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Dock Fishing Rights and Obligations

By Paul Becka, Sportsmen Bassmasters

Encounters with irate and/or hostile lakeshore property owners seem on the increase over the past few years. Almost everyone who fishes docks has a colorful story (or several) involving flying rocks, miscellaneous threats and purple vocabulary directed their way. In most cases, the property owner's ire is inversely proportional to his knowledge of the law.

Very specific Minnesota law governs a bass fisherman's rights and obligations vis � vis lakeshore property owners. The following is a short explanation of the nuts and bolts of Minnesota law as it applies to dock fishing.

Lakeside property owners have certain unique "riparian" rights involving the water that borders their property. Putting in a private dock is considered a riparian right. Riparian rights allow lakeshore property owners to enforce trespass laws up to the water's edge. These rights generally end with the low water mark, although docks extending further out are acceptable as long as they do not interfere with navigation. Comprehensive "fee" ownership of the land is coterminous with the high water mark. The State of Minnesota owns all the land (and water) below the high water mark, in trust for use by the public.

Under Minnesota law, the public has a right to boat, cast or be present on any navigable water it can reach from a public access. Lakeshore property owners cannot legally exclude the public from any water below the current shoreline. By definition, navigable waters include those under, around or near private docks. Signs placed by property owners like those proclaiming "no fishing within 50 feet" of a dock are unlawful attempts to exclude the public from state-owned property. According to the DNR's Enforcement Department, such signs can be legally ignored.

Think of docks as vehicles parked on a public street. Passing fishermen obviously may not trespass on or cause damage to docks, boats, canvas (a particular problem), or any other property "parked" on a public lake. If damage occurs, the perpetrator is liable to the property owner for damages. A conscientious bass fisherman who rips up a canvas canopy with an errant crankbait should immediately contact its owner to make amends. There really is no excuse for slobs who leave hooks buried or line trailing from private docks. Such behavior gives all bass fishermen a bad name.

On the other hand, dock owners have no right to prevent, disrupt, dissuade or otherwise harass anyone who is lawfully attempting to take wild game on navigable waters. Bass are included in the legal definition of the term "wild game". It is a criminal misdemeanor for lakeshore property owners (or anyone else) to interfere with this right. Under extreme circumstances, a hassled bass fisherman may have little recourse but to contact the local authorities and file a formal complaint under Minn. Stat. 97A.037.

The most ambiguous situation occurs when a lure snags a mooring line or wraps a pillar. Technically, the lure's owner may be permitted to "trespass" solely for the purpose of removing the offending lure, although liability can accrue if any actual damage occurs during the trespass. In the real world, property owners are seldom sympathetic to a bad cast. They perceive evil intentions in anyone "messing around" their docks. So proceed with discretion and great care.

Here's the practical bottom line: the public legally entitled to fish just about anywhere we can float a boat, including under private docks. But common sense and courtesy in exercising that right can save a lot of heartache for all concerned.