The public fishing rights dilemma on the East Branch of the Delaware

As far back as the 1800s, private fishing clubs began to buy sections of Catskill rivers to protect their fisheries, because indiscriminate logging and overfishing were taking their toll on native trout populations. Over time, miles of river were procured by these organizations, and while this furthered their goals of protecting the fisheries, private sections of river were being closed to public fishing.

Enter the New York State Conservation Department, which in 1935 began the Public Fishing Rights (PFR) acquisition program. The program was implemented to ensure that the public would have access to important rivers for fishing. In the 1950s and ‘60s the department sent biologists into the Catskills to buy PFR on the region’s famous rivers, including the East Branch of the Delaware. Biologists met with landowners along the East Branch, to discuss purchasing permanent easements, which would allow anglers to walk the bank and wade the river for the sole purpose of fishing. Easements were either 33 or 66 feet wide. If a landowner agreed, a contract was negotiated and the owner was paid, allowing people to fish.

Some contracts provided for the “future development” of access paths and parking areas. All signed PFR agreements became part of the landowner’s deed and were to be carried forward in perpetuity. There are about 25 miles of river between Downsville and Hancock, and over time, the department purchased about 31 miles of PFR along that stretch, which included easements on both banks. There are about 14 dedicated state access points in this reach, and there is some access through private lands due to the generosity of landowners.

While this seems like a lot of access, review of the PFR maps for the East Branch will reveal that a lot of the easements are landlocked due to posting. See the problem here? Despite the miles of easements the state purchased along the East Branch, a lot of them are inaccessible. Why ?

Landowners sold the easements to allow fishing, right? Yes, they did. What they didn’t do, and this is where the problem arises, is sell the right of access to the PFRs, if the easements are more than the 33 or 66 feet from the road agreed to in that easement. That means if the distance between the road and the river is wider than the easement, anglers can’t cross to fish.

So the state bought the easements in good faith to allow fishing, and landowners are posting their property against access because they have that right? Yes again! During the time that these easements were purchased, I’m guessing that funds where short, compensation was modest, and some landowners did not want to sell access along with an easement. In addition, times were different back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, in that there was little angling pressure and landowners in general weren’t concerned about a few fishermen and didn’t post against fishing.

Times have obviously changed; fly fishing is big business, properties are sold and new landowners frown upon fishermen crossing their land. See the dilemma here? There are miles of PFR on the East Branch with no viable public access and little recourse, unless the state is willing to review the deeds to see if any contain language that allows “for development of access.” If any are found, the DEC must pursue development with the landowner. The state also needs to check posting, and if it finds sections where the road is within the easement, landowners must be advised to remove their signs.


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