Fishermen vs. The King

Blue Ridge Outdoors: Who owns Virginia's rivers?

The Jackson River is getting lots of press these days—and not for its outstanding trout fishery. Rather, the waterway is at the center of a lawsuit that could have far-reaching effects for sportsmen across Virginia.Blue Ridge Outdoors: Who owns Virginia's rivers?

Controversy surrounding the Jackson River is nothing new: In its landmark 1996 Crown Grant decision, the Virginia Supreme Court sided with property owners who argued that they had exclusive fishing rights, thanks to the title issued by King George III. Anglers may freely float through the Jackson River because it is a navigable waterway, but no one may fish the grant section of the Jackson without consent of the property owners.

And therein lies the rub of the latest dust-up. According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), the grant section applies to the river below the Gathright Dam and through Johnson Springs.  As far as the VDGIF is concerned, the rest of the river downstream from Johnson Springs is open to the public.

However, a new development along this stretch of the river has posted signs on both sides of the river prohibiting fishing, swimming, or exiting their kayaks or canoes for any reason. The River’s Edge, which owns this property, sells riverside home sites that range from $175,000 to $325,000.

As the “no trespassing” signs went up, so did the hackles of sportsmen, who view the signs as an attempt to privatize the river for the benefit of a few wealthy landowners. But the relevant questions remain: Who owns the river? And what exactly does that mean for sportsmen?

On the Hook

In February, two fishermen and a local pastor were sued for trespassing by Matt Sponagle, owner of  The River’s Edge development. These anglers refused to stop fishing The River’s Edge section of the Jackson River.

The defendants argued that since this stretch of river was outside the Crown Grant, and therefore state-owned for the public use, they had every right to fish the water. Now these anglers, should they be found guilty in civil court, may find themselves on the hook for $10,000 apiece.

Who Cares About the King?

Why does the decree of a dead British king matter today? Didn’t we fight a war of independence from that very king?

At the foundation of our own legal system, though, we find English Common Law, among the most sacred tenets of which is the pursuit and protection of private property. Our Founding Fathers were both zealous advocates of private property and prosecutors of the Revolutionary War. And in their minds, apparently, newly won American independence did not negate the fact that certain tracts of land had indeed been lawfully conveyed to private individuals by the Crown of England.

Whose River Is It?

The outcome of the current Jackson River case could have implications for sportsmen across the Old Dominion, and for anglers in particular. Taking their cue from The River’s Edge, more landowners are posting signs along their property lines that face the river. Naturally these landowners may post whatever they like on their own land, but that does not necessarily mean that officers of the law will enforce the posting as long as anglers stay in the river. Both the VDGIF and the Alleghany County Commonwealth’s Attorney have refused to prosecute any anglers fishing outside of the Crown Grant section, but they also have no authority to remove the confusing signs.

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