Know Your Rights When Fishing or Hunting

As a licensed fisherman (or hunting), you have certain legal rights and protections– you should know them. I recently explained some of these concepts to a fellow fisherman at a deli I go to once in a while– I thought I would share it here.

While I dream of playing a lawyer on TV, I am not an attorney. That said, doing a little homework before you venture out to hunt or fish, can be very helpful. It can also keep you out of trouble. While you should read (study) your state’s rules and regulations on hunting and fishing, there are some ideas that might not be discussed in the hunter’s or angler’s guide, that are important for you to know about. Let’s quickly discuss just a few ideas:

Believe it or not, the law on public access to coastal waters favors the sportsman over the private landholder. This concept dates back to English and Roman Law. Most coastal states honor these rights. Specifically, the beach and water below the average high water mark is public land for the public to use to hunt, fish, swim, sunbath, and walk upon. The mean high water mark is higher than you think– effectively there are no true “private” beaches. The trick is to get to this spot from a public access point and you are good. While you can get to any coastal beach by boat, for the purpose of this discussion, let’s consider being on foot. There are places (public access) where I can enter a beach and walk along a series of beaches and fish– in front of multi-million dollar homes. While I haven’t been bothered yet, I am prepared to calmly explain the rules and produce a document explaining the law. Not everyone is familiar with the law, including the police. My attitude is to be prepared to calmly and peacefully exert my rights to the land owner and the local authority.

Next, let’s briefly discuss inland waters. There is a similar line of thinking here, similar to that of the coastal access rules– the river or stream bed is public property, not privately owned. Now, I have mentioned that I like fishing from the water, here is an important legal reason to do it– it allows you more access. With few exceptions, private landowners don’t own the beds of rivers and streams that may run through their properties. Additionally, it is illegal for them to block it from the water. The trick is to enter the water, typically in waders, from public property and as long as you are in the water (even a small boat perhaps?), your feet are on the river bed, you can theoretically move “miles” into private property to fish.

When hunting you are allowed to enter private land to retrieve downed prey. In many states you must ask permission from the property owner to enter the property. If they refuse fish and game will come out and explain the rules to the landowner– usually problem solved. If it escalates from there, let fish and game deal with it.

Finally, it is illegal for people to disturb, disrupt, hamper your right to legally hunt or fish. There are many times you will come across the more liberally slanted, pseudo vegan/vegetarian wearing the latest trendy leather hiking boots (Sorry, if I generalize, but the truth usually hurts most and I am not pulling punches today) who will demand that you don’t hurt the fish or animal. I have explained that it is legal for me to take the prey and that my family will be eating it (This has happened to me on a few occasions. One time, I was accused of poaching– I was properly licensed and fish in a trout management area fully aware and following the special rules for the area. The really funny part of the story– I especially liked how their illegally, unleashed dog ran wild while they harassed me). If the pest doesn’t quit harassing you, the police or fish and game wardens can be called and the offending parties can be arrested– the threat I used to swat the pest in the aforementioned anecdote.

Now all that said, allow me to add a few points and provide a for tips and suggestions:

  • First, I like dogs, it is their owners I sometimes don’t appreciate . . .
  • Next, I believe in private ownership and don’t believe in trespass. Sometimes nicely asking permission can get you access to ponds and lakes on private property that you can’t otherwise legally access.
  • Being calm, peaceful, and respectful pays dividends– cool heads usually prevail. If the law and logic are on your side, in the end, you will be the one smiling.
  • Not leaving trash is a good idea or leaving the area cleaner can help get better access.
  • Offer to share some of the harvest or catch– quality access can be “bought”.
  • When dealing with a complete moron, it doesn’t pay to lower yourself to their level. Calmly state your rights and give them a copy of your state’s statutes on the matter. If they persist and all else fails, call the authorities and report them. Think of how funny it will be when the police explain to them that they will be the ones arrested if they don’t stop harassing you . . .

Back to my fisherman friend from the deli. He told me that he and a friend of his recently got access to a nice private pond they had been salivating to fish. How did they get the access? They simply knocked on a property owner’s door and asked if they could cut through his yard and fish the pond. The property was shocked that they asked and thanked them for asking permission. He then said anytime they wanted to fish it to go right ahead.

It pays to be nice, but always be ready to assert your rights . . . now hit the water or the woods.

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