Where can I fish for free?

If access to the towpath for the general public is free, surely you can fish from it for free too? Well, no. And here’s why.
It’s all about the fishing rights for the water itself.

What exactly are fishing rights?

Fishing rights are legal property. The owner of the river, canal or reservoir (stillwater) bed is assumed to own the fishing rights above the bed of the fishery.
But it's not really that simple. Ownership of fishing rights in the water can be separated from the ownership of the land. Some of these ‘incorporeal fishing rights’ even exist on our canals, although they are much more common on rivers where in the past angling clubs have bought fishing rights from farmers or local landowners.

The theft of fishing rights

Fishing without the permission of the owner of the fishing rights is theft.
The Theft Act of 1968 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 ‘taking of fish’ includes 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 of the golf course, which is also an offence.)

But doesn’t a rod licence give me the 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, you’ll need a rod licence. It’s known as a ‘hypothecated tax’ used by the fisheries regulator, the Environment Agency (EA), to maintain, improve and develop fisheries. And it’s the EA from whom you need to buy your rod licence.
You need one to fish everywhere but it entitles you to fish nowhere. Or almost nowhere, there are a few EA fisheries that are available to rod licence holders without further payment. See the Angling Trust Fishing Info pages for details of these.

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 you’ll get a fine (under Section 27(1)(a) of the Salmon & Freshwater Fisheries Act, 1975) which can be up to £2,500.