Any woman will tell you there’s nothing sexy about waders. They’re not made for the female form—baggy around the midsection, with shoulder straps that don’t cinch tight enough, and close-fitting fabric from the knees to the ankles. But a man—like my husband, Matt, for example—will tell you a woman in waders is incredibly appealing. Not because she looks good, but because the drab neoprene outfit signifies a willingness to play in the dirt and a confidence to hang with the boys.
I try to keep this in mind as I strain against the current in the middle of the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs. There are four fishermen within sight, so I’m doing my best to be cool. There really isn’t any reason for me to be insecure; Donny Beaver, my fly-fishing guide and the owner of HomeWaters Club, looks just as unsure of his footing as I do. “Make sure you drag your feet along the bottom,” he yells over the rushing water. “Picking your feet up all the way off the ground allows the water to push you around.”
Climbing onto a midriver sandbar, I take a moment to scan my surroundings. More than 500 acres of pristine Colorado wilderness spread out in every direction. The tailwaters of the Yampa River cut through the sprawling property, which Beaver purchased in 2006 to be the featured slice of the Colorado arm of his private fly-fishing club. (The club also owns and leases fishing waters in Pennsylvania.)
Beaver joins me on the tiny spit of land and hands me a newly rigged fly rod. I’ve been fly-fishing before—mostly on the public sections of the Arkansas River—but Beaver coaches me anyway. It’s welcome instruction: Fly-fishing is to spinner fishing as telemarking is to alpine skiing—it’s a patently more difficult way to achieve the same result. “Release a little line, give it a quick toss upstream, and let it float through the calmer water along the banks,” Beaver says. It’s not quite as easy as he makes it sound, but I manage to hit the target area. Moments later, I feel the line tighten. I set the hook, and a 20-inch trout with an attitude jumps out of the water. Twice. I let him run, and the Zzzzzzzzzzz! of the line catches my husband’s attention. After about 10 minutes and a 30-yard dash downstream, with Beaver manning the net, I finally land the fish. I’m sweating, soaked with river water, covered in mud, and have a rather handsome trout to show for my efforts. I look at my husband, who says with a wry smile, “Now that’s sexy.”
One soak in the claw-foot tub and one catnap later, I stroll into the living room at the Elk River Lodge. The four-bedroom, four-bathroom inn, with its gourmet kitchen and outdoor hot tub, isn’t your typical fly-fishing-trip accommodation. That’s because HomeWaters Club isn’t your average fly-fishing outfitter. In fact, Donny Beaver’s 16-year-old company, which began in Pennsylvania before expanding to Colorado, is one of the very few clubs of its kind.
HomeWaters has an unusual (and, to some people, controversial) business model that relies on a clientele that desires upscale lodging, craves epicurean delights, and above all, wants access to uncrowded, big-fish-laden private waters. And they’re willing to pay for it. While there are multiple levels of memberships available, the most comprehensive includes 21 days yearly of fishing (seven of which can be guided), accommodations, and meals for a deposit of $59,500 and annual dues of about $10,000. The hefty deposit is typically 90 percent refundable or harvestable, meaning members can use money from their initial deposit to cover annual dues until that money runs out and the membership ends. It’s steep, yet, as Beaver explains, “Our clients are people who might otherwise look into buying property with trout water on it. Our club is a much less expensive option than buying land to fish for the same amount of time. Plus, we offer the escapism that owning your own place doesn’t afford.”
As with any other ultra-exclusive organization, there are those who argue HomeWaters Club is reserving for the wealthy what has historically been an everyman’s hobby. Opponents, some of whom have created entire websites devoted to the subject, say the club restricts access to trout water. In Pennsylvania, where it was originally founded as the Spring Ridge Club, HomeWaters came under scrutiny when private land it purchased encompassed what was later legally declared to be a public section of river. In Colorado, though, it has encountered little backlash, possibly because it only owns about 10 percent of the land it uses here—20 miles of stream near Vail and 10 miles near Steamboat. The remaining 90 percent belongs to other private landowners who lease their land, and the trout streams on it, to the club.
Even so, some fishermen see the model as problematic. Experienced fishermen have been known to knock on a landowner’s door and simply ask for permission to fish on the property, and willing landowners allow access for a fee or for help maintaining their land. But whenever landowners partner with HomeWaters Club, their property becomes off-limits to nonmembers. Foes say this creates more pressure on public water, which might be true in some areas, but might not be in others. “These private-versus-public water discussions have been around since the concept of private water was created,” says Gordon Robertson, vice president of the American Sportfishing Association. “Do these private clubs take away from public opportunity? Yes. But these institutions have been around for a century or more; they’re completely legal; and they usually endeavor to improve trout streams.”
To wit: Over a dinner of locally grown, grass-fed beef and bread from the kitchen’s brick-hearth oven, Beaver explains another part of his mission, which is conservation and preservation of trout waters. HomeWaters employs a “stream team”—comprised of a trout biologist, an aquaculturalist, and a stream designer—that works on private conservation and trout stream improvement, which Beaver says is what makes HomeWaters so special. “Yes, we’re improving and preserving water on private land,” he says, “but everyone downstream benefits. We’re good stewards of the land, we’re crazy about clean water, and we have a small footprint.”
If the monster fish in the Yampa River tailwaters—or those I hooked in the smaller Troublesome Creek, near Kremmling—are any indication of healthy water, then Beaver is on to something. His membership—more than 200 families, who can use both the Colorado and Pennsylvania properties—certainly thinks so. Peter Millett, a Vail orthopedic surgeon who has been a member for five years, fishes almost weekly from spring through fall. He’s even spent time “glenting,” HomeWaters’ term for staying in one of the club’s glamorous tents, which are set up along the banks of a trout stream. Millett says the club’s water access and preservation efforts contributed to his decision to join. “My favorite spots to fish are the Yampa tailwaters and the Piney River,” Millett says. “Being way up in the remote wilderness section of the Piney River makes you feel like you’re back in the Old West during the frontier days. No one ever fishes up there.”
I don’t have the dough it takes to join Beaver’s elite club; however, I find myself doing silent tabulations in the middle of the Elk River just to make sure. Of course, I don’t need to be quiet. Except for my husband and our guides, there isn’t another soul on the river. HomeWaters restricts the number of fishermen and fishing hours on its streams. It even leaves recently fished sections fallow for a few days, which keeps fish from being overcaught.
The HomeWaters way sits in stark contrast to fly-fishing on public water, which often means fighting for elbow room on a fishless section of stream adjacent to a four-lane highway, with not an ounce of A River Runs Through It mystique. Here, on an empty stretch of river warmed by the late-afternoon sun, the current hatch floats in the air as the only audible sound—water spilling over rocks—fills your ears, while the gentle back-and-forth rhythm of your line lulls you into a trance. You can exhale out here.
If you are fortunate enough to afford Beaver’s club, you’ll never have to worry about missing out on the charm of fly-fishing. The Elk River, the Yampa tailwaters, Troublesome Creek, the Piney River—they all have a magic you rarely find on other trout streams. And in its own special way, that’s kinda sexy, too. m