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mark hume

Spring is coming to the high country around Merritt and as the ice melts, some of the best trout fishing lakes in Canada open up.

But not all of them. Two of the top trophy lakes, Minnie and Stoney, remain behind a locked gate put up by the Douglas Lake Cattle Co.

Canada's largest working cattle ranch, which is owned by U.S. billionaire E. Stanley Kroenke has several lakes under lock and key, raising the ire of local anglers.

"They are trying to lock the public out from public lakes," said Ed Hendricks, who runs Ponderosa Sports in Merritt and is a member of the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club access committee.

For years, Mr. Hendricks and his angling colleagues have been protesting against the locked-gate policy at Douglas Lake Ranch, and last year a group of them clambered over the fence to hold a protest "fish out" on Minnie Lake.

The RCMP were invited and dropped by to keep a watchful eye over things.

Mr. Hendricks said ranch workers told them they were trespassing, but no charges were laid and the incident gained some media coverage.

"We are talking about going back again this spring," said Mr. Hendricks. "It's just a matter of finding enough people who can all go at the same time. We'd like to make a statement."

Later this year, they are hoping to make an even more powerful statement in the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

"We are trying to raise funds for that right now," said Mr. Hendricks. But lawyers cost a lot, he added, and the little Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club has to raise funds before starting such a big action.

One thing Mr. Hendricks is sure about is that local anglers won't give up their fight to get access to lakes he says many of them fished decades ago, when they were kids.

A narrow road established in the late 1800s used to snake across the grasslands on Douglas Lake Ranch, touching on the shoreline of Minnie Lake and giving anglers easy access. But around 1975, the ranch built a new road, which took a route well away from the water. Then the ranch put a gate on the old, public road, locking the public out.

Minnie and Stoney Lakes, and several others on ranch property, have since been developed into trophy rainbow trout fisheries by Douglas Lake Cattle Co. To fish on those lakes, you have to pay the ranch between $40 and $60 a day. At Minnie and Stoney, which are the top waters, there are exclusive lodges, which cost about $250 a night, with fishing thrown in. Or you can sign up for the Stoney Lake Fly Fishing School, which runs for three days in June, and for $849 you will get to fish the lakes under the tutelage of British Columbia fishing celebrities Brian Chan and Kathy Ruddick.

Mr. Hendricks said that kind of exclusive access is not what Merritt anglers want. They want the lakes open to everyone, without an entry fee.

Joe Gardner, general manager of the Douglas Lake Ranch, couldn't be reached for comment on the weekend, but he's on record as saying the lakes are surrounded by private land, and the ranch is within its legal rights to forbid public access.

In a letter to the Merritt RCMP detachment last month, Norm Parkes, regional director for the Ministry of Transportation, seemed to support that position.

Mr. Parkes, responding to an RCMP request to clarify the legal situation, wrote that a "historical roadway" did run near Minnie Lake and around the northeast side of Stoney Lake, connecting to the Pennask Lake Road.

But he stated the old road was "discontinued" after 1975, when the ranch built a bypass route with the Ministry of Transportation's permission.

"Sometime after the bypass was opened, [the ranch]was then allowed to close the old alignment by way of a locked gate, which remains to this day," wrote Mr. Parkes.

Argument over?

Hardly. The anglers in Merritt have uncovered a 1996 letter to Mr. Gardner by D.S. Kirk, who was then the district highways manager, in which the government asks Douglas Lake Ranch to remove the gate.

"In the event you would like to have the gate remain, I would ask that you make application to have it remain on a public road under permit. In addition, I would request that public access not be restricted and that the gate remain unlocked," wrote Mr. Kirk.

When they clamber over the gate this spring, the Merritt anglers will not really be going fishing for trout – the outing is meant to maintain a claim to public access that the government has tried to forget.