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Virginia Anglers Launch River Defense Fund

by Beau Beasley
photos by Beau Beasley

Fly shop message boards and online angling communities across the Old Dominion are abuzz with the news that three fly anglers are being sued for fishing in Virginia’s Jackson River. The case is unique in that the section of the river in question is considered public by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). North/South Development, which claims that the anglers repeatedly trespassed on private property, filed the suit. North/South Development owns or leases land on both sides of the river and claims to have a Crown Grant dating to the mid-1700s that supersedes state law.

Virginia River Defense Fund

Nearly two dozen signs like these are posted along the Jackson River by North/South Development.

Nearly two dozen color-coded no trespassing signs have been posted on both sides of the river by the developer to warn those floating downstream. The signs are clearly visible from the river and advise anglers that they may neither wade nor fish while on that section of the river. This admonishment directly contradicts maps provided by VDGIF both on their website and at the public access launch sites along the Jackson River. The landowners do not object to anglers or paddlers floating through but do not want anglers fishing or otherwise touching the bottom of that section of the river.

Usage disputes are nothing new on the Jackson River. In its 1996 Kraft v Burr decision, the Virginia Supreme Court determined that owners of several land grants originally issued by the King of England could indeed prevent others from fishing and wading in the section of the Jackson River from just below the Gathright Dam to Johnson Springs. This section is highlighted on VDGIF-provided river maps; the section of river currently posted by North/South Development, however, which lies between Smith Bridge and Indian Draft, was not a part of the Kraft v Burr dispute and is therefore not recognized by the state as private.

Fly anglers have tended to rally round the anglers being sued in the case and condemn the state’s relative inaction. The issue is murkier than it appears, however: The landowners bringing the suit point out that their property lines extend into the river—and they do indeed pay property taxes on the river bottom.  Nevertheless, neither the VDGIF nor the Alleghany County authorities are willing to issue criminal trespassing charges to anglers fishing outside of the Kraft V Burr designated area. As a result, the landowners argue that because the state has refused to prosecute trespassers on what they consider, by right of deed, their private property, they have had to take matters into their own hands.

Law enforcement authorities may refuse to prosecute anglers fishing outside the boundaries of the Kraft v Burr decision; this does not prevent private landowners from pursuing a civil case. The question for Commonwealth anglers is whether this case will have broader application to other sections of the Jackson River or even other colonial waterways.

The Virginia Attorney General’s Office is aware of the case but currently has no plans to defend the anglers in court. Concerned anglers have set up a defense fund for the anglers. For more information, visit www.virginiariversdefensefund.org.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Beau Beasley (www.beaubeasley.com) is an award-winning journalist and investigative conservation writer. His even-handed approach and through research on saltwater forage fish have garnered him respect with conservationist and commercial anglers alike. The author of Fly Fishing Virginia and Fly Fishing the Mid-Atlantic, he also serves as the Director of Programs and Sponsorship Development for the Virginia Fly Fishing Festival (www.vaflyfishingfestival.org)  Beau lives with this wife and children in Warrenton VA.
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  • John Gibson

    Perhaps the early Supreme Court Decision would have an influence on this case…”The people are the soverigns. What once belonged to the king now belon gs to the people.” 

  • Mac Brown

    Hey Beau,
    Looks like the Kings land also flowed to a few elite landowners on the South Holston River in TN. We got told last week that we were on private property by having the anchor dropped in the middle of the river. I have been on rivers all over the world and that was the first time I was informed that anchor dropping was illegal. Only on a very select few archaic deeds that date back to the king of England. Which we know what we did with this type of rubbish with the King and his deeds long ago which is why we started America. Nice read  Beau!

    • Beau Beasley

      Mac,

      Great to hear from you as usual. Being that your one of the best guides on the planet, I feel bad to inform you and others that this issue is on the rise and not just in Virginia.

      Yes, I heard rumors of someone trying to privatize part of the South Holston, and the sad truth is since the So-Ho is not considered a navigable river, the law may well be on their side.

      The question I would have of the court is can they take “their half” of the river out of the middle? If the property line is only owned on one side, clearly they don’t own the other side…. so I would pick up my anchor, move over 2 feet and re-drop the anchor.

      Stay tuned on this one Mac, I am tracking this case in Virginia but may increase my search to other waters and other states as time allows.

      The current case is moving forward and I hope to have other print articles coming out on this issue shortly.
      In the mean time keep reading Mid-Current as I’ll keep these readers informed as well.

      Keep the faith and stay safe!
      Best Beau          

  • Beau Beasley

    Mac,

    Yes, I hear there are issues on the South Holston that have some similar underpinnings. I don’t know all the facts yet but I am gathering them and trying to get all sides of the issue covered. This is tough because some folks simply won’t talk to me. Any way however I am trying to figure out the lay of the land and when I know more about the Jackson case, and more about the issues on the So-Ho I’ll let the readers of Midcurernt know.

    Tight Lines!
    Beau    

  • Bill

    I fail to understand how a kings grant from the 1700’s is in effect when things like the Northwest Ordinance were developed after that.  The Northwest Ordinance is one of the 4 organic laws of the United States, and should have rescinded any previous laws.

  • Gbrooks

    The native indians who lived in these areas will be happy to know that the state government intends to go back and honor all the broken committments they made to them concerning ownership of land.