Much of Atchafalaya Basin Off Limits, New Map Shows

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To look at a map of the Atchafalaya Basin is to see an unlimited number of fishing and hunting opportunities.

In reality, however, most of that expanse of water and swampland is off limits to the public.

That has been made crystal clear with the release of a map by the State Lands Office that details exactly what the state claims.

“We’ve finished inside the levees — only inside the levees,” the agency’s Clay Carter said.

The 42-inch-by-72-inch map can be purchased by mailing a request and $40 check to Records Section, State Lands Office, P.O. Box 44124, Baton Rouge, LA 70804. Or go to the agency’s Web site (http://www.state.la.us/slo) and download a copy for free.

Publicly accessible waters and lands are indicated by an array of colors, depicting the extent of the state’s claim. Some areas are partially claimed by the state, while others are fully claimed.

All of these areas, however, are open to public use.

Take Duck Lake, for instance. This large lake has produced some of the largest bass in the Basin, and it is shown to be publicly accessible.

However, the fact that the entire lake is open to public use is due to the State Lands Office, with the state Attorney General’s backing, being aggressive in its claims.

The southern half of the lake was ceded to private ownership by a court in 1951, and that would seem to indicate the state could make no claim on the waterway.

However, Carter said the matter didn’t end there.

“Both sides agreed in that case that the waters were navigable in 1812,” he said.

And then the issue came up again in 1975 in a separate case in a state Supreme Court case.

“It basically said navigable waters are not susceptible to private ownership,” Carter said.

So the map shows Duck Lake shaded in two colors: one for the part that falls under public ownership and one that is open to navigation because of the 1975 Supreme Court ruling.

“That is the last expression by the Supreme Court,” Carter said.

And there is a vast amount of land and associated waters that are claimed as public on the western side of the lower Basin.

These areas are shaded in green, and are shown on the legend as being “vacant lands.”

Carter explained that these are all publicly accessible.

“In 1849, the Congress said the state could have all the swamplands in the state,” he said. “That was 10 million of the 27 million acres of land in the state.”

At this point, there are only about 30,000 acres of that swampland remaining in the state’s ownership — the rest was sold off.

Fortunately for Atchafalaya Basin hunters and anglers, a large swath of that state-owned swampland is within the levees.

But east of Attakapas Island Wildlife Management Area, the story is quite different.

The ownership of almost all of that land and water resides in private hands.

The public is legally allowed to navigate the main lakes — Flat Lake, Grand Lake and Duck Lake — and a few main bayous, but everything else is technically off limits.

Bayous noted as public include Little Bayou Sorrel, Bear Bayou, Big and Little Bayous Jesse, Big Bayou Joe, Mystique Crew, portions of Bayous May and April, Bayou Long, Old River and Bayou Postillion.

Other public waterways are Big and Little Bayous Pigeon, Middle Fork and a portion of Bayou Mallet (the two are not connected by public waters), West Fork, Wildcat Bayou and a smattering of other minor bayous.

There also are patches of public lands scattered throughout the area.

The rest of the Basin east of Grand Lake and the Atchafalaya River — including popular fishing holes such as the Shell Cuts north of Flat Lake, Zig Zag and Reed Canal off of Big Bayou Pigeon — are legally inaccessible to the public. That means if you fish there, you’re subject to state trespass laws.

“That’s what the case law says — they said that canals are private,” Carter said.

That being said, there could be changes to the map as court cases are litigated and other waters are determined to be public.

For instance, Bayou February snaking from Little Bayou Sorrel to the back end of the Shell Cuts isn’t marked as public.

Carter admitted that might be a mistake.

“I don’t know why it’s not marked,” he said. “It’s obviously natural and obviously meandering.”

The reason could be simple human error.

“Larry (Decker) is working on every single bayou in the state,” Carter said of that surveyor’s work. “He’s trying to do as good as he can, but nobody hits a home run every time.”

Such problems will be remedied as State Lands officials discover them or when the public makes requests on specific waterways.

“This is the work that is current, but it changes day to day,” Carter said.

For the latest in outdoor features, news and columns, subscribe to Louisiana Sportsman magazine by calling (800) 538-4355 or logging onto http://www.lasmag.com.

by Andy Crawford

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