Skip to Content

What Happens If You Get Caught Without a Fishing License

What Happens If You Get Caught Without a Fishing License

“Fishing license? What fishing license? I ain’t got no fishing license. I don’t got to show you any stinkin’ fishing license!”
(Thank you, Alfonso Bedoya, Humphrey Bogart, and John Huston.)

Erm, actually, you do. Under the provisions of the “Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act (FWCA) of 1997“, it is super against the law to fish without a license. Now, the textbook definition of ‘fishing’ is “catching freshwater or saltwater fish for business or pleasure,” so they’ve pretty much got it set up to nab you any which way you turn. If you try to take fish out of water for fun or profit, guess what, you’re fishing, and if you’re fishing, guess what? You need a license.

What happens if you get caught without a fishing license?

“Any one of several unpleasant things” is the honest answer.

Best case scenario: the authorities confiscate all your fish and issue you with a warning. (Consider yourself lucky.) More likely, however, is that you will receive a ticket and a fine that could be as much as $500. If you are a repeat offender or have bad luck, or simply have one of those faces that folks take an instant dislike to, you will go to jail!

Laying down the law

Since 2006, authorities across the country at all levels have strictly enforced fishing licensing, worried about the effect of overfishing on the environment.

These government regulations strive to protect ecosystems and offer some level of wildlife conservation. Most people obey the law and get their fishing licenses. Those who don’t won’t find any sympathy from the vast majority of folks if they get into trouble.

Penalties for fishing without a permit vary regionally, but policy details and ranges of fines are virtually identical. In general, fishing without a permit is a noncriminal offense punishable in the first instance by a fine of $50. Additionally, the offender has to pay another $50 in costs, totaling $100 in all.

For exact details of applicable laws and penalties in your state, follow this link: hunting and fishing regulations, state-by-state.

Trouble with the law

Anyone caught fishing illegally gets a ticket (unless they’re as lucky as Paddy waving two rabbit’s feet in a field of three-leaf clover). If you get a ticket, accept it gracefully and sign it.

Don’t be difficult and allow things to escalate. At this point, if you’ve signed the ticket and you pay the fine within 30 days of the date the ticket was issued, you implicitly accept your guilt and waive your right to any hearing.

However, let’s say you were ‘holding recently caught fresh fish and fishing tackle for a friend whose name and address you suddenly can’t recall,’ and you want your day in court.

Still sign the ticket, only don’t pay the fine. That way, you’ll get your date in court when you can present your defense.

Or let’s say you’d left your fishing license at home and couldn’t produce it on the day. Still sign the ticket! No matter what, sign the cotton-pickin’ ticket is what I’m trying to tell you. When your court date comes up, show up with your permit, and you’ll get off with only having to pay $10 in court costs.

The takeaway is, always sign the danged ticket.

Now let’s say you didn’t sign the ticket, or you either didn’t pay the fine or make it to the hearing. The system will take umbrage and increase your charges to a second-degree misdemeanor, which is pretty uncool, because you’re now facing up to 60 days in jail and up to $500 in fines.

None of this is fun, but ‘trouble with the law’ really gets going when a person constantly violates fishing license requirements and gets caught fishing anyway.

Conservation offices are allowed to seize any property they think is reasonable in the circumstances. As a repeat offender, you will lose those properties, face fines of up to $25,000, and you might end up in jail for up to one year.

Hammer time: can’t touch this

In certain specific circumstances, some people don’t need to have a fishing license. Here is a list of some of those individuals, but it is not an exhaustive list. Please consult your local department of wildlife and fisheries (or follow the link above) to find out if you are exempt in your locale.

You don’t need a fishing license if:

  • You are younger than 16 or older than 65.
  • Fishing on your homestead (i.e., a farmhouse or house).
  • Fishing on a homestead owned by a member of your immediate family (i.e., child or spouse).
  • A member of the military fishing in their county. However, this exemption does not apply to a military serviceman or woman if:
    • They are fishing in managed fishing areas.
    • They use a rod and reel mechanism.
    • They use live bait.

Licensed to fish

There are two types of fishing licenses.

A sports fishing license. This limits the types of species you are allowed to catch. However, this license allows you to keep most of your catch.

A conservation license. This prevents you from keeping most of your catch. You have to release the majority of your catch back into the wild. This license also specifies very exact rules on which types of fish can be caught, so it is more restrictive than the sports fishing license.

Frequently Asked Questions About Fishing License

Which fishing license should I get?

Sports fishing licenses are more expensive than conservation fishing licenses. However, all the flexibility lies with the sports license, including the ability to keep most of your catch.

Whats the difference between a fisherman and an angler?

An angler catches fish with a rod and a line. A fisherman catches fish with whatever tool he has access to and makes sense in his circumstances. Looked at like this, all anglers are fishermen, but not all fishermen are angler.


Fishing licenses cost only $10 a pop. As I tried to show in the article, it doesn’t make much sense to gamble $10 against losing $50 or more. Even worse, the possibility of spending up to a year in prison for the sake of a mere $10 is, to me, frankly silly.

About Me

Hi, this is Kent Walker. I am an outdoor enthusiast. I love fishing, hiking as well as kayaking. I write about my adventures in the wide open and what I learned about it.