Most anglers can agree that fishing licenses are a good thing. The license fees help sustain quality fishing opportunities for generations of anglers to come.
Recently, I had a chance to take a friend out fishing on a small private pond stocked with jumbo trout. They did not have a current fishing license and when they asked if they needed one, I realized I did not actually know the answer. At that point, I decided to do some digging and learn the laws for fishing on private property.
So, do you need a fishing license on private property? In most states the answer is no. You do not need a fishing license to fish in ponds fully contained on private property as long as you are the owner, owner’s family or guest and there are no stream inlets or outlets. Generally, fishing in any lake or river with public access or connecting stream requires a state fishing license whether you are on private property or not.
Licensing requirements and laws vary from state to state. For those of you who have asked the same question, we’ve spent many hours pouring over all 50 state licensing requirements to come up with the best information to help you decide if you need a fishing license on private property.
Privately stocked ponds
Most state fishing license exceptions are intended for privately stocked ponds on private property. They can either be man-made or natural but it must not have a connecting stream (continually flowing or not) that could allow for fish to enter or escape.
This seems simple enough but state legislators enjoy complicating things just to confuse us anglers. For example, in Delaware, you can fish in a private pond without a license but only if the private property is at least 20 acres in size.
In Arkansas, you need a license unless you fish at a “pay-to-fish” lake. South Carolina is completely opposite and doesn’t require a license on private ponds unless it is a “pay-to-fish” lake. For Washington land owners, the private pond must be approved and licensed for fish stocking before the owners and family or friends can fish without a license.
The good news though is that the majority of states have very clear cut explanations of who is exempt from purchasing a fishing license in their state.
Private ponds with streams
It is pretty universal across the country that a private pond with any inflowing or outflowing water that can potentially lead to other bodies of water requires a fishing license to fish, even for the owner.
Like me, you may be wondering why. It’s your property and your pond. What business does the state have to charge you to fish it?
Well, the main justification for requiring a fishing license is that the fish in your stream-connected pond may be naturally occurring at another lake or stream and those fish are public domain. Therefore, you need a license to catch them.
Of course, like all laws, there are exceptions which nicely leads us to our next topic.
Private property on public waters
Many thousands, if not millions, of US residents own homes or other private property on the shores of publicly accessible lakes, streams and saltwater. Based on everything we have learned so far, the owners of such property would still be required to buy a fishing license even when fishing from their land.
If everyone with waterfront property was allowed to fish without a license from their property on public water it would mean a lot of lost revenue for our fish and game departments.
Even so, there are still a few states that allow private property owners to fish from their land without a license, even on public waters.
Oregon and South Dakota do not require a fishing license for residents who fish from their property even if the water body is not privately owned. Although, in Oregon there is a catch. Private property anglers do need a license when fishing for salmon, steelhead, sturgeon or halibut.
Maine too allows anglers to fish from their land in public waters without a fishing license but only if the property is used for “agricultural purposes”.
Land owner, family and guest anglers
In general, the fishing license exemptions apply to the land owner of the private pond and their immediate family only. Kentucky regulations even mention explicitly that guests on private property still require a fishing license.
Some states do not limit who can fish on a private pond without a license as long as they are legally permitted to gain access without trespassing. If you are a guest on a private pond and you do not have a license, it is a good idea to carry hand written permission from the land owner to avoid a fine.
It is unlikely that a game officer will show up to enforce laws on private land but it is never worth the risk. A fishing license normally cost between $10 and $30 for an entire year. A ticket would double or triple that cost. If you are the owner of a private pond you may want to spare guests the hassle and have them buy a fishing license.
Private property fishing license requirements for all 50 states
As promised, here is our complete list of fishing license requirements for private property ponds in all 50 states.
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Please be advised that we are not lawyers or law experts of any kind. This list was made after many days of reading fishing regulations and laws for each state to find written confirmation of the law. However, it is still your responsibility to read and know the laws for yourself before fishing without a license on your property.
It seems like every year there are new fees and permits to purchase for every outdoor activity I enjoy. While some private property owners get a free pass, most of us pay licensing fees to fish in our state.
Just think of it as a contribution to a good cause. Your license dollars go to support recreational fishing around your state and without that funding, the quality of fishing would be noticeably worse. Whether it’s to maintain public launches, stocking lakes or enforcing fish and game laws, your license purchase helps fund it.
Even if you can fish a private pond for free, it may still be worth a few bucks to keep our fishing opportunities alive for all to enjoy. It is probably easier to buy a license than search the laws for the fine print anyway. Better safe than sorry. See an up-to-date and complete list of license cost for all 50 states.
We hope this article helped simplify searching for your state’s license requirements. As always, call your local wildlife agent when you need help interpreting regulations..