THE FIGHT FOR PUBLIC-WATER ACCESS IN AMERICA,
The redfish cruised the edge of the reeds, unhurried and unalarmed. The U-shaped push of the big blunt head was coming straight toward our flats skiff. I was in the right place at the right time. Only one person could screw this up now.
I roll-cast the crab fly from the palm of my hand, backcast once, and lay the fly against the marsh bank. I wince—the pattern lands a little short.
“That’ll work,” says my guide, Michael Evans. “Leave it.”
The fish stays the course, 10 feet
from the fly and closing. Play this right, I think, and this could be as perfect as it gets when it comes to casting for Louisiana redfish.
“Now,” Evans commands. I strip-set the fly, and line rips from the reel as the redfish bolts across the shallows. I whoop as the fish surges three times before Evans hauls it overboard, and all is as it should be—green marsh, blue sky, and a redfish in hand. It is a gorgeous morning in one of the most iconic sporting landscapes in America. But the worry is, it could all be falling apart in south Louisiana.
I was so focused on the fish that I initially missed a few significant details: The marsh edge here is corroded and eroding, with chunks of black muck and reeds calving into the open water. Dotting the shoreline are posted signs, and I can see that the only other boat out here is working over ponds deep in the marsh interior. Those anglers are most likely trespassing, although they don’t know that—or do and don’t care.
It’s a scene that captures precisely why the self-proclaimed “Sportsman’s Paradise of Louisiana” is in the middle of the largest—and possibly most impactful—public-waters dispute in the country. Increasing numbers of private landowners are posting bayous, marsh ponds, and canals that have been used by the public for decades. Altercations between landowners and hunters and anglers are on the rise. Guides complain of losing access to vast sweeps of marsh and water. And the issue of who owns the water—and who can access it—is spilling over into parts of Louisiana far from the coast. This past summer, a dock owner at Lake D’Arbonne was arrested for pouring gas on three anglers who were legally fishing from a boat near his property. At Lake Catahoula, one of the most storied waterfowling destinations in the country, a U.S. District Court last year ruled that the body of water was a river, not a lake, and could not be managed as a public resource as in the past. The state has appealed the ruling, and it awaits a decision by the Third Circuit appeals court.
Across the country, access to public waters is under siege, at a scale similar to the threats public lands have faced over the last few years. Court cases and legislative efforts are underway to change legal precedents and long-standing traditions concerning public-waters access. River by lake by creek by marsh, one stream at a time or through regulatory changes that could wipe away the public’s access across entire landscapes, outdoorsmen are increasingly being gated out of and litigated off some of the country’s most iconic waterways. It’s an issue that affects freshwater and saltwater anglers alike, plus duck hunters, river paddlers, and anyone else whose outdoor passions require access to water. And it’s an issue that could fundamentally alter opportunities for generations of hunters and anglers.
In Colorado, a lawsuit has been filed by a trout angler who was run off the Arkansas River, which he accessed from public land. In New Mexico, the attorney general’s office issued an opinion that all the state’s fishing streams are in the public domain, setting up potential court and regulatory fights. In North Carolina, the rights of the public to access the dry-sand beach went all the way to the state supreme court before being
upheld in a dismissal. Issues of privatizing lakes are popping up in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and across New England, public waters where fisheries have been managed and enhanced with public funds are being increasingly gated off to the public. The message is loud and clear: Anglers and hunters stand to lose sporting opportunities. So they better stand up and make their voices heard.
For the most part, Louisiana’s legendary hunting and fishing rests squarely on access to public waters, so it’s no surprise that the largest fight for access to public waters is underway there. Louisiana’s water-access laws are a murky stew based on a rare legal system with roots in the Napoleonic era. It’s the only state that allows for private ownership of water bottoms below tidal waters, and it’s these marshes in south Louisiana that are being increasingly posted—and contested.
In a convoluted, multichambered nutshell, this is the issue in the Pelican State: Louisiana is losing marsh along the Gulf Coast like a snake sloughing its skin. The land is sinking, the seas are rising, and the marshes are tattered and torn from pipeline and navigation canals. The figures are so staggering and so well-known that they could practically pass for the state motto: Louisiana loses enough marsh to cover a football field every 100 minutes. Two thousand square miles have vanished in the last 100 years, and some experts say that another 2,000 squares miles might still dissolve away.
Much of the south Louisiana marsh is privately owned by individuals and families, but also by oil and gas companies, and often in huge chunks measured by the thousands of acres. While tidal waters in other states are typically open to public access, Louisiana allows private landowners to own tidal waters as long as the water was not claimed by the state when Louisiana was created in 1812. But in many areas, no one is entirely sure who owns what. The ownership issues are so complex in many areas that vast sweeps of open water are designated as “dual claimed lands,” claimed by both the state and private landowners.
Some of Louisiana’s challenges with public-waters access are similar to those in other regions around the country. Like 21 other states, Louisiana doesn’t require private landowners to post lands against trespass, putting the onus on sportsmen to know the lines. That’s a huge issue in a world of marsh and water, especially when shorelines change so
ANGLERS AND HUNTERS STAND TO LOSE SPORTING OPPORTUNITIES. SO THEY BETTER STAND UP AND MAKE THEIR VOICES HEARD.
Move Along More and more, posted signs are appearing on Louisiana waters.