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Advocating For Access: Dedicated Angler Leads The Good Fight

Advocating For Access: Dedicated Angler Leads The Good Fight

Water access is critical to all anglers across the entire nation, regardless of the species they choose to pursue. 

Consider your favorite fishing spot. It could be a salt marsh in Texas, a trout stream in Colorado, a bass lake in Tennessee, or a remote lake in Minnesota. Fishable waters are an invaluable public resource, and we often take our rights and ability to access them for granted.

Decades ago, Patrick Berry gained insider knowledge about Montana's stream access laws while working as a fly-fishing guide on some of the most iconic trout rivers in the world. In 2012, then serving as commissioner of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, he had a front-row seat to a court-mandated resolution that finally legalized public access to a small bass pond on the outskirts of Montpelier, VT.

Now, in his new role as chief executive officer of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Berry, 54, heads a feisty conservation organization determined to remind Americans that we're all "public land owners"—and that most certainly includes anglers.

"There continue to be threats to access to public waters all across the country," said Berry, who was named BHA's leader in December 2023 after serving for more than four years as president and CEO of Fly Fishers International. "Certainly there are high-profile issues in the West where landowners can curtail access to rivers and streams, but it also includes fights to maintain or improve launch areas and the changes of use along shorelines of waterbodies that have historically been public fishing areas."

Water At The Fore

With an annual budget of over $3 million, more than 350,000 members and supporters, chapters in 48 states, Washington, D.C., two Canadian provinces, and one Canadian territory, BHA's roots are firmly planted in the wide-open hunting grounds of vast swaths of public land in the American west. But Berry, whose passion for fishing is matched by his love of bird-hunting with his springer spaniels, says he's also committed to keeping angling-related issues on the organization's front burner.

water-access-striper-1
Some species require special permits and regulations to maintain population health, but access should never be an issue.

"For me, access to public waters is something we absolutely have to think and worry about," Berry said. "Just look at the access areas paid for by hunters and anglers, through license sales and related taxes on boating and marine equipment. Those areas continue to be under threat by people who don't hunt or fish and are actively trying to force their way into opportunities at the expense of those of us who paid for it."

BHA, said Berry, can play a unique role in advocating for maintaining and improving angler access. Among the organization’s strengths is its apolitical stance, and a widely diverse mix of ideologies held by its members, staff members, and legion of volunteers.

"Most of the angling-related issues that arise are being spearheaded by local chapters," said Berry. "The image that BHA holds a steadfast commitment to a backcountry that includes a stereotypical wilderness experience is accurate. However, 'backcountry' is really how you define it. That could be Wildlife Management Areas, refuges, town forests, and boat launches. It's those issues our local chapters can best focus on and advocate for."

The work of BHA's Rhode Island chapter last fall illustrates Berry's point about the organization's overarching commitment to maintaining access to public lands whether or not they exist in the traditional construct of "backcountry." In October 2023, after the Rhode Island Department of Transportation had proposed eliminating fishing access sites as it redeveloped bridges on bike paths spanning the Barrington and Warren Rivers, BHA submitted testimony requesting that fishing access be required as a condition for permit approval for the bike path projects.




Staying Alert

The diversity in ideas and approaches that Berry counts as a strength for BHA directly reflects upon who Berry is as an angler. He once worked as a commercial fly tier, and, generally, you can find him most often fishing with a fly rod in his hand. But he's certainly comfortable burning a spinnerbait over a weedbed or tying on a Carolina rig to catch bass. His youngest son was a member of the local high school's bass-fishing team, and Berry's been known to dunk worms and help fill a cooler during a white perch feeding frenzy.

"If I'm fishing with my son and he wants to use raw chicken to catch sharks, I'm all about it," he said. "And to that end, at BHA, it doesn't matter how you fish. We are here to advocate for your ability to fish on public lands."

water-access-striper-2
Quality family time is spent on the water is what makes lifetime memories.

In recent years, BHA has fought for the right to fish in places as diverse as the DuPage River in Illinois and the nearshore Pacific Ocean waters of California's central coast.

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While it would be disingenuous to call the ever-enthusiastic Berry a pessimist, he's fully aware his organization must remain hyper-vigilant and nimble on rapidly evolving fishing issues. Between his roles in a state fish and wildlife agency and non-profit conservation organizations, he has seen the headwinds against hunting and fishing strengthen across the country.

"There's a related issue that's happening all across the country," Berry said. "Extreme animal rights activists are working to fundamentally change the boards and commissions that set hunting and fishing regulations. Is that a specific backcountry issue? Not really. But it has the potential to have long-lasting effects on public lands."

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