Here’s What National Water Access Issues Can Teach Us About Losing Our Favorite Fishing Spots

Sometimes it's the small waters that we love the most — and they're the ones that hurt the most to lose
Joe Cermele Avatar
no trespassing sign
This sign went up after the public trashed an access point. Photo by Joe Cermele

The American West has a long history of water access rights issues. Books have been written on the subject and feature films have been shot. Outdoor Life has published several feature stories on the issue. Most recently, landowners on Utah’s Lower Provo River are trying to block access to the water because they say anglers are trespassing on their property while standing in the river and casting, according to a story on Dailymail.com. Per the article, the landowners are technically correct because a 2010 statute says anglers can float down the Lower Provo but cannot touch the land or riverbed. In other words, the state Supreme Court ruled that the landowners own the land but not the water. This is just the most recent example of Western water wars, and in so many cases, there are a lot of gray areas and multiple sides to every aspect of the fight. The East Coast where I live isn’t immune to access battles over water, either.

The privatization of waterways in the East is a problem, particularly when landowners decide to put stocked trout in streams and rivers that hold wild trout. The East is the land of the “trout club” where anglers pay yearly dues to either fish for huge stocked trout or have wild trout water all to themselves. One of the biggest battle grounds is Pennsylvania’s famed Little Juniata. 

I can’t claim to be the expert on all sides of the East and West water access debates, but I do know that while they get a lot of attention (as they should), we often overlook how quickly we’re losing access to far less famous waters than the Lower Provo and Little “J.” If you don’t fish the rivers being fought over, it’s easy to remove yourself from their plight, but what about the spots you love in your own backyard?

Losing Game

I could easily rattle off a half-dozen places I’ve been fishing in New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania since I was a kid that are simply gone. Well, they still exist but I can’t go there anymore, and neither can you. Most recently, concrete barricades appeared surrounding a little parking area with a dirt ramp for kayak access along the Delaware River. I’ve been parking and wading at that spot since I was six years old. For 33 years it remained unchanged and then, poof, access gone. To the untrained eye, the access point looked public, but that had never been the case. It was owned by a water treatment plant that graciously allowed locals to use it. Then, about five years ago, garbage began piling up every weekend. Hordes of people would clog the road because there was only room for a few cars in the dirt lot. People would swim, fish, and party. At first, the treatment plant tried “no trespassing” signs. They were disregarded. When they just couldn’t take it anymore and became worried about liability, up went the barricades. 

Another local spot on private property cut right to the chase with their signage that went up in 2015. “No Fishing” it said in bold, red letters. Below that: “You assholes couldn’t keep it clean.”

Most people reading this story, I’d bet, would not be thrilled to walk out to their property and routinely see half-naked, sun-charred men carrying rods, lawn chairs, and mini Igloo coolers. On the other hand, one could argue that the landowners just want these rivers to themselves and are robbing the “little people” of the resource. The thing is, being a workaday angler doesn’t absolve you from being a steward of conservation and good sportsman on the water, and to my eye, we’re losing those values.

For Love or Money?

In the Daily Mail article, Utah landowner Steve Ault notes that the “no trespassing” signs he posts on his property are routinely torn down. He commonly finds trash along the river. His solution to this, he says, is not barring anglers from fishing his property, but charging them to access the river through his land. Before you judge him for the money grab, think about what you’d do if money could buy you back into a place you held so dear. 

If I could purchase a yearly permit to access that dirt ramp on the Delaware—one that I used hundreds of times a year to pull out my drift boat—I’d gladly fork over the cash assuming it was a reasonable fee (not private club prices). This is, sadly, becoming more common in fishing because too many anglers take the non-public access points that remain for granted. Some act as though they own them and can do anything they want with them. Then, when access is shut down, they’re wildly upset. 

I’m practical—there’s little I could do personally to change the loss of access, but if coughing up a little coin is the answer, I’d rather do that than lose it all. 

All-Access Pass

best bass fishing tips for beginners 2
The author holds up a chunky largemouth. Joe Cermele

Sometimes, misuse of public access can ruin a fishing spot, even when that spot remains public. I grew up fishing a little bass pond close to home, as well as a larger lake, and both were on county land. Both were historically chock full of big largemouths and pickerel. The pond was a wild place. You had to park on the main road far away, walk through tick-laden tall grass, and past the crumbling old farmhouse to reach the water. It took effort, but you were usually there alone, and the fishing was good. About six years ago, once again thanks in part to misuse of the property by the public, the county invested a pile of money into beautifying the land. There are now paved roads, manicured trails, and ample parking. Somebody even mows the tall grass so nobody gets a wood tick up their yoga pants. Try as I might, I can’t find a bass heavier than a pound in that pond anymore. 

The other lake was choked with lily pads and badly silted in. To launch my kayak, I had to wade through waist deep muck, but, damn, did that place fish. Here, too, there was trash everywhere on the shoreline. Worm tubs, beer bottles, tires, miles of discarded line. As part of the access and beautification efforts, the county dredged the lake and will soon build more pretty trails, create better parking, and increase access and use. In the interim, barely a trickle of water flows through because it’s been drawn down so low. This summer, any fish that survived the draining will likely boil to death. 

If you’re a passionate angler, you know that some of the best places take a little extra effort to reach. In many cases, these are those “marginally public” access points where, basically, nobody ever cared or bothered you until too many bad eggs ruined it for everybody (usually trashing the place). 

Would the Utah landowners be as upset if there was no trash being left on the river or their “no trespassing” signs weren’t being torn down? Maybe. If “wild” bodies of water left unmanaged for so long hadn’t become garbage dumps, would states and counties be as likely to turn them into Epcot? We won’t ever know for sure.

Anglers in the East and West should continue to fight for the public access that belongs to them. But we also need to realize that there’s a whole bunch of privately owned spots that grant public access to small waters all over the country. These spots are the easiest to lose because of bad behavior. 

I would like to think that most of you, like me, are stewards of the water. You don’t leave trash on the river and if approached by a landowner, you’re respectful, even if they’re not. None of us should ever forget that the people who don’t fish have more power and can often pull heavier strings than anglers. So if you have that fishing spot you love, a place that still feels secret, take good care of it and, above all else, never take it for granted.