Who Owns the Jackson River?

Private developers and the public both lay claim to a stretch of the Jackson River in Allegheny County, and fly fishers are caught in the middle.

Fly anglers take certain things for granted when they head to their local stream. First, they assume solitude and beautiful scenery; after all, this is why many people take up the quiet sport in the first place. Second, they assume that they have their pick of species. My own stomping grounds here in the Old Dominion, for example, boast a range of options from beefy stripers in the Chesapeake Bay to lunker largemouth bass in farm ponds to wild brook trout in the Shenandoah National Park. Finally, anglers assume that, as long as they follow the law and carry a license, they can fish freely in what is advertised as public water without being harassed or sued. Unfortunately, it might be time to rethink that last assumption.      

When Dargan Coggeshall went fishing in the Jackson River between Smith Bridge and Indian Draft in June of 2010 with his brother-in-law, he hoped to fight a few of the local wild brown trout for which the Jackson River is famous. Instead of landing the big one, he now finds himself locked in a serious tug-of-war in court. Though he stood in the middle of the river while fishing, a local landowner approached Coggeshall and told him that he didn’t have the right to wade and fish in the river. 

The River’s Edge, owned by North/South Development, sells homesites with river frontage on the Jackson that range in price from $175,000 to $300,000 apiece. About three years ago, the company began posting “no fishing, no wading” signs along both sides of a two-mile stretch of the Jackson from Smith Bridge to Indian Draft. This same section is listed as public water by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, however, which sent a letter to the developer insisting that the river posting was not legally binding on the public since the state owns the riverbed. Nevertheless, the confusing signs remain: The state agency lacks the authority to remove signs posted on private property along the river banks.  

Matt Sponaugle, owner of North/South Development, claims to possess a Crown Grant—a deed to the land (and environs) issued by King George III of Great Britain in 1743—which he suggests supersedes state ownership because his land was conveyed prior to a law passed by the Virginia legislature in the 1800s that conveyed all river bottoms to the state that were not already privately owned. Part of the basis for Sponaugle’s claim is the Virginia Supreme Court’s 1996 Kraft v Burr decision, which barred anglers from touching bottom or fishing in the Jackson River from just below Gathright Dam to Johnson Springs because the owners of that section possessed a Crown Grant to the property. 

Coggeshall, a Charlottesville resident and now a defendant in a civil trespassing suit against him, claims that he’s done nothing wrong. “I was standing in the middle of the river fishing as I have done for years before, and I saw no reason to leave. I entered the river at a public put-in and never set foot on dry land. Now I find myself in court being sued for $10,000.”

One might suppose that because the defendants were fishing in waters the state designates as public, had purchased state fishing licenses, and were guided by state-issued maps that the state might defend them. However in June 2010 the Virginia Attorney General’s office released a statement about the case which read in part that “this is a civil trespassing case between private parties, and the commonwealth generally does not intervene in disputes between private parties.”

Mr. Coggeshall claims he has incurred more than $25,000 in legal fees defending himself thus far, because of the state’s refusal to be involved with the case.

Mr. Sponaugle has contended all along that he was forced into this action due to the state’s refusal to recognize his legally owned property. Tax records indicate that his company North/South Development is paying taxes on the river bottom in question.  

Oral arguments will be made May 4th in Alleghany Country Circuit Court.     

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries


The River’s Edge


Virginia River Defense Fund


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