The Right To Fish.

RanchAs a surfer in the Santa Barbara area back in the good ol’ days, I often wanted to surf the uncrowded stretch of coastline to the north known as the Hollister/Bixby Ranch. The Ranch is all privately held coastline of very exclusive (expensive) 100+ acre parcels.  Access to the area is via a single road, and that road is (was) gated and well guarded. Way back when it was actually a bit easier to sneak in and out, (and I was a bit of a rebel) a buddy and I would load up a backpack, grab our boards, and walk in well before it got light, following the railroad tracks and sneaking past the guard stand. Later in life (and when I had access to a boat), we’d simply boat in.

Now as long as we stayed “in the water” (below the mean high tide line) we weren’t considered “trespassing” and had no worries. Otherwise, you’d crossed a line and could (and would) be “arrested” and hauled out. The property owners are not without monetary resources for legal fees, and you can believe me when I tell you that they would (will) prosecute any infraction to the fullest extent of the law.

Now that was an ocean, not a stream or lake, but it was my first real experience with the private water issue, and the only one that I truly have some personal experience with.  So I bring it up here as some “context” for my comments, and because I think the principle is the same.

I am no longer a rebellious teenager, and the fact that I have actually become a property owner (no I do not own Ranch property, nor even any water front property) I have a broader perspective on the “private water” issue than I once did.  In fact, I truly have empathy for both sides of the private water issue.

On the one hand, I want to have the access to a public resource, and I appreciate the fact that the resource exists (and thrives) by the management of it. This management of a water resource is certainly accomplished by more than a single property owner, and is often (if not always) at least partially subsidized by public funds. So as part of that public, my money is supporting that resource, and if I’m paying for it, I should be able to use it!  Free access becomes my mantra, and I can defend that point pretty vehemently.

But if I put myself in the position of those property owners… Just because I have a “public” stream (or ocean) running through (or along) my property, shouldn’t give the public the right to access it at will, nor cross my property to do so. (Let alone leave their garbage, etc.) So whatever is my personal property, I feel I should be able to control who’s allowed to be on it and who isn’t (if anyone).

To my way of thinking, those two perspectives seem to be able to coexist as long as a clear line of demarkation exists between what is “public” and what is “private”.  But as soon as that line becomes fuzzy, things go south for me in a hurry.

drift boatFor example, I’ve heard that in some areas the “water” is public, but the actual stream bed is private.  So floating the body of water is perfectly legal, but wading it isn’t.  Huh?  So if the body of water rises, and even floods the property owner’s home, as long as I’m just cruising around in my kayak I can check out the living room?  No offense here if you are an attorney, but how they got to that “line of demarkation” sure smacks of legal wrangling to me, and common sense went out the window somewhere along the way.

For me a line is a line, and I’ve come to learn that a line doesn’t have to be painted to truly exist.  If I cross private property without permission to do so, I’ve crossed a line that I shouldn’t have, irregardless of how much I desire to do so, or because of any sense of “entitlement” I might feel toward the resource I was trying to reach in the process.

I may not like it, and I may even completely disagree with it being the case.  But until the property becomes a public access point, or I’ve been given permission to “cross the line” by the property owner, I for one will respect their right to do with it as they may, and would hope that others will afford me the same respect if (when) I ever do own a little piece of heaven on earth.

~  DFG

8 thoughts on “The Right To Fish.

  1. Marty
    October 26, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    Private property rights are one of the cornerstones of our society. Access laws vary by state…. If you can access below the high water line or floating so be it.
    It’s hard today to ask and receive permission to get on many people’s land because so many act like rude entitled pigs leaving garbage and trashing things.
    You have no right to expect a farmer or owner to allow you to use / access the land he and or his family have worked hard for. There is an enormous amount of public land here in the states.
    A humble, polite request when I’ve been willing to help with a chore or bribe with a bottle have gotten me into many many places.
    I see and hear a great deal of entitlement whining but the fact is in this country you have the same chance to work hard and earn enough to buy land that the landowner did if you approach with the attitude that he’s by hard work and success shutting you out of your divine birthright you like won’t ( and don’t deserve) to fish/ hunt/ cross his land.
    If you treat folks with courtesy and respect its amazing where you’ll go.

