Can You Fish Without a License in the USA?

I’m often asked if you can fish without a license in the US. Plenty of non-anglers keen to wet a line once in a blue moon wish to know if they can do it legally without a license.

There are three short answers: yes, maybe, and no – I realize that’s not very helpful. But there’s a good reason that there’s no straightforward answer.

Recreational fishing licenses and most recreational fishing laws are under state regulation. 

Because of this, recreational fishing laws vary from state to state. That which is legal in one state is prohibited in another.

There are very few exemptions to recreational fishing licenses, but there are some important ones.

Like anything legal, it’s up to you to know the laws. If you intend to fish, it’s prudent to know the local license requirements.

Let’s check out fishing licenses in detail.

Is It Illegal to Fish Without a License?

If the state laws require you to have a license and you are caught fishing without it, you will be fined and potentially jailed in some states. 

So yes, it is illegal to fish without a license.

If you’re between the ages of 16 and 64 and you’re fishing public waters, you almost certainly will need a fishing license, as there are very few exemptions.

It’s not difficult to determine if the area you intend to fish requires you to hold a license. A simple online search will provide you with all the answers. 

Put a search on google for fishing licenses in Texas, click on the government website, and look for fishing license requirements.

The government websites have the most up-to-date and comprehensive information about fishing license requirements.

Here is an example for Texas, but all states will have a site like this.

Exemptions To Fish Without a License

All states will have license exemptions, and they will vary from state to state. Age exemptions are the most common, with kids and teens getting the biggest break from licensing.

However, the age varies from state to state. In most states, you must get a fishing license once you turn 16. 

But it can be as young as 10, as it is in Arizona, or as old as 18, as it is in Alaska.

close-up shot of a fishing reel

It’s worth noting that Hawaii has no license requirement for any citizen for recreational saltwater fishing. This is a rare exemption.

Exemptions can also apply to seniors and retirees. If you’re over 64 years of age in Texas, Delaware, or Florida, you don’t have to have a fishing license.

These are exceptions, however. In most states, seniors require a fishing license, but it is usually issued free of charge.

There are other exemptions for disabled anglers, military veterans, active service members, and students studying outside their home state.

However, you must establish if you are exempt or if the fee is waived. 

For example, in New York, military service people and blind people require a license to fish, but the license is free.

Again, these exemptions are state-specific, and the best way to find out if an exemption applies to you is to look at the state government website.

Remember, if you are entitled to a free license you still must have a license. 

It is far more common that certain groups are entitled to free licenses as opposed to being completely license-exempt.

When Can You Fish Without a License?

Apart from those with a general exemption, such as an age exemption, there are some instances where you can fish without a license.

Anglers who fish commercial charters usually won’t require a fishing license. The license is held by the charter operator, which covers their paying guests.

If you’re booking a charter, it’s wise to confirm if licenses are covered before booking.

Do You Need a Fishing License for Catch and Release?

Catch and release is still fishing. Just because you are returning the fish back to the water does not exempt you from holding a license.

Catch and release is a fantastic way to preserve our fish stocks and fishing future, but it also requires a license.

Do You Need a Fishing Licence to Fish on Private Land?

If the body of water, such as a pond or dam, is wholly on private property, then a license is not required to fish it.

Should the body of water be on any part of the public ground or be legally accessible to the general public, then you will be required to have a license to fish it.

What Happens if You Get Caught Fishing Without a License?

A portion of your fishing license fees goes to policing fishing license laws. There are consequences for fishing without a license.

And it’s important to note that most states are very serious about violations of hunting and fishing conservation laws.

You’re unlikely to get a warning. If you’re caught fishing unlicensed, you can expect to be fined.

What is the Fine for Fishing Without a License?

In the US, the amount you are fined for fishing without a license varies from state to state. You might see fines range from as little as $15 to $500.

It’s important to note that the fine could be per fish caught unlicensed. You’re not fined simply for not having a license, you’re fined for each fish you’ve caught while unlicensed.

For example, in Pennsylvania, fishing unlicensed attracts a fine of $75. It’s also possible they can charge you another $20 per fish caught illegally.

So if you’ve caught 20 fish, with a fine at $20 per fish, you’ll be sitting on a $475 fine. And that hurts.

Worse still, you may have exceeded your bag limit or taken an endangered fish that attracts a fine of $1000 per fish. Then you’re in real trouble. 

Failure to pay the fines could result in incarceration and the burden of court costs.

In New York, fines for fishing unlicensed range from $0 to $250. But you could also spend 15 days in incarceration. It’s up to the judge to decide your fate. 

Why take the chance?

With everything fishing, it’s up to you to know the laws of your fishing location and follow them.

Licenses are very cheap relative to the fines and punishments for fishing without one. If you have a license, you’ll have peace of mind knowing you’re doing the right thing – you’re covered.

Final Notes on Fishing Unlicensed

By and large, fishing licenses aren’t very expensive. Relative to the fines for fishing unlicensed, they’re dirt cheap.

The revenue from fishing licenses goes straight back into protecting the resource. Keep fishing’s future in mind, and ensure you have the right fishing license.

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