Jackson River Virginians Give Up US Citizenship?

Did you know certain Virginians would rather give their fealty to the British Monarchy than the United States of America?

Yes, that’s a bit dramatic, but its true. You see CERTAIN Virginians claim Crown Grants to a riverbed that dates back to British rule of the colonies in order to keep their fellow Americans off a small stretch of the Jackson River in VA, a legally navigable tailwater in Southern Virginia. I’ve written about this problem before you may recall a YEAR AGO, but it seems as if the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries continues to prefer bangers over hot dogs, Speckled Hen over Old Dominion, bowlers over baseball caps, tweed over jeans, Rod Stewart over Bruce Springsteen, Marmite over PB&J, Fawlty Towers over Seinfeld, Doctor Who over Star Wars, high tea over whiskey, idiocy over common sense, and monarchy over democracy. Where’s that independent spirit Virginia?! Nah, the VGDIF and its cronies would rather let a bunch of rich folk with decidely un-American attitudes deny other Americans the right to enjoy the Jackson River. Nevermind its something the Virginian tax dollar and the American tax dollar paid for when the state and Army Corps of Engineers dammed the river that created the tailwater years ago. Virginians ought to be ashamed that a small group of fools are giving VA a bad name with this ludicrous Crown Grant assertion. Seriously. Here’s an idea. If you assert a Crown Grant, you give up your US citizenship in exchange? How about that?!

OK. I am somewhat inelegant on the issue. You may wonder at my indignation, but frankly, the British law has implications on American waterways all over. Clearer on the issue is Beau Beasley, respected Virginian, author, fly fisher and citizen. Here, via Midcurrent, is his latest article/letter to the VDGIF asking for clarity on the issue.

Dear Chairman Reed, October 1, 2012

Thank you for your response dated August 2, 2012, regarding my concerns for anglers legally fishing along the Jackson River. My questions were in part to help me understand VDGIF’s policy and position on this issue and what the public should expect from your agency going forward in this matter. My questions have been answered but your responses and the VDGIF white paper which was written as a result of my inquiry on the subject have generated further questions.

I understand that your agency has no ability or authority to get involved in the current lawsuit North/South Development v Crawford along the Jackson River. Further you have made it clear that you will not discuss whether you have asked Attorney General Cuccinelli to intercede on the angler’s behalf who here represents the public, because this is privileged attorney/client information. While this is certainly understandable, this is regrettable because this is the second time since 1996 that an angler has been sued for fishing along the Jackson River on property widely advertised as public by VDGIF.

I was particularly concerned by the following statement in the white paper on page 5 section 2 (a):

while much discussion has been had over the effect of a fishing license issued by the Department, in no case does a Department hunting or fishing license grant access to private property. They are instead authorizations to engage in the hunting or fishing activity in a lawful manner; the decision as to where to hunt or fish is a separate issue that must be addressed by the sportsman.

No rational sportsman believes that purchasing a Virginia hunting or fishing license means he is entitled to hunt or fish on private property. Rather, the purchaser of such a license believes it entitles him to hunt or fish on state property, or other property advertised by the state as usable by the public as long as they follow the fishing and hunting regulations written by your agency. The latter part of the statement I find particularly galling:

The decision as to where to hunt or fish is a separate issue that must be addressed by the sportsman.

This statement appears to be legalese and essentially states that while VDGIF will gladly tell sportsmen where they can hunt and fish, if they encounter legal troubles such as trespassing for going precisely where the agency advertised as public, they are on their own. How are sportsmen supposed to know where to go? I suspect few if any license holders in this state know that once they take the state at its word as to where they can hunt and fish they are engaging in what could be legal jeopardy and that doing so is “a separate matter that must be addressed by the sportsman.”

Since the beginning of this year VDGIF has issued nearly 30 press releases informing the public on issues ranging from White-Nose Syndrome of bats to warnings about not handling snakes and fawns. Yet your agency is silent on issues that have much greater import to many license holders, namely that we can’t rely on VDGIF to protect us in court for hunting or fishing in places you advertise as public. While you have posted a white paper on the Jackson River, few if any anglers would go beyond looking at the state maps you provide on line, or at the river’s access points. Given the statements above I would like to know the following:

1) Why has no mention of the current legal troubles been made public via a press release, when nearly every angler I know is confused on the issue of where they can and can’t fish on the Jackson River?