  2. Glass Stixs
    October 26, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    I view this conundrum the same way, I can see both sides. I respect a property owners rights and abide by not only their wishes but also the law. There has been a disturbing trend of land trades between developers and the federal and state governments in the last few years. A mundane piece of property that is hard, if not impossible, to access is traded for a piece of prime property containing public water with little or no input from the public. These trades are often done under the guise of rare or endangered species habitat or some other nonsense. The monetary value between the two properties is usually so lop-sided it’s ridiculous. The newly traded for land/water is now deemed private and access is denied to the public. It doesn’t upset me to not be able to fish private water that I have never had access to but it really burns me to see a place that I have fished or hunted for years is now off limits due to an unscrupulous trade by our so called public servants.

  3. Trouter3
    October 28, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    Being a land owner this topic is very sensitive to me both from an owners rights and fly fishing perspective .. I own in upstate NY some prime acreage bordering on a very famous Trout stream, for many years at the access point I just had a sign just reminding users if they pack it in please pack it out, well after a while it came to a point of my spending hours picking up trash and beer cans, people cutting down trees for firewood …the icing on the cake is when someone camping burned down 25 acres, the public in general I find doesn’t care a rats ass what happens to the environment or waterways that are on private property, it isn’t their problem after they leave, they will access it no matter what the signs reads … They just have no respect for private property, in most cases, if I sound like an angry old man, I’m angry for sure, a few ruined it for many, the land is now posted, correctly I may add and my anger is pointed toward the few people who showed no respect for a privilege they thought was automatically theirs and took away a prime access point to a wonderful Trout stream … Our vanishing wilderness due stupidity … I asked for no fee to use my land, just leave the way you found it ……it didn’t work obviously , so no one can use it !! Damn shame I say ….


  4. Lightline
    October 29, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Paul’s story is told by many landowners out west. Abused permission led to permission not granted and posted signs. On the larger, floatable rivers though, I still don’t like the “water is public, river bottom is private” crap. Wyoming is where I experience that, but in Idaho and Montana, the river bed is public up to the high water mark. Access in all cases is only from public access points. I get that too. I wish Wyoming would somehow use the high water mark line, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

  5. Trouter3
    October 29, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    Here is another interesting story, being very conscious of owners rights and posted property, I fly fish in
    Oregon by this great cutthroat creek! called Gales creek, access is horrendous, I always come back bloody after an outing but its worth it .. Few miles down is a wonderful pool which I wade down to …well I just happened to see the farmer who posted the land, figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask, one never knows .. Asked and got flat out refused, don’t step on my land or ill inform the authorities. Ok by me I got the picture, I had noticed him trying to move this water trough closer to his barn for his milk cows, I asked if he needed a hand since in my younger days I worked on a milk farm and drove the same old Ford tractor he owned, we hooked up the trough to the tractor and I carefully dragged it to the place he wanted it .. We then went and loaded the lift up with bales of hay and put many in the loft, I had a helluva time working that farm it was all a great memory for me, he thanked me and as I walked to my vehicle his wife came by and asked why I did help him and I explained the story I’d always asking permission before crossing someone’s property, she said and my husband gave you permission did he not, said no, and she frowned and mumbled something under her breath, ask for phone and invited me into the house for ice tea, fine lady, we chatted for a bit and I left …that evening she called and advised me not only can I cross her land but she took it upon herself to call all her neighbors and acquire crossing privileges there also ..moral of the story ask the land owner they can only say no. Most of the time they will say yes, BTW he told he I was the first person in 39 years to ask permission, I am very cognizant of the cows and property now when crossing it also found out what kind of Oregon wine they like by being observant when in the house … I recently dropped off six bottles at their door step with a thank you note …now have a prime easy access fly spot and a new friend ….life is good !!

  6. Trouter3
    October 29, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    In regard to light lines response to public waters, river bottoms …there is so much grey area in this subject and legalese that comes into play when trying to ascertain who owns or controls what portion of that waterfront, there are easement rights, statues of maintaining of property adjacent to the waterfront …after a certain time frame maintaining the property in some areas it becomes yours … Many many variables when it comes to the land owner and the publics rights … Something one doesn’t want to get into unless absolutely necessary ….


  7. mclabrook
    October 31, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    I feel lucky to live in an area in which there are several long stretches of public access catch and release water. If you are willing to hike in, you get have a great day on the water. However, I grew up in Maine where people have more rights to water if it borders public lands. It is nice to know for sure that I am not breaking any laws.

  8. wacokid54
    November 23, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    I live and fish in Colorado. We are blessed with a ton of public access here on state and federal land. For private land on the streambank, we are a “public water, private banks” state. If you are floating, don’t touch the bottom. There are some stream sections that I gaze at with longing from the end of the public access, wishing for Montana’s law about the high water mark. But most of the time I count my blessings and enjoy the bounty that I have.

    Happy Trails
    The Waco Kid

Leave a Reply