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The Reasons People Need to Buy Fishing Licenses in the US

There are places in the world where people can fish legally without a fishing license. For that matter, there are places in the US where a fishing license isn’t needed, either. So people might wonder why fishing licenses are required in most places in the US, in the first place.

It is up to individual states to come up with their own fishing regulations, including licenses and fees. This is the reason there can be considerable variation from one state to the next. However, the revenue that comes in from licensing has a legitimate purpose. Actually, there is more than one.

Perhaps the biggest reason for fishing licenses can be summed up in one word: Gamefish. Not all fish living in ponds, lakes, streams, or rivers are gamefish. Not all of the fish are good eating, either. However, while states also maintain the right to determine which fish are game fish and which aren’t, within the state, as a rule, trout, steelhead, and salmon are gamefish. In some places, bass, perch, catfish, and other fish might also be considered gamefish.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service maintains fish hatcheries in most states where fish are hatched, raised, then transported to various bodies of water to be ‘planted’ or turned loose. If this wasn’t done, even with rigid take-limits, the bodies of water would most likely be overfished and there wouldn’t be very many freshwater fish for people to catch.

The problem is that it costs a substantial amount of money to operate a fish hatchery and to transport fish to various bodies of water. Although some funding for the operation of fisheries comes in from the US federal government, the majority is left up to the states to cover. The fees that come primarily from licenses and also for fines people might get for fishing without a license or other fishing violations. This pays for the operation of the hatcheries.

Some of the money is also used for fish habitat, making sure that both game and non-game fish have clean water and the right habitat in order to survive. This can include the restoration of habitat that has been lost from everything from bad farming practices to wildfires and pollution to storm damage. 

This part is sometimes spread out over a great number of years. For instance, the Potomac River in Washington, DC used to be full of fish. At the time that President Jefferson took his morning skinny dipping swim across the Potomac, there were fish there and the water was clean. Pollution became so bad in the river in later years that the fish died off. Through many years of effort and work to clean up the river, there are now fish in the Potomac again.

All of this requires money. It also costs money to pay for the services of fish biologists. Without license fees and other related fees, none of this could be paid for. This is important for more than recreation and for the lives of the fish, though. Fish are important to the environment in many ways. The fish even provide food for people and many kinds of wild animals.

By charging licensing fees, there are funds to keep the fisheries healthy, which benefits both people who fish and those who don’t. Even with this funding source, additional revenue is often needed for various projects. It is still worthwhile.

Here in Montana, fishing drives a huge amount of the revenue the state gets every year. Fishing is one of the leading industries in Montana, nearly all of it is non-commercial fishing and an amazing amount coming from out of state fishermen. 

  • Question of

    Did you previously wonder where the money for fishing licenses was spent on?

    • Yes
    • No
    • I already knew this
  • Question of

    Does the fees for fishing licenses make more sense to you now?

    • Yes
    • No
    • I’ve know how the fees were used for quite a while


What do you think?

15 points

Written by Rex Trulove

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    • Work continues on the Potomac and probably will for years to come. It was allowed to get bad enough to kill almost everything in the river. There are a few places that are long-term restoration goals even here in Montana, mostly from strip-mining.

      A great deal of work that the Fish & Game commission does is behind the scenes and isn’t very well known. Considering all that they do, the fees aren’t unreasonable.

      • Personally, I think they could charge many more fees.
        One that bugs the crap out of me (pun intended) is the pump out process. Many boaters pump out into the water of the Bay.

        I think they should charge a 100 dollar deposit and you get 20 bucks back every time you pump out at an approved location!

        • That should be associated with boating licensing, though, rather than fishing licensing. I do agree with you, though. Montana has relatively strict boating regulations and all boats, including canoes, kayaks, and rafts, must be inspected.

          • you are right, just a point of personal frustration.

            In MD you have a fishing license (freshwater). You can also designate that you will be on the Bay (add a sticker for 2 bucks).

            But, if you want to drop a crab pot, its 1800 bucks per pot!

        • In Oregon, for personal use, you can drop a crab pot for free. Surf fishing is also free if you have a regular fishing license. If you are fishing for steelhead or salmon, though, a tag is required. Also, a lot of places are catch-and-release only. I have a problem with that since it only benefits fishing guides and not the public.

        • That is understandable. On the Oregon coast, the crabs are Dungeness crabs and there are a lot of them, but they still monitor the number closely. If the number of crabs drops too much in a particular area, they close the crab season for that area, plain and simple. That impacts the commercial crab fishermen more than it does the public.

          Then again, the number of people who actually go crabbing in Oregon, not including the commercial fishermen, is likely to be far smaller than the number who’d be prone to do it in Maryland.

          • it is possible – crabbing is passed down from family member to family member here.

            Some of the families have had pots in the same places since George Washington was eating crab.

  1. Thank you for the information and of course, it makes sense now. Without the hatcheries, there would not be enough fish to fish for and eventually, the fish would be all fished out for lack of a better explanation.

    • Exactly right. In fact, in the Pacific Northwest, the most popular fish is trout. Trout aren’t native (most of them aren’t, anyway), so if it wasn’t for hatcheries, people wouldn’t be able to catch rainbow and brown trout in the US.

    • It is sort of surprising how many people think that the licensing fees are only there to pad the pockets of politicians. If that was to happen, US fish and game would have them in federal court in a heartbeat.


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