The state known as the “sportsman’s paradise” might be paradise lost at the moment – but advocates are fighting on.
When a quirk of state law allowed certain homeowners and landowners to claim large areas of open water as their own private property, it led to problems with fishing tournaments so severe (think homeowners running out with their guns to threaten anglers) that B.A.S.S. announced it would no longer conduct professional bass tournaments in Louisiana’s tidal regions.
The areas affected included the Louisiana Delta, which has hosted four Bassmaster Classics, and others where public access is being increasingly restricted. In the upcoming Bassmaster Elite at the Sabine River out of Orange, Texas, competitors have been told they cannot fish in Louisiana waters.
Working with the Louisiana Sportsmen’s Coalition (LaSC), Bassmaster helped sponsor legislation intended to restore public waterway access. Unfortunately for tournament organizers and proponents of fishing and other outdoor sports, the bill, H.B. 391, went down in defeat, 37-59, near the end of April.
Proponents of House Bill 391, including B.A.S.S., the Louisiana B.A.S.S. Nation and the Louisiana Sportsmen’s Coalition (LaSC), were disappointed but not surprised at the loss, said Gene Gilliland, national conservation director for B.A.S.S.
“Everyone knew going in that this was likely to be a contentious issue and that it might take several years to find a good fix,” he explained. “When the vote came to the full House of Representatives, wealthy landowners and energy companies with deep pockets and armies of lobbyists persuaded legislators from many parts of Louisiana that are not even affected by this issue to vote against the bill.”
Gilliland said the bill’s author, Rep. Kevin Pearson (R-Slidell), told him his bill was perhaps the most talked-about piece of legislation in this session, and although it was voted down, it raised awareness of the problem statewide. And Pearson’s opinion was shared across the spectrum of fishing organizations.
“We were pleased that (the legislation) got as far as it did,” said Daryl Carpenter, a member of the LaSC board of directors, and one of the most public advocates for HB 391. “We were disappointed it didn’t get any further, but we’re already meeting with legislators about this for next year.”
One thing the issue – and the subsequent fight over it – has done successfully, says Carpenter “is bringing this otherwise coastal issue to the forefront.”
LaSC made a statement to the press, including the note, “This was always going to be a multi-year fight, and we are optimistic that the progress made in this year’s legislative session has moved up the expected timeline.”
Carpenter would like to see the issue resolved in an expedient manner, given the economic impact the area is losing by not hosting the high-profile tournaments.
“A single Bassmaster Classic has been estimated as bringing in between $23 and $25 million,” he notes, “and that’s just one single Classic – not to mention the others.”
B.A.S.S. has noted the show will go on in Louisiana – just not in problematic waters.
“We have four tournaments on the schedule for 2018 in Louisiana that are not tidewater areas — three on Toledo Bend Reservoir and one on the Red River,” notes JamieDay Matthews, communications coordinator for B.A.S.S., “so this will not be a concern.”
And FLW (Fishing League Worldwide) has also noted it intends to continue its work in specific areas. The 2018 T-H Marine Bass Fishing League (BFL) All-American and the 2018 YETI FLW College Fishing National Championship are coming up in Louisiana. The 35th annual BFL All-American will be held May 31-June 2 on Cross Lake in Shreveport, Louisiana, while the College Fishing National Championship will take place on the Red River on May 30-June 2, also in Shreveport.
“We hadn’t really had any problems with that at all,” notes Al Chapman, FLW’s director of advertising. And we’re looking at 130 boats.”
HB 391 would have restricted the ability of private landowners to prohibit boater access to navigable waters flowing over or through their lands. Almost alone among the 50 states, Louisiana permits private property owners in tidewater areas to bar public access to those waters and to do so without posting them against trespassing.
And, notes Gilliland, this is not a widespread problem. “Almost everywhere else, the law says that, ‘If you can float it, you can boat it."
“Louisiana is one of the only states in the nation where you can be traveling by boat on public, navigable waterways, and suddenly with no warning find that you are not,” according to the LaSC. “As a result, families out for a day of fun have been subjected to armed challenges from guards hired by big landowners and told to leave the unmarked, seemingly open water.”
“Although the bill is dead for this year, Rep. Pearson is fully committed to making a run at this issue again next year,” Gilliland said. “We hope that prior to next year’s session there will be meetings of all the concerned stakeholders, including B.A.S.S. and the Louisiana B.A.S.S. Nation. We want to build a consensus on how public access to the waters of Louisiana can be preserved for recreation and commerce, while respecting landowners’ rights.”
The LaSC said in a statement this week that it is encouraged by the fact that 37 state representatives voted for the reform despite “powerful opposition” and little time to prepare for a legislative push.