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Kayak Angler fishing behind a “no fishing” sign. Photo: Dustin Doskocil

Fishermen and land owners clash over confusing laws affecting fishing access

In states all over the country, battles rage across all levels of government over access to fishing water. There are several pending court cases and a confusing mix of state laws that affect where, when and how you can fish. The nature of the disputes and types of water involved vary, but the bottom line is that without vigilance and action, more rivers, lakes, ponds, swamps and coast will be restricted. 

One place where this is a hot issue is Utah. The law in Utah says you may not set foot or anchor in the bed of a privately-owned stream. You can fish it and float through but you have to move with the current. A court case challenging this law is currently before the Utah Supreme Court. 

Chris Barkey is on the Board of Directors for the Utah Stream Access Coalition, a group of angling and conservation organizations. They have banded together to fight to maintain public access to Utah’s waters and streambeds. 

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"The issue is simply balancing public property rights versus private property rights,” Barkey says. He explains that the public needs to remain aware of the threats of privatized public resources. “This is a state's rights issue,” he stresses. 

“Each state constitution dictates the rights of all citizens.” Once these rights are lost, they are hard to regain. “The public owns the water for any useful and beneficial purpose,” he concludes. 

The original law was passed in 2010 and immediately galvanized opposition among anglers and other users. Concerned anglers, rafters and other users formed Utah Stream Access Coalition. The group of volunteer outdoor enthusiasts challenged the law and won in District Court. Landowners weren’t done. They have appealed the decision and will have their say in Utah's Supreme Court in spring 2017. 

Anglers are fighting for access in almost every state. Whether they face environmental or industrial opponents, anglers and hunters are usually outnumbered and outfinanced. If these are issues where you live, contact your elected representatives at the state and local level and let them know that you care about access to fishable waters. Join like-minded folks and work together. If you want to fish, you’ll have to fight. 

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