Our Right to Fish and Hunt: Magna Carta turns 800

From the Editor
In celebration of the document’s enormous influence on modern law

Among the liberties traditionally enjoyed by Americans is the right to fish and hunt on many public and private lands and waters (after gaining proper permission on private property, of course). In these modern times, when vocal factions and insidious governmental actions persistently strive to chip away at the public’s right to hunt and fish, numerous American states have passed constitutional amendments affirming the rights and privileges of law-abiding citizens to pursue fish and game, as long as all applicable laws are obeyed in the process.

This is a complex issue, and access to lands and waters upon which we can all fish and hunt is a raging thundercloud threatening both sports. So we thought that, on the occasion of the 800th anniversary of the mother of all liberty declarations, we should celebrate Magna Carta Libertatum, which is Latin for “the Great Charter of the Liberties,” and its little-known clauses protecting the rights of average hunters and anglers.

The backstory
Throughout history, much blood has been shed, and intellectual arguments waged, in the struggle for rights of common citizens. Even though it got off to a rocky start and has been repealed and reinstated several times, Magna Carta has stood the test of time and remains a giant influence on liberties worldwide.

It began as a charter, agreed to by King John of England on June 15, in the year 1215, intended to help broker peace between a group of angry barons and the King. It spoke to church rights, protection from illegal imprisonment, limiting how much money people had to give the King, and other fundamental issues. By the year 1297, Magna Carta was confirmed as law of the land in England.

Right to fish and hunt
Among its elements is a hugely important clause that allows the citizenry the right to hunt and fish. After the Norman Conquest, the right to take fish and game was parceled out to a select few by the royal family. Magna Carta decreed that anyone in the citizenry could take, and use, fish and game, and in modern court cases, has been successfully defended as legal precedent in England, America, Canada, and beyond.

Just one such example, from a Canadian case: “It has been unquestioned law that since Magna Carta no new exclusive fishery could be created by Royal grant in tidal waters, and that no public right of fishing in such waters, then existing, can be taken away, without competent legislation… their Lordships entertain no doubt that this is part of the law of British Columbia.”

It is perhaps the most influential personal freedom charter of all time, and wherever free people freely fish and hunt, this 800-year-old declaration’s shadow remains clearly visible. With no shortage of challenges, it should become a common voice of rally for those who cherish these outdoor traditions.

Photo: King John of England on a stag hunt. During an unpopular period of his reign, the King agreed to affirm some essential liberties in the original draft of Magna Carta Libertatum. Ironically, this painting depicts the King on a hunting trip, from a tenuous time when such liberties were not afforded to average citizens.