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“Don’t tread on …Public Lands?”

September 24, 2019 By: Marshall Cutchin

From the September 2019 Issue of Strung Magazine: The Upland Issue

By Beau Beasley

It was a beautiful day in the spring of 2012 when small business owner and fly angler Dargan Coggeshall headed to the river to clear his head. Tucking his fishing license into his pocket and his fly box into his kayak, Coggeshall entered one of Virginia’s finest waterways, Alleghany County’s Jackson River, from a public boat launch owned by the US Forest Service and managed by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) by joint agreement. Carefully keeping to a section of the river the state clearly marked as public property, Coggeshall gently released each naturalized rainbow and wild brown he caught back to its watery home. This, he told himself, would be a day to remember.

It certainly was.

Not far downstream from where Coggeshall had put in, landowners had posted a sign that warned this section of the river was in fact owned by a developer and thus private property–and no fishing was allowed. The developer claimed to possess a Crown Grant—a special deed from King George II to the original landowner, passed down to the current landowner—granting him title to the bottom of the river. An odd assertion? Not so very odd, actually, in the Commonwealth of Virginia: In 1966 a similar claim had been filed in court and successfully litigated by a landowner on the same river.

On a previous fishing trip Coggeshall had made to this same stretch of river, he had encountered the landowner himself, who expressed in no uncertain terms the fact that Coggeshall was not permitted to fish there. At home after the confrontation, Coggeshall had immediately contacted an authority of the VDGIF, who had assured him that he had every right to fish on that stretch of river because it was indeed public property. The VDGIF sent the developer a letter later that same season in which the agency insisted that his signs were not enforceable.

Assured repeatedly by the agency that he was within his legal rights to fish the spot and was not trespassing, Coggeshall returned to the same spot where he’d been challenged before, where he was met by an Alleghany County Sheriff’s Deputy. The Sheriff’s Office refused to pursue criminal charges of trespassing that day; the landowner who had summoned law enforcement in the first place, however, filed civil trespassing charges against the angler…READ THE FULL ARTICLE: www.STRUNGMAG.com

The author of two fly fishing guidebooks, Beau Beasley is an award-winning investigative outdoor writer who has tackled such thorny issues as saltwater species management and public access/use conflicts. He is also the director of the Virginia Fly Fishing & Wine Festival and the Texas Fly Fishing & Brew Festival.