Let’s say you’re an avid fisherman. You have a few days to kill and you’ve found a lovely place to spend them - catching tasty trout in a babbling stream up in the mountains. You’ve purchased the required state fishing license and have your eye on a decent-sized river.
So you’re free to fish to your heart’s content, right?
Well, maybe not.
Many U.S. courts have ruled that good-sized rivers are open to kayakers, canoers and rafters as well as anglers. States control their waters, but they don’t exactly own them. They hold them in trust for public use. They do own the fish, though, which is why you need a state license to catch them.
So it’s OK to pack up your fishing rod and bait and head right out, correct?
Tailwater Rainbow trout draw fishermen to Jackson River in Virginia. (Virginia Dept. of Game & Inland Fisheries)
Not necessarily if it’s the lovely Jackson River in the mountains of Virginia. Things there - and maybe elsewhere - can get tricky, as one avid fisherman found out.
Virginia stocked the Jackson with trout, many of which are now plump and wily and highly prized by fly fishers.
One fisherman comes back to a spot on the Jackson day after day, to wade in and go after these beauties. The owners of a home overlooking this spot complained. He is, in effect, intruding in their backyard, they said.
When he refused to leave, they charged him with criminal trespassing, but a court threw out the case. Now they’re suing him privately for damages.
The homeowners produced proof of a land grant to their family from the British king, back in the days before Virginia was under U.S. control. And they are paying taxes to Virginia for the land beneath the river.
They say anyone’s free to float past their home, even to toss a fishing line into the water as they pass. But they don’t want people wading and fly fishing on their piece of the Jackson River.
State wildlife folks aren’t taking sides, but they are advising anglers to avoid that stretch, since - as they point out - there are many kilometers of the river that are not in dispute.