Capt. Steve Smith, a Lafayette-based charter guide who works out of both Cypremort Point and Big Lake, also fishes the Elite Redfish Series across the Southeastern U.S.
But when the tour visited the Sabine River in Orange, Texas, last month, Smith opted to stay away from his home state's waters - not because the fishing was better on the other side of the river, but because he didn't want to take a chance of being accused of trespassing on private property in Louisiana.
“My conscience said, ‘Go fish the jetties in Texas so there is no potential problem of you fishing on private property,’” Smith said. “I didn’t go to Louisiana at all — I fished Texas the whole time.
“I just didn’t want to take a chance of getting a black eye from either the sheriff or a landowner and making the paper: ‘Stillwater Outfitters guide is cheating on the Elite Series Tour.’ That’s the last thing I need for my business.”
At a captains’ meeting ahead of the event, a video circulating online shows Detective Jason McRight with the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office briefing the anglers on the rules for fishing in Louisiana waters.
“The bad thing is, south of I-10, the majority of the marshland down there is all privately owned. It is not (open to) public access,” McRight said in the video. “Additionally, most of the straight cuts and waterways that you’ll run into are also privately owned by the landowners or one of the utility companies on behalf of the landowners, to be able to service their stuff ….
“The best thing I can tell you is if you’re fishing anywhere south of I-10 — and it’s not a big, major waterway — be careful. It’s probably private.”
In his presentation to the captains, McRight also said Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office cameras were positioned in the marsh to take photos of anglers and their boats if they trespass.
“The law has changed now to where you have to be able to prove that you have permission to be where you are at," the detective said. "So if you’re on a piece of property and you have permission to be there, you have to be able to prove that you’re there legally.
“Otherwise, the state law says that you are trespassing and you’re automatically presumed guilty.”
The video highlights the difference in Louisiana’s law compared to Texas, and what constitutes private and public waters, but Smith said it’s a challenge anglers regularly face across the state’s coastline in other places like Golden Meadow, Delacroix and Venice.
“In Sabine County and all of Texas, they go by the federal law that says if the water can float a theoretical toothpick then you have every right to be there and enjoy those waters,” Smith said. “The fact is what we now call Sportsman’s Paradise and have enjoyed for decades is really no longer Sportsman’s Paradise — it’s all private property, and apparently you’re not to go on it.”
McRight told LouisianaSportsman.com the tournament director requested he speak at the captain’s meeting to make sure everyone was aware of Louisiana law. In that section of Calcasieu Parish, he said, much of the property south of I-10 is owned by oil companies, hunting clubs or private landowners.
“In that area, really the only (public) thing you have is Black Bayou, the Intracoastal Waterway, the Sabine River and just a few inlets off of the Sabine that are natural, navigable waterways that existed when the state was formed,” McRight said. “The rest of them — you can see that most of them are in a straight line — those are all private canals and ditches dug by energy companies or the actual landowners.”
And just because a body of water might seem to be a ‘navigable waterway,’ McRight said that doesn’t make it public. To see which waterways are deemed public and private by the State Land Office, click here to go to an interactive map on their website.
“Everybody seems to hang their hat on this navigable waterway idea, but that’s for interstate commerce,” McRight said. “That doesn’t apply to any activities such as fishing. That’s a shame, but that’s just the way it’s set up.”
Some Elite Redfish Series anglers were photographed by landowners during last month’s event and are currently being investigated for trespassing in neighboring Cameron Parish, he said.
“My understanding is the district attorney down there is going to issue warrants for several people that were involved in the tournament,” McRight said.
Smith said crawfishermen have fought for — and won — the right to crawfish on what was once deemed private property in the Atchafalaya Basin.
But he doesn’t see a quick or easy solution to a controversy that’s been brewing for years between Louisiana landowners and recreational and tournament anglers.
“I really don’t want to be tied up in court for the six or seven years it’s going to take to figure all this out. I’m just a fisherman — I just want to fish,” Smith said. “But it needs to be brought to the light of day. It really does.”