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.

Marsh Mad­ness

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


Move Along More and more, posted signs are ap­pear­ing on Louisiana wa­ters.

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