As the number of boating anglers increases on U.S. coastal waters, claims of ownership of public fishing spots have increased. Claiming ownership of a fishing spot is not a new phenomenon. Some guides and anglers have long felt that they own the spots they frequent, which of course, practically and legally, is not true.
Crazy Fishing Encounters Between Anglers
I first encountered this ownership attitude more than 40 years ago on the famed Peterson Key Bank, on the bayside of Lower Matecumbe Key in the Florida Keys. The strip of grassy shallows extends from the Overseas Highway all the way north into Florida Bay. On a late June morning me and my dad headed into the bay. Very close to the highway, a skiff with three anglers was staked out at the channel edge. I turned my wheel to run the farthest edge of the channel as we passed it. Gave the two guys aboard a quick wave hello, but received no response in return.
I wanted to fish the same edge of the flat but didn’t want to crowd them so I continued well north to another point of the flat, a good 600 yards down the line. That’s five or six football fields away, to put it into perspective. I came off the throttle and idled to the edge, shut down and grabbed my pushpole. I glanced back at the other skiff, and the guide was now poling off the flat. Must not be seeing any fish, I thought.
I continued poling north to where I thought I saw a tail tip up. The skiff came down the channel, and then came off plane, right on the edge where we were fishing. I looked over, and the guy at the helm raised his hands in the air, shaking his head.
“You [bleeping] cut us off!” he screamed.
“From what?” I responded.
“You’re too close to me, do you know how fish move on this flat?” he continued.
“Back and forth,” I responded, which did not calm him down one bit. “I am a long, long way from where you were, you have no case.” At that he said, “I make my living on this flat!” Then, he simply motored off.
On another occasion in south Biscayne Bay, I was guiding bonefish customers, and motored to a favorite mainland shoreline. Well north of us, another angler was poling away from us, easily 200 yards away. He was poling at a fast clip too, heading toward the best part of that flat. So I tucked in, grabbed the pushpole and moved us into the shoreline, and parked to give the tide a chance to rise a bit more. We had a sandwich and a drink. The guy disappeared around a distant point.
Ten minutes later here he comes, running full throttle right at us. It took him a full minute to reach us, and then he idled right to us and said, “What are you doing? I was already here! This is my prime spot, and we are fishing a tournament!”
“You were here, and you were poling away from here, and now I’m here.” I said calmly.
I knew who the guide was, introduced myself, and said I was perfectly in the right and he was not. So the jerk cranks his outboard and proceeds to burn the entire flat before leaving. My customers were uncomfortable to say the least, and one of them said, “That guy own the place or what?” I actually called him that evening, his number was in the phone book (this was way before the internet). I left a message that we should at least discuss what happened further, but he never called back.
Fishing Spot Ownership
And these arguments between different boaters goes on all of the time. I described just two of the more explosive experiences I had with other captains in South Florida. It happens more frequently now because there are simply more anglers, more guides and fewer good “spots” and fish in general. Etiquette goes out the window on busy weekends. Besides fishing too close to another boat, nothing is as egregious as thinking that you own a spot on public waters.
Fishing spot ownership was recently discussed on the popular Millhouse Podcast, hosted by Andy Mill and his son, Nicky Mill. Andy is a legendary tarpon fly tournament winner, and has lots to say about the subject of owning fishing spots.
Mill has been fishing the Florida Keys flats for about 40 years, and that includes hundreds of days with the best guides, in tournaments and on booked pleasure trips. He’s also fished plenty on his own skiff in those waters.
“I have seen it from both sides” said Mill. “I get it when a guide sort of takes ownership because he has figured out and patterned a flat through many hours there. But I also see it from the perspective of an angler who happens upon a shoreline or flat that is not being fished at the time. I have spent a lot of money with many Keys guides. And I also fish with my son, on our own.”
Mill suggests that Keys regulars, who are friends of the guides, are very respectful of their need to produce fish, so they try to avoid places the guides frequent, to a point.
“Guides who are Keys regulars respect each other’s space,” said Mill. “But not every angler who fishes the Keys is tuned in to this, so basically if no one is one flat, it is open to fish. When my son and I are out for a day on the water, we are especially aware of the spots our guides we fish with frequent. But if we go to these spots and they are open, we fish them. Why would we not?”
There are places Andy Mill pretty much leaves alone, even when unoccupied.
First One to the Fishing Spot
I think Capt. Steve Huff, arguably the best guide on the planet, has the best philosophy about this. Huff says when you are the first to come to a shoreline, or flat, and you touch bottom with your pushpole, you temporarily own that spot. After you leave, then it’s free and clear for the next guy.
Capt. Rick Ruoff, a longtime Islamorada guide who now lives in Montana where he bird hunts and fly fishes for trout, discussed the situation in the Keys with Mills on a recent episode, and said part of the problem is electronics.
“In the ’80s I was one of just a handful of flats guides out of Islamorada, and we and our skiffs were recognizable,” said Ruoff. “Some anglers would follow me around, to see where I went routinely. The very next day, the guy would be on the spot, having watched me the previous day.”
Ruoff blames tech that allows an angler to help locate a guide poling and simply save the spot.
“I never yelled at anglers who encroached on my fishing, I just stayed internally angry,” said Ruoff. “Tarpon are the drug. They bring out the worst in anglers.”
Respecting Veteran Fishing Captains
Guides such as Ruoff are on the passive side of this, but others are more adamant about their right to ownership of a place, despite being essentially public property.
For example, Capt. Rob Fordyce of Islamorada, is on record having said it’s a matter of “intellectual property.” Not to mention common respect.
“In the middle Keys, when I started guiding, there were known places where the veteran guides would regularly fish,” said Fordyce. “They developed them and figured the places out long before I came along. There were a few main marinas where guides kept their skiffs. The guides were sort of cliques, having spent so much time together. Even if the groups were not particularly friendly with the others, they respected territory of others. It’s a matter of etiquette.”
Fordyce said that when he was 18 or 19 years old, and just fishing privately there, he would be the first angler at a backcountry tarpon spot, such as the famed Buchanan Bank, getting the best post where tarpon always poured in. But when the guides showed up, he gave way.
“When Capt. Cecil Keith arrived, whom I admired greatly, I would ask him if he wanted to take my position, because he had fished that bank for decades. That’s just a matter of respect, and that’s something that doesn’t happen anymore,” said Fordyce. “That guy earned his stripes and had more right to that spot than I did.”
I think the observations and attitudes of pro guides, whether flats-oriented or otherwise, should be taken into consideration for any angler who is unsure of whether to “slide into” a spot that is occupied. But that comes down to etiquette, of which seems to be lacking these days. And as waters become more crowded, and perhaps fisheries decline, anglers will need to be more conscientious and attune to this philosophy of spot ownership. The bottom line is, public waters are just that, and it’s up to us to be reasonable and keep it fun.