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News article created on 9 February 2017

Where can I fish for free?

Barely a day goes by without receipt of an enquiry from someone wanting to know where in the country they can fish free of charge. That is, without a permit or a rod licence or both.

Fishing on the Shropshire Union Canal

In this article we outline some of the legal minutia of the law relating to fishing rights and have some disappointing news for those who want to fish without a permit on the canal network.

What exactly are fishing rights?

Fishing rights are legal property in their own right. They have many similarities with shooting rights. The owner of the bed of a fishery (river, canal or stillwater) is assumed to own the fishing rights above the bed of the fishery. However, it’s not always as simple as that, for the ownership of fishing rights can be separated from the ownership of the land. These are known as incorporeal fishing rights. Some of these even exist on our canal network, although they are more common on rivers where clubs have purchased fishing rights from farmers or local landowners.

Where can the public fish free of charge?

In the strict legal sense, the only example of a public right of fishing is the sea in territorial tidal waters. The public has a right to fish in the official tidal parts of rivers and the sea, except where the Crown or an individual has acquired a private right of fishery to the exclusion of the public. Magna Carta put a stop to the likes of King John and his successors granting public fisheries to private individuals in return for some political favour or other. So while the fishing might be free, what anglers need to be aware of is that they don’t necessarily have a right to access the estuary or the shoreline and owners of land are quite within their rights to charge an access fee in order to access the fishery. To circumvent this, there is a public right of navigation in tidal waters, so in theory, you could get access to the fishing by boat.

Inland freshwater fisheries

No public fishery can exist in waters that are not tidal, as decreed by the judge in the Reece v Miller case back in 1882. In the same year it was decreed that, even where a public right of navigation exists, this did not imply any public right to fish. So in inland fisheries, the fishing rights are owned by someone. Some owners might choose to allow the public to fish free of charge or, for a variety of reasons, choose to take no actions against people fishing in their waters.

Fishing rights on canals

Fishing rights on canals are privately owned. The majority are owned by us, but in a few instances, dating back to the time of parliamentary enabling acts, some original landowners (or more accurately their successors) keep ownership of the sporting rights. So if you were reading this, hoping to be able to fish without payment on a canal, then I regret that it’s my duty to disappoint you, for there is no such thing as free fishing on the canal network. You will either need a temporary day or annual membership of the controlling angling club, which you can find using our Find a Fishery search or you need to purchase an annual Waterway Wanderers’ permit. The same rules apply if you wish to fish from your craft, as the navigation licence does not grant you any right of fishing. You can find out more by reading our blog Fishing from my boat.

The theft of fishing rights

Fishing without the permission of the owner or occupier of the fishing rights is, in law, a case of theft. This law is set out in the Theft Act of 1968. The theft of fishing rights is covered under paragraph 2 of Schedule 1 of this Act. It states ‘an offence is committed when a person unlawfully takes or destroys, or attempts to take or destroy, any fish in water which is private property or in which there is any private right of fishery.'

The 1964 case of Wells v Hardy helped clarify the term taking of fish to include temporarily holding them in a keepnet and later returning them to the water. In other words, you don’t have to physically steal the fish to commit an offence; the stealing of the fishing rights is also in itself an offence. An analogy might be playing a round of golf without paying the requisite fee to the owner or occupier of the golf course, which – in case you were thinking of chancing it – is also an offence.

But doesn’t a rod licence give me to right to fish anywhere?

To fish anywhere with rod and line on inland fisheries, including in the pond in your back garden or even in a large fish tank in your front room, (if you are wealthy enough for such extravagance), then a rod licence is required by law. You need one to fish everywhere but it entitles you to fish nowhere. Or almost nowhere, for there are actually a few Environment Agency fisheries that are available to rod licence holders without further payment. Details of these can be found on the Angling Trust Fishing Info pages

The rod licence is what is known as a hypothecated tax. It's used by the fisheries regulator, the Environment Agency, to maintain improve and develop fisheries.

What if I get caught without a rod licence?

If you are caught by an Environment Agency Fisheries Bailiff or a police officer and are found guilty by a magistrate then fines go to the Treasury, with other costs of taking the case recovered from the guilty party (eg. Environment Agency costs, Criminal Courts Charge, and the Victim Surcharge). The magistrate, on hearing the case on the day, decides the fine and you will be fined under Section 27(1)(a) of the Salmon & Freshwater Fisheries Act, 1975 and possibly other byelaw offences, which can attract a maximum fine of up to £2,500.

Do I need a rod licence to fish in tidal water?

This depends on which species of fish you are aiming to catch, ie. are you fishing for freshwater fish or sea fish? You need a rod licence to fish using rod and line for freshwater fish which includes salmonids, coarse fish and freshwater eels, whether this is above or below the official tidal limit. You will probably need to show the fisheries enforcement officer that you are targeting a certain species and not just fishing for whatever you can catch. Additionally, you must also observe the close-season for your target species.

About this blog

The fisheries & angling team

The team undertake a diverse range of work including looking after the Trust's £40 million worth of fish stocks, managing agreements with over 250 different angling clubs and helping more people, especially youngsters, take up angling on the canal. Follow this blog to keep updated with the thoughts and work of the team.

See more blogs from The fisheries & angling team