2) When the Army Corps of Engineers created the Gathright Dam, part of their Environmental Impact Statement included language that said they would create a public downstream fishery below the dam. Since 1996 two anglers have been sued and spent tens of thousands of dollars defending themselves while the state of Virginia stood on the sidelines. How can the Army Corps of Engineers have met its obligation to create a public fishery, if the public can’t go there without the fear of litigation?

3) While your agency may not engage in legal action protecting this angler, what steps have you taken to prevent other anglers from suffering the same fate on this river?

4) Is VDGIF considering putting a warning label on state signs and licenses informing sportsmen that following all VDGIF instructions as to what is public property, in no way protects them against being prosecuted for trespassing?

The public places a great deal of trust in the VDGIF, and when sportsmen purchase a license, and follow signs with your imprimatur, they assume that they are engaging in legal activity. There is no doubt that the angler being sued for fishing on the contested section of the Jackson River stood his ground because he trusted the VDGIF signs and what he was told by VDGIF staff members. If this angler loses his case, no doubt VDGIF will then be forced to change their signs. There is also very little doubt, however, that the current system uses law-abiding sportsmen as guinea pigs to find out what is and what is not public property.

Chairman Reed, in closing let me say that I realize the VDGIF is in a very difficult position and is working under constraints that may have existed long before you or your fellow commissioners began serving. I also recognize that the issue of crown grants is something that is best dealt with legislatively by the General Assembly. But until such time as these matters can be resolved, VDGIF must act to protect law-abiding sportsmen who are guilty of little more than taking VDGIF at its word. I fear without clear direction the ambiguity that revolves around the Jackson River, and now other rivers like the Hazel where crown grant ownership is being asserted, could result in depressed license sales and fear among sportsmen in Virginia.

I look forward to your response.


Beau Beasley

The Virginian River Defense Fund continues to need support, as their legal bills have only increased as they fight the spurious lawsuit.

Really Old Dominion

I’m off to Virginia for a week of eating, hunting and fishing. Just want to say THANK YOU to all the readers of deadbait and to wish you all a happy, safe and fun holiday. I’m thankful for your comments, when you share your stories and point me in new directions. Lets keep this little thing going, shall we?

In the meantime, I want to make my readers aware of some disturbing news about the rights of anglers in the state of Virginia. If you haven’t heard, a couple of kayaking anglers are being sued by a landowner on the Jackson River for trespass. Now here’s the thing–Virginia Game and Wildlife makes it clear you can fish the streambed of any river in the state, but property owners are invoking an ancient law whereby the King of England grants exclusive rights to the property owner.

“After having their criminal trespassing case dismissed by a judge in general district court in 2010, the developer of the River’s Edge golf community near Covington, VA has filed a civil trespassing case against three Virginia anglers who lawfully entered the Jackson river with kayaks at the Smith Bridge public access point (see the VDGIF map) and remained within the river banks while fishing down the river. The developer is seeking an injuction to prevent the anglers from wade fishing a stretch of the Jackson that runs past their adjacent land.

Under a Virginia statute that is more than 200 years old, the beds of all rivers and streams “are the property of the Commonwealth and may be used as a common by all the people for the purposes of fishing, fowling, hunting, and taking and catching oysters and other shellfish.”

In this case, the adjacent River’s Edge property owners are claiming that they own the bed of the Jackson River by virtue of two different 18th century land grants that predated the passage of that statute: a 1743 crown grant executed by the governor of Virginia on behalf of the King of England and a 1785 grant from the Commonwealth of Virginia, yet neither of the developer’s old land grants explicitly reference the bed of the Jackson River when describing the property conveyed. The grants also do not mention fishing rights. This case is therefore very different from, and potentially more threatening to anglers, paddlers and hunters, the previous Jackson River VA Supreme Court case (Kraft v. Burr) where it was undisputed that the landowners owned the bed of the river.”

How an old english law still has standing in the US is beyond me, but you can learn more and even help stop this nonsense by going to the Virginia River Defense Fund and giving. Your current stream rights might be safe in your homewaters, be thankful for that, but if the VRDF loses the suit, it could set strange precedents that will affect every state, and every anglers rights. You can donate here if you like.