Drones: Anglers' Unfair Advantage?

State legislators need to take a step back, slow down, and consider how drones might be used by private sport fishermen before simply banning their use outright.

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Do drones like this offer anglers an "unfair advantage"? By whose standards? Those of state legislators who may have never fished in their lives?Doug Olander

Before you go fishing this weekend, don’t forget to stop at the tackle shop to pick up some half-ounce lead-heads, a couple of topwater lures, and a tub of Gulp! tails. Oh yeah, and a couple of drones.

Apparently, some legislators in states such as Oregon, Illinois and North Carolina fear just that scenario, as they’re promoting or considering legislation that would make it illegal to use a drone in any way for hunting and fishing.

Granted, for most anglers, such laws would hardly matter. Few of us have drones, aka unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and few of us are likely to get them. But has such a thing crossed my mind? You bet.

When I’m sitting in a broad expanse of Southern marsh unable to see beyond the spartina grass around me, I’ve wished I could send up a drone to look for any schools of reds nearby — or even to find the closest deep channel. Or when cruising on plane searching for a weed line or birds offshore, I’ve thought how a drone could immediately point us the right way and save many gallons of fuel, as well as many hours.

But drones are still fairly pricey. Their flight times are short, and using them over water from a moving platform (your boat) has risks.

But is it legal? Yes: Barring any state laws such as those mentioned, it’s legal for private (noncommercial)/hobbyist use with such provisos as drones be flown no higher than 400 feet and on a line-of-sight basis.

But if enough states follow those mentioned above, drone use by anglers could soon be widely banned.

That raises a fundamental question: Should anglers be denied the right to use a drone to assess conditions or to spot fish? (Note that this means private anglers; if guides were to employ a drone, that would be considered commercial use and require permitting by the Federal Aviation Administration.)

I have problems with such laws at this point.

First, in general, I worry about a grandstanding effect. There seems to be an inclination toward alarmism when it comes to UAVs, perhaps particularly among state legislators (suggesting this plays well with the masses). Unless cooler heads step back and slow down, pointless legislation could result.

Second, just as the general public has a tendency to lump recreational anglers with big, industrial commercial operations — it's all "fishing," after all — these state legislators are lumping fishing in with hunting as if they are basically the same sport. Yet if one peruses the news stories on these proposed laws (I have), nearly all the stated concerns and all the fretful lawmakers' quotes are very specifically about hunting and hardly mention fishing. Yet several various proposed bills would outlaw drone use for "hunting and fishing."

Once again, fishing is tossed under the bus. I think it’s pretty easy to understand how drone use to spot and kill game could raise hackles. But fishing differs in many ways, including the fact that anglers can catch and release fish spotted from a drone.

The third and primary concern I have is the justification for such laws. The phrase “unfair advantage” seems to pop up again and again. That is, UAVs would give anglers an “unfair advantage,” so we must ban them.

Says whom? Who decides what’s fair and what isn’t? State lawmakers, who may have never held a fishing rod? And on what basis? What’s their yardstick for measuring “fairness”?

If drones offer an unfair advantage, then maybe it’s time to outlaw the use of amazingly effective 3-D imaging depth sounders. It’s not so much of a stretch to consider such tools as these and GPS and radar for spotting birds as unfair. Are barbs on all hooks unfair? Do we ban them?

Maybe there are reasons sufficient to account for outlawing any/all use of drones by anglers. But in researching the issue, I have yet to see any fact-based justifications. Let’s hope that going forward, cooler heads will prevail, and facts — not knee-jerk emotional response — will govern further debate of laws concerning the use of UAVs by weekend fishermen.