Whose water is it anyway?

Many years ago, while fishing a tournament on the Harris Chain of Lakes in North Central Florida, a bizarre and somewhat disturbing event occurred — an event I feel is well worth sharing.

It was a late spring morning and my partner and I were fishing quietly through a canal system off Little Lake Harris. We were skipping docks and probing seawalls for spawning bass — a common springtime practice on the lakes and rivers throughout our state. As we approached a lone dock in one of the finger canals, I noticed a man on his porch suddenly rise from his chair and charge in our direction. What happened next was ugly.

Using a string of obscenities and rude gestures, he berated us, claiming we couldn’t fish there — that it was his dock and his water and we had no right to trespass. When I tried explaining that the canal was considered navigable public water and that our fishing licenses entitled us to fish there, the man became even more hostile. What happened next neither my partner nor I were prepared for.

The man shouted, "I'm going for my shotgun, and I'll be right back!" Judging from his completely irrational behavior, neither of us wanted to stick around to see if he'd wield a weapon ... or worse, if he would try using it. So we left.

In our state, navigable waters are considered public waters. And unless they're posted "off limits" by state or federal agencies, they're considered fair game to anglers. Yet certain landowners challenge that ruling. They feel they're entitled to lay claim to any water lying adjacent to their property, which, in their minds, includes the fishing rights to those waters.

In the case of the hostile landowner we encountered, he was a resident of a retirement community — typical of thousands who relocate to Florida to live out their days on the canal banks of the state's waterways. Like him, many other waterfront landowners feel — because they pay higher taxes and impact fees on those properties — that they're entitled to govern them, even beyond the boundaries of their actual property lines.

So, whose water is it, anyway?

Other occurrences

Unfortunately, ours was not an isolated incident. Other anglers, pro and weekender alike, have experienced similar problems with waterfront landowners — some of which were truly life-threatening.

During the 2003 Bassmaster Classic in New Orleans, La., Texas pro Gary Klein was shot at by a local landowner while fishing in a remote bayou. A year later, Stacey King experienced a similar incident while fishing a B.A.S.S. event in Alabama. Bullets actually strafed the water around him. King later reported finding a bullet hole in the hull of his boat. Fortunately, no one was hurt in either of those altercations.

More recently, Zell Rowland became a casualty of sorts to these strange water wars. Zell wasn't shot at. Instead, he was disqualified from the Elite Series Ramada Championship on Oneida Lake, N.Y., for fishing waters deemed "off limits" by tournament officials.

In New York, manmade boat basins and marinas are considered private property, and public access is left to the discretion of those controlling the land surrounding them. Some allow you to fish, others do not. To avoid any confusion, B.A.S.S. tournament officials posted all Oneida Lake marinas and boat basins off limits. The actual ruling falls under "permitted fishing locations" and reads, "Only that water open to ALL public fishing will be considered tournament waters."

In Zell's case, the situation seems somewhat gray. He insists the basin he entered is part of an old creek bed. In an effort to defend himself, Zell presented tournament officials with an aerial map that clearly shows the basin as part of a natural creek—which, at some point in time, was altered by the landowner. But because a boat ramp and mooring docks were included in the enhancements, tournament officials determined the basin to be a manmade marina and not a creek.

Interestingly, both Google and Bing maps show the name "Chittenango Creek" right through the center of the boat basin where Zell fished. Beyond a small dyke (installed by the landowner decades ago) the creek runs for hundreds of yards back into a lowland swamp.

Sadly, the decision cost Zell $10,000 in prize money.

Similar reports like this surface from time to time from other tournament organizations or through the columns of outdoor journalists. In the quest to compete or simply find fish, anglers sometimes "trespass" into private waters. And in doing so, they put themselves at risk — either with tournament officials, the law or irate landowners bent on defending "their" property.

Consider the source

With an ever-increasing amount of pressure put on our fisheries, it's almost a guarantee the practice of fishing beyond designated boundaries will continue. Many will ignore "No Fishing" signs wherever they appear, regardless of who posts them. These otherwise law-abiding sportsmen feel entitled to fish wherever they can navigate their boats — whether it's an open waterway or a private canal. They feel the water and anything swimming in it should belong to everyone and that just because some landowner's property line borders that body of water, it shouldn't give them the right to deny access to others.

Another point worth considering is this: When a canal or marina is dug, then connected to a lake or river system, the water used to fill those basins comes directly from the systems they're tapping into — in many cases, a water supply the public pays for, either in tax dollars or through access and licensing fees. With that being the case, then why are these landowners allowed to deny access? It would seem the water should belong to all of us.

According to waterfrontlaw.com, shoreline landowners are granted what's known as riparian rights, which entitles them to a view of the water, access to that water, and certain enhancements, such as piers, seawalls, etc. It does not, however, entitle them to control the water nor the land beneath it.

While the law may be clear, how it's interpreted is not. Each state, or in some cases, each waterway, seems to have its own interpretation. And sadly for anglers, winning back the rights to waters already lost could be futile. Perhaps if the angling community were unified and represented by a strong lobbying force in Washington, the issue might be resolved in its favor. But for now, it's a simple case of compliance or non-compliance.

I'm sure some of you have similar stories or opinions to share, so feel free to add your comments below through our Facebook forum. This is an important issue affecting all of us. If the practice of limiting access is allowed to continue, it's possible we could lose additional water in the future. So weigh in, and let your voice be heard.

After all, whose water is it anyway?

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