his annual dues entitle his family to stay in one of the ranch’s six well-appointed guest cabins. Members also have access to a clubby lodge restaurant and bar, a gym—and a fly shop. "You don’t come here if you don’t want to go fishing, because other than eating and drinking, there’s nothing else to do," Mr. Asbury said.