Editor's Note: Sean Farrell is a contributing writer for Ashburn.patch.com. His outdoorsman column focuses on news, information, and stories about hunting and fishing with the goal of providing information to those who are, or may become, interested in hunting, fishing and related topics.
The Ashburn landscape is covered with lakes and ponds. In nearly every community from Ashburn Village to Brambleton, old farm ponds and lakes, installed to control storm water runoff, are populated with fish of all shapes and sizes. These bodies of water provide great opportunities for residents to enjoy the great outdoors and possibly land a trophy fish.
But as I learned on a recent fishing trip in a nearby community, sometimes a day on the water can be ruined even if you've done nothing wrong.
Two weeks ago, I was enjoying a fine afternoon of fishing. Fresh off of the Ashburn Patch Kid’s Photo Fishing Contest, the fishing gods seemed to be smiling on me. From the shores of mighty Lake Manassas, I was hauling in lunker largemouth bass one after the other. The weather was perfect and the afternoon was going great.
Then, the police arrived.
Two Prince William County police officers were perched on the putting green up the hill from my fishing location. They announced their presence with a loud whistle and requested that I, “Come up here for a minute.”
Somewhat startled, my fishing partner and I grabbed our gear and trudged up the hill, more concerned about the fish we’d be missing than the police. We of course had our fishing licenses, and even though Lake Manassas does not have any public fishing access, we had the permission of a friend who lives in the gated golf course community to fish there whenever we wanted.
For those not familiar with Lake Manassas, the sprawling 800-acre reservoir sits south of Ashburn in Gainesville, bordered by gated golf course communities with homes worth $1 million or more. Years ago, the lake was open to the public via a private boat ramp and bait shop. At that time, the lake was considered one of the better places to catch largemouth bass in all of Virginia. Then, in 1999, the City of Manassas ended a franchise agreement with the private marina with the promise that the city would soon reopen the marina for public access.
Fast-forward to 2011, and Lake Manassas still has no public access. For a myriad of reasons, the City of Manassas has reneged on its promise to reopen the lake to public access. Citing concerns about bio-terrorism – the Lake is a public water source for Manassas – and zebra mussel infestations, the city passed an ordinance in 2005 forbidding boating of any kind on the lake, and has turned down money from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and other sources to repoen the lake's public access.
Some believe the residents of the gated communities bordering the lake are the real reason the Manassas politicians will not reopen the lake to the public, as they have cited concerns about increased crime and noise if the lake is reopened for all to enjoy.
Now, access to the lake is limited to those few people with direct access to the lake, via their own land or that of their community.
“How’d you get in here?” was the police officers first question to us.
We entered the community the same way we had for the last five years. At the front gate, we told the guard we were going to visit our friend and provided his address. The guard took down our names, license plate numbers, and noted the person we said we were going to visit.
Truthfully, we weren’t going to see our friend that day. We were just fishing. But, my friend who lives in the community does not fish, and said we were welcome to fish there whenever we wanted to and to just tell the front gate that we were going to visit him.
After providing this information to the police, the younger officer quipped, "You know it's illegal to fish here."
"That's just not accurate," came my reply, perhaps a little too quickly.
Make no mistake, as the son of a former police officer, I have the utmost respect for anyone in law enforcement. The job our men and women of law enforcement do is often underpaid and underappreciated. But there are also times when police, like anyone, are wrong.
Unsure of how to respond to my terse reply, the officer indicated he was going to make some calls to Manassas and give me ticket when he confirmed I was wrong.
As we waited against the squad car as the officer made his calls, a flurry of thoughts ran through my head. We weren't trespassing, because we were in the community as the guests of a resident and we weren't on any private property. I knew there was no law forbidding fishing from the shores of the lake, probably due to the provision in the Commonwealth of Virginia's Constitution that states, "The people have a right to hunt, fish, and harvest game, subject to such regulations and restrictions as the General Assembly may prescribe by general law."
A short time later, the older officer informed us that they were still trying to confirm whether it was legal to fish on the lake, and agreed to let us go so long as we would not fish from the shores in the future unless our friend from the community was with us.
We left with no tickets issued, and I confirmed the next day with the City of Manassas Division of Water Utilities that, in fact, it is not illegal to fish from the shores of the lake, so long as you have permission to be on the property where you are fishing.
Back in Ashburn, I wondered how this experience might play out in our community. Many Ashburn HOA regulations indicate that the community lakes and ponds are there for the use and enjoyment of community residents. But how would you ever know if the person, who is clearly fishing, in your backyard was a resident or not? Would you ask? If the person were a guest of a community resident, would that be ok? Or, would you just call the police?
Absent someone trespassing on your private property or otherwise engaging in inappropriate behavior, I certainly hope the answer is no.