TUSCALOOSA, Ala.— The report rang off the canyon walls, and I flattened myself in the river. Though the shot was maybe 10 yards overhead, the resulting rock chips tumbled down the canyon wall and hit me in the head. I sat mostly submerged, as I tried to locate the shooter. The water was cold, and my phone, keys, and all of my gear were now soaked through, but it was the last thing on my mind.
A shout of “This is private property!” paired with a few more gunshots into the canyon wall overhead, and I half-ran, half-swum downstream as fast as I could. Though wet-wading this navigable waterway was completely legal, you don’t argue with armed ignorance.
I was fishing a remote river, having trekked almost a mile upstream from the access park in search of whatever fish would play. The sticky summer heat was so suffocating that I never left the water, wading waist-deep at several points.
I wasn’t trespassing, but had I been, would that justify shooting at me?
Private property or not, I was in public water. I was well within my rights to be fishing below the high water mark, and whoever shot at me was committing a crime. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. In addition to the event outlined above that took place in Alabama, I’ve been shot at while fishing on two other occasions (Nebraska and Oregon), and though every gunshot or series thereof was intended as a “warning” by some landowner uneducated in water law, I was not in a position to stand and argue that point.
Should I have to defend my rights? Should anyone? They’re rights, after all.
Even perceived trespassing doesn’t justify attempted murder. In fact, short of the immediate threat of deadly violence, nothing justifies shooting at another human being. Anything less than self-defense in the face of an armed attacker is not self-defense; it’s murder.
Getting shot at is terrifying, and thinking about those times still makes me go pale.
Paler than normal, mind you. If you didn’t know, I’m white. So white, in fact, that I’m sponsored by a sunscreen company. I wonder if this made the difference between shots fired over my head in that remote Alabama canyon and shots fired at my head…
In addition to being shot at while fishing, I’ve been cursed at. People have gotten up in my face, thrown rocks at me, and called the police on me. I was never seriously harmed and never arrested because I know the law, and I’ve been able to justify my actions to the responding police. It makes me wonder if my skin color affects the outcomes of these exchanges. At the end of the day, I know the calculated risks I take to fish are minimal, but it’s not the same for black anglers who take those same risks.
It doesn’t take long to find black Americans who took what I’d consider a minimal risk while recreating and paid the ultimate price. Most recently, there was Ahmaud Arbery, the 26-year-old jogger in Georgia who was gunned down by a pair of evil racists as he tried to run through a primarily white neighborhood. Arbery is not the first victim of “Running while black,” but we can hope he is the last.
I personally hate running, but it was Arbery’s passion.
For another Black American, that passion is hiking or mountain biking or kayaking or swimming or, best of all, fishing. They should not have to fear becoming the next victim of “(Insert -ing verb) while black” in the greatest nation on earth.
Fear has no place in my thoughts when I go to the water, and it shouldn’t have a place in the minds of any American legally recreating in the outdoors anywhere in these United States.
For this reason, anglers must become warriors for change. More than ever, the world needs warriors — not to take up arms but to join hands in solidarity.
Everyone should feel safe to pursue their passions in this great nation, but there is an undercurrent of racism that persists here. Opportunity is not equal.
So while you may be turned off by the tiny minority of protesters who turned rioters that were highlighted in the news this week, don’t let that excuse the problem. Everyone deserves to feel safe when recreating because #BlackLivesMatter just as much as everyone else’s.
For those who want to say “All Lives Matter” in response, I heard a great analogy this week. When a house is on fire, the firefighters don’t spray every house with water — just the one that is burning. America, your house is burning. We cannot build a common future until we put out the fire.
Stand up, join hands, and become a nonviolent warrior for change, so that each and every angler has the chance to enjoy America’s greatest pastime and the freedom it carries — regardless of the color of their skin.