If you want to try spearfishing in the American River, don't start by purchasing a spear gun, or investigating where to dive for the biggest bass. Instead, you may want to call your attorney first.
New regulations approved by the California Fish and Game Commission in 2012 opened the American River to spearfishing for striped bass for the first time, and only downstream of Harrington Way, near Sacramento's William Pond Recreation Area. The new rule took effect May 1 this year.
Trouble is, the commission didn't consult Sacramento County, which manages the American River Parkway as part of the county parks system.
It classifies spears and spear guns as weapons, which are banned in the American River Parkway just like guns, and bows and arrows.
In other words, if you drive to the parkway, pull your spear gun out of the trunk and walk over to the river, a county park ranger or a state game warden could cite you for a misdemeanor and confiscate your weapon.
"We received a lot of requests from the spearfishing community for an exception to be able to bring their spearfishing equipment across county property to the river," said Jeffrey Leatherman, county parks director. "We decided not to issue that determination of an exception."
The county rule applies only on land. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which enforces fishing regulations, will support the county and enforce the ban even though it does not consider spear guns to be weapons.
"We're going to work with the county on that and we will be consistent with them in enforcing that regulation on the land part of the parkway," said Tony Warrington, assistant chief of enforcement at Fish and Wildlife. "But not on the water."
This is where your lawyer may grin.
For example, there may be places in the parkway where it is possible to walk into the American River without technically trespassing on county parkway land. From private property with river access, perhaps. Or within a public easement along the state Highway 160 and Interstate 80 bridges. Those easements exist in the annals of state law partly to protect public fishing rights.
"It's not unusual to have these weird conflicts in laws," said Douglas Whaley, a Sacramento County deputy district attorney who handles environmental crimes. "My recommendation is to be sure and talk to your lawyer before you go out and spearfish."
The only certain legal option is to arrive by boat, Warrington said. Licensed fishermen who follow all other regulations could maneuver boats from the Sacramento River into the American and legally spear fish from the water as long as they return to their boats and leave the American River without setting foot on county parkway land.
This necessarily limits the sport to spearfishermen who have boats. It also upsets traditional anglers who simply don't want to see spearfishing in the river, said Joshua Russo, president of the Watermen's Alliance, a statewide spearfishing and diving group.
"That's where some of the confusion comes in, because anglers are trying to tell everyone it's completely illegal," said Russo, who lives in Fairfield. "So when they see a spearfisherman that's legally fishing, they think he's poaching."
Old sport, new target
Spearfishing is most often practiced in the ocean while diving. There, it is often prohibitively dangerous because of waves and tides, sharp rocks and the risk of entanglement in kelp. Spearing in comparatively calm rivers makes the sport accessible to more people.
The typical spear gun resembles a stick, 3 to 5 feet long, with a pistol grip. The trigger releases strong elastic bands that fire the spear, usually an aluminum shaft about 4 feet long with sharpened barbs on the tip.
A spear gun is expensive $200 to $1,000 and not easily concealable.
A cheaper alternative (less than $50) is a pole spear. These are longer (6 feet or more) and usually have an unbarbed, three-pointed prong on the business end. An elastic band on the other end launches it from one hand.
In reality, people have been spearfishing on the American River for a long time. It has been legal to catch certain species carp, pikeminnow, Western sucker, lamprey with spear equipment for years. These fish are edible, but not the prize most anglers pine for.
The only change by the California Fish and Game Commission last year simply added striped bass to a list of species that can be killed by spear in the Central Valley, including the American River.
That was enough to push the issue into a larger consciousness, for three reasons.
First, the American River is one of the few inland rivers large and clear enough for spearfishermen to spot their prey. There are lots of striped bass in the Sacramento River, but the water is often too muddy to locate one.
Second, striped bass are a highly desirable gamefish, prized for their large size, vigorous fight when hooked, and their tasty flesh.
Third, it is generally considered easier to bring home a trophy striped bass with a spear gun than a hook and line. Which upsets a lot of hook-and-line fishermen.
"It literally is shooting fish in a barrel," said Jim Jones, who has been fishing the American River for 40 years and is on the advisory council of Save the American River Association.
Divide between fishermen
But striped bass are also an invasive species, blamed for killing native salmon. In settling a recent lawsuit, the Department of Fish and Wildlife agreed to loosen fishing rules so people can kill more stripers.
Sacramento County didn't know about the change when the spearfishing season opened May 1. The enthusiasm from "spearos," as this group of fishermen is known, was apparently much larger than anyone had seen before.
Some spearos did not read the regulations closely, and did not understand that spearfishing is allowed only downstream of a point opposite Harrington Way to protect salmon spawning areas upstream.
"I ended up writing five citations right off the bat," said Alan Weingarten, a longtime state game warden who patrols the parkway. "One guy intentionally was poaching stripers in the salmon habitat. That dude killed this big female, and as I was trying to sneak up on him, he threw the fish back in the water."
That is exactly the sort of thing Jones and other traditional anglers fear. An experienced diver himself, Jones said an angler with a spear has a totally different relationship with his quarry.
There are places, Jones said, where large stripers are known to rest during the heat of day. A diver can swim into these holes and ledges without spooking the fish, and spear it readily from just a few feet away.
Another annoyance to traditional anglers is that a spear wound is, by definition, fatal. Spearfishing is not a catch-and-release activity.
"One of the hallmarks of traditional fishing is being quiet, and not disturbing the water," said Jones. "That's totally contradictory to what a spearfisherman does.
"There really should never have been any spearfishing allowed in the American River."
Jones also expressed a public safety concern about people brandishing spears in the American River, a place where swimming and inflatable rafts are very popular.
Russo still hopes Sacramento County will consider an exemption for spearfishing. For instance, he suggests elastic bands must be removed from spear guns until they enter the water. This would render a spear gun impossible to fire.
"I don't think the spearos are the death of striped bass," Russo said. "I'm more concerned with the anglers, and I don't want it to divide the sportsmen. I'm hoping we can talk about it amongst ourselves and bring a solution to the county."
Contact The Bee's Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.