The Bayou State’s ongoing battle over public access to tidal waters got nationwide attention Thursday, when Bassmaster’s tournament director decided that competitors in the upcoming 2018 Elite Series event on the Sabine River next spring will not be permitted to fish in Louisiana waters.
That decision came in the wake of an event held out of Orange, Texas earlier this summer, when Louisiana officials notified B.A.S.S. that a large section of backwaters near the launch site — where anglers had practiced and planned to fish — was closed to public access.
Trip Weldon said the uncertainty over access and lack of clear signage alerting anglers could create an uneven playing field, and was unacceptable for a top-level bass tournament.
““Due to the gray areas in the Louisiana Delta/tidal waters that could create an uneven playing field, the 2018 Elite event in Orange will be restricted to Texas waters only,” Weldon said in a press release.
In Louisiana, all tidal waters are held as public trust, and landowners can claim water as private property but do not have to clearly post signage. In previous tournaments, sections of prime fishing water were open in early rounds of competition but closed later in the week, the release states.
Elite Series angler Cliff “Cajun Baby” Crochet, from Pierre Part, said he respected Weldon’s ruling, but noted the decision was a definite black eye for a state that markets itself as a “Sportsman’s Paradise.”
“I think it’s absolutely embarrassing for the State of Louisiana that we cannot find common ground to satisfy recreational sportsman and landowners,” Crochet said. “Now it’s gotten to the point people don’t even want to come and enjoy 'Sportsman’s Paradise' because of our laws.
“That’s totally disappointing.”
Crochet, like many anglers along the Louisiana coast, said he was frustrated that a compromise solution couldn’t be reached to settle the public access debate, noting he believed “100 percent that landowners should be protected civilly from lawsuits coming from some idiots doing stupid stuff.
“I get that 100 percent — they need to be protected.”
But he doesn’t understand how some type of solution can’t be reached, especially since every other state he fishes — except New York — has access laws favoring recreational anglers.
“Me personally, I’ve never had an issue — but I don’t spend much time south of Highway 90 fishing,” Crochet said. “But I’ve heard stories, and now we’re seeing that this deal is getting widespread and is becoming a real issue ….
“The state’s doing a big deal right now about staycations in Louisiana. Well, if you’re a fisherman, it’s hard to staycation in South Louisiana.”
Elite Series angler Greg Hackney, from Gonzales, said he totally believes tidal waters should be public — but tournament-wise, he was actually relieved Weldon made Louisiana waters off limits.
"From the tournament standpoint, in a way I’m glad he made it off limits because I don’t have to worry about wasting any time getting caught in a place and getting run out, so it actually makes it easier," Hackney said. "That's been brought up before. It’s such a gray area. If one guy goes in a place and nobody sees him, and another guy comes in and somebody sees him and runs him out — that happened to me the first time we were there ....
"I hate to be the carrier of bad news, but I’m just going to tell you there’s more money in the oil business than there is in fishing. And the deal is, regardless of B.A.S.S. doing this, I don’t think it’s going to have any effect on the law. I hate to say that, and I hate it because I don’t believe it’s right. I think anything that’s open water flowing in and out of a place is public. But there are people who own that property who have much deeper pockets than all us fishermen put together. I hate it — but I’m afraid we’re beating a dead horse."
In the release, Weldon said similar problems exist with gated canals and closed off access in the Atchafalaya Basin — another Louisiana spot where B.A.S.S. has decided not to schedule professional tournaments until public access issues are resolved.
Weldon said Texas’ portion of the Sabine River Delta was sufficient to accommodate the field next April, and noted Texas law is more favorable toward anglers.
“If you can float it (there), you can boat it,” he said.
Weldon and B.A.S.S. CEO Bruce Akin emphasized that the fishing restrictions will not apply to Toledo Bend Reservoir, where public access is clearly defined and where numerous successful B.A.S.S. tournaments have been held without conflict.