Fishing is hard. There are knots you need to know and how to bait the hook, and what kind of hook you need. And what’s that fish down there called? Can we eat it? How does this reel even work? Why did 200 feet of the line just spool out on its own? And why do we, red-blooded Americans who vote and pay taxes, need to fork out for a license to fish? The whole thing seems overly complicated for some fish sticks.
Perhaps we’re old-fashioned, but we’d really like to just stroll down to the river there and go fishing with guns. And with that—zip, bang—dinner’s on the table. After all, fishing is just like hunting, and the Second Amendment protects hunting; therefore, ergo, ipso facto, fishing is protected by the Second Amendment, too, right? Right. So, grab your net, the .30-06, and the boat keys. Let’s put some exit wounds in some rainbow trout.
Hey, not so fast there, James Pond. The question still remains: Is it legal to shoot a fish with a gun? The short answer is no. It is not permitted in any 50 states to shoot fish with a gun. But the long answer is yes, you can shoot fish with a gun in specific places, at particular times, and under specific situations. Let’s talk about the no’s first. No, Shooting Fish Is Illegal.
Every state from Alabama to Wyoming has some kind of law or regulation that restricts or outright prohibits the shooting of fish with firearms, but they all seem to do it differently. Many states, like Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and others, call out firearms specifically. Idaho, for example, prohibits the “molesting of fish” (their words, not ours) by shooting them with firearms or pellet guns.
Other states like Alabama, Arizona, Minnesota, and West Virginia strictly define what fishing methods are permitted, implying that alternate means of catching or taking fish are prohibited. For example, Colorado lists the means a fish may be removed from the water, only including a line, trotline, jugs, underwater spearfishing, archery, sling bows, gigs, snagging, by hand, dip nets, seines, cast-nets, live traps, artificial light, and bait. Note that firearms are not on that list, and if it isn’t on the list, it is prohibited by omission.
Additionally, every state has laws on the books about when and where you can carry a gun regardless of the purposes. And this is where the waters can get muddy. For example, Louisiana prohibits the use of firearms in that it is illegal to be the possession of “instruments, weapons, substances, or devices with the intent to take fish in violation of the provisions” This could easily be interpreted that if you are in possession of a gun on a boat or near a body of water in Louisiana, then you violate their no fish-shooting laws.
Wisconsin goes even farther by prohibiting the possession or control of “any firearm, gun, or similar device at any time while on the waters, banks or shores that might be used for the purpose of fishing.” It’s illegal because you might use it to shoot a fish. Evidenced by Wisconsin’s legal waterfowl hunting season, it would suggest that this is an unenforceable law. Still, it is easy to imagine an over-zealous ichthyophile DA taking you to court for carrying a gun next to the water because it looks like you might intend to fish with it.
It seems logical to do so. You’ve got a gun right there, so why shouldn’t a 9mm through their scaley foreheads be allowed? It’s efficient and quick and seems way more humane than being yanked out of the water by a hook stuck in your face. For the most part, it is illegal to shoot fish for a few important reasons. Despite the concerns that fishermen might have terrible aim and injure other people nearby, believe it or not, bullets can quickly ricochet off of water and hit someone. So, they say it’s dangerous.
Also, there’s more at stake here than you need to bag a handful of fish missing most of their heads. Standard ammunition is made with lead bullets, and it is widespread knowledge that lead is very bad for the environment. Using such ammunition around lakes and rivers creates a high risk of contamination and detrimental exposure to wildlife, and prohibiting the shooting of fish dramatically reduces the introduction of lead into lakes and rivers. Lead is bad, m’kay?
More importantly, shooting a fish with a gun, say, a shotgun, may utterly destroy the fish, making them unsuitable for eating, and that’s wasteful. The point of fishing and hunting is to utilize the animal as a valuable resource, not just for sport alone. Michael L. Smith, a Los Angeles lawyer and expert on the legalities of killing fish with guns (we’re serious), writes: “In addition to physical impracticalities of shooting fish, there is a strong argument that it is just not good sportsmanship. Unlike fishing with a hook and line, which requires patience, or even fishing with a spear or bow and arrow, which requires technique, physical effort, and prowess to aim and shoot, shooting with a gun is relatively less challenging. It gives the shooter an unfair advantage.”
If you had your heart (and sights) set on shooting a fish, we’re not the ones to disappoint you because, for every law, there are loopholes, and for every regulation, there are workarounds.
Several states have exceptions to their no-fish-shooting rules, some of which involve shooting invasive fish that threaten the ecosystem.
Vermont permits shooting “pickerel, northern pike, carp, garfish, bowfin, mullet, shad, suckers, bullhead, and other cull fish” between March 25 and May 25 in Lake Champlain only. Why? Tradition is the best reason we could find; they just always have. Most officials in that state find the statute quite embarrassing that people are blasting away at fish for two months of the year. Still, every time a measure gets near the ballot to end the practice, staunch Vermonters rally around the cause, even though not many still do it. But kill fish with a gun they can, and so can you.
Virginia allows those with fishing licenses to shoot suckers, redhorse, and carp with a rifle between sunrise and sunset, April 15 to May 31, specifically only in the Clinch River and where it flows through Scott County (but not on Sundays). Why? Who knows? They just do, and you can too.
A couple of states have laws that consider the need for shooting fish under controlled circumstances. Both Alaska and Hawaii allow anglers to shoot fish already caught via lawful means. For example, if you’ve landed a tuna via a rod and reel off the coast of Alaska or Hawaii, you can legally put a cap in his ass to bring him down. As well, there are a few states that have left a backdoor open for shooting fish if, say, the heads of the fish and game departments of those states feel there is a need (if an evasive species takes off and it needs to be quickly eradicated), but so far, none have used that option.
These are the only three exceptions to the laws against shooting fish in the entire country. Unless you plan to go to Vermont, Virginia, Alaska, and Hawaii to fish, you’ll have to stow your shooin’ irons and pick up some tackle instead.
But wait, Buffalo Gill Coddy, let’s say you really have a hankering to shoot a fish right now, and you’re not interested in traveling to Vermont or elsewhere. Well, you’re in luck because you can blow the head off of a fish at a beautiful place called private land. Do you have access to a pond entirely on private land? Great. Go there and start blasting. The important part is that the fish in this private pond must not have any access to public waters, i.e., water cannot stream in and out of this pond to or from public water. On this magical private pond, you are free to do as you please in whatever manner you choose because. America. AR, .50 cal., .357 mag., go to town. You are literally free to shoot fish in a barrel as long as you own that barrel.
There you have it, everything you wanted to know about fishing with guns. So, either this works with your plans of fish hunting like our mighty forefathers before us, or you don’t really feel like going out of your way to travel to those one-off places where the laws are bent or tromp out to your buddy’s stagnant pond for some inbred bluegill.
Last we checked, you can still punch a fish in the face if you want. Not all states allow it, so check your local laws before you reach for your six-shooter or molest any fish(our words this time). Up next, fishing with dynamite! Yep, people do it.