On Trespassing, Poaching, and other Nefarious Acts

What is it about some people that makes them think they can beat the system? Take my oldest brother, for example. Whether it’s driving over the speed limit, listing extra charitable contributions at tax time, rounding down a pound of nails at the hardware store or bagging an extra donut from the self-serve bakery, he can’t stay on the straight and narrow. And, as you might expect, this behavior is extended to the trout stream.

My brother’s list of excuses for keeping a decent-sized trout hooked in any body part besides the mouth is longer than the wild hair on my right eyebrow. His other slight-of-hand maneuvers include slipping an extra fish into a vest side pocket and stretching the backbone of undersized specimens. Given the proclivity to bend rules and regulations, it’s not surprising that he occasionally harvests from a catch-and-release area. And while he hasn’t figured out how to beat the adipose-clip challenge, the topic of Super-Glue as a wound sealer has come up.

I try not to hold these infractions against him. They are too minor to merit being sent to the Big House. Plus, he is my brother and forgiveness is divine. He who is without sin shall cast the first nightcrawler into “Fly-Fishing Only” water, and all that. However, a few of the more civilly disobedient incidents have stuck in my craw. One classic case followed a day of salmon fishing on the Alsea River. While scrambling up the bank, I heard a vehicle drive by and stop on the county road that paralleled the river. My brother sent me ahead because he had neglected to bring along his catch card. This turned out to be a smart move. The driver was a game cop. I played it cool. I pulled out my fishing license and talked loud so that my brother would stay in the deep brush. If you think lying to your mother is tough, try lying to a uniformed man wearing 17-inch high black boots and packing a pistol.

Then there was the time we fished for steelhead on the Walla Walla River. It was another in a long series of trips where my brother showed up “a little light” on gear. To translate, the phrase means he lacks essentials such as split shot, hooks and corkies. Oh yeah, I also supplied the bait. Knowing that we were across the state line, I asked if he had an out-of-state license. Given other shortcomings, it was no surprise when he responded, “Didn’t have the time to get one.”

I knew my brother was cheap, but figured the real reason for him not procuring a license was that odds of getting caught were low. The trick was on him, however, when we returned to find a deputy county sheriff standing by my truck. It turned out an irate farmer didn’t like where we parked and had called in to complain. The deputy was sufficiently frustrated after driving back-and-forth for 2 hours that he was poised to write a ticket.
Luckily I was able to produce a feel-free-to-fish slip signed by an adjacent landowner. This fact calmed the deputy down, but he still insisted on filling out paperwork. I provided my fishing license and home address and stood by while he scrawled these facts in a little green note pad. Upon finishing with me, he turned to my brother. I watched with keen interest. There was no doubt that my brother would be paying the piper. However, when the sheriff asked for a fishing license, my brother mumbled, “I was just along.”

Just along? He had river water dripping off his hip boots. His fishing vest was stained with fresh roe and he held a fully rigged spinning rod in his right hand. The bright red corkie I had so generously loaned him swung hypnotically on slack line below his rod tip.

Amazingly, this bogus answer was good enough for a back-up law enforcement official stuck working on a holiday weekend. The county’s finest didn’t bother looking up to acknowledge. As far as he was concerned, the case was closed. Slipping the little notebook back into his shirt pocket, he drove off in search of a jelly donut.
I’ve got more. Recently my big brother drove 100 miles to the Deschutes River only to find that his favorite fly-fishing stretch was posted up like a fortress. Knowing that there would be no dinner unless he bagged a fat trout, he snuck through a locked gate and commenced to cast big MF hairy-winged stoneflies at rising redsides. Unfortunately his presence was soon detected by a security guard paid by a bunch of rich guys to patrol for trespassing anglers unable to afford four-figure dues.

My brother recounted the adventure quite pragmatically. “It was the gatekeeper (that caught me). He kept driving back and forth up on the road so I laid down in the weeds to hide. It was over 30 minutes before I could sneak out to the main road and get away.“

Am I missing something? Was I the only member of the family who paid attention to baby Jesus? It would seem so, except that my brother is not alone in what constitutes trespassing. A primary criterion of most anglers (consistent with other lawful violations) seems to be the likelihood of being caught. That’s why certain factors, such as proximity to dwellings and sign of human activity come into play when one decides whether to venture on the backside of a No Trespassing sign.

There are obvious deterrents to casual exploring, for example, 8-foot high electric fences or concertina wire strung up like bubble lights at a Christmas pageant. Another clue that the welcome wagon is not around is when a line-up of brand-new No Trespassing signs is tacked to fence posts. There should be no argument in these situations. Someone does not want you to fish the property!

However, somewhere below the most blatant transgression are various categories of denial. According to many anglers, there are “gray areas” subject to interpretation. Favorites include “This sign ain’t meant for me” and “Access is for the beholder”. Typically, these rules of behavior are applied to locations that one has fished before. It has to do with entitlement. My brother is not alone in this behavior. Much like migrating salmon, every red-blooded American returns to home ground. One difference is that for humans, familiarity can breed defilement, or something like that.

Rules of engagement are not so obvious when encountering streamside signs that block access to a favorite fishing hole. If the sign is placed perpendicular to the shoreline, do you go back? Or, can you go around the sign if you stay below the high water mark? What about the navigable stream rule? Rumor is that, for any stream large enough to float a boat, the river bottom is open to the general public. You ain’t trespassing if you stay in the water. These options go through the mind.

Once as a test, I asked a good friend what he would do when faced with this situation. Did he respect rights of the landowner? His answer was classic avoidance. “I wade to the other side of the river and keep fishing.”

Bingo. The truth is that there are more variations in how anglers respond to rules and regulations than there are beer bellies in an Irish pub. As for my brother, there might be hope. Just the other day he asked if he should crimp down the barb on the #1/0 Gamakatsu bait hook that I lent him. My heart swelled with pride. Funny, I don’t recollect him pulling out needlenose pliers to comply with the barbless hook regulation, but it’s the thought that counts. Everyone has to start someplace.