Navigable Waters

Navigable waters

Hunting Navigable Waters

On this page, you’ll find information about hunting birds and mammals on “navigable waters” in public waters of California from a boat, canoe, or kayak, as well as a checklist to help wade through the law.

“Navigable waters” are defined in Federal and State regulations, as well as court decisions that interpret those regulations.  Under Federal law, navigable waters generally include (1) territorial seas, (2) waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, and (3) non-tidal waters, including reservoirs, that either are, were, or may be possibly be used as highways for interstate and foreign commerce. If the waters are navigable, Federal agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) may exercise jurisdiction (link to our menu of Lakes with hunting programs authorized by USACE). Jurisdiction applies laterally over the entire surface of the water, extending to the high water mark, even if there are man-made obstructions that require portage. (See 33 CFR §§ 2.36 and 329.4.) In fact, Federal courts have held that shallow streams are “navigable,” even if it requires a canoe or John-boat. Navigable waters extend to the high water mark, even if portions are obstructed by shoals, vegetation or other barriers.  It does not extend to portions that require extensive portage, like gorges and waterfalls. (See US v. Sasser (1992) 967 F.2d 993 and Alford v. Appalachian Power Co., 951 F.2d 30, 32 (4th Cir.1991)).



Under California law, “navigable waters” and all streams sufficient to transport products are public ways for the purpose of navigation and transportation. Navigable waters do not include temporary floodwaters above the normal high-water mark of public or private lands. Many waters have been declared to be public ways including, for example, specified sections of the Sacramento River. (See HNC §§ 100-106.)

For over a century now, California courts have held that navigable waters may be used by the public for boating, swimming, fishing, hunting, and all recreational purposes. Consistent with federal cases, navigable waters have been interpreted by California courts to include shallow waters in small boats. (See Forestier v. Johnson (1912) 164 Cal. 24, Bohn v. Albertson (1951) 107 Cal. App. 2d 738 at pg. 743 and People ex rel. Baker v. Mack (1971), 19 Cal. App. 3d 1043 at pg. 1045.) Warning shot!!!  Many other states have excluded or restricted the right to hunt in navigable waters.

California has restrictions, however, against taking any bird or mammal from a motorboats unless the motor has been shut off, all forward momentum has ceased, and is either drifting, beached, moored, resting at anchor, or is being propelled by paddle, oar or pole.  For migratory game birds in particular, the motor must be removed from its mounting taking or approaching the birds unless the boat is beached or anchored or is motorized for the sle purpose of picking up dead or injured birds. (See 14 CCR § 251(a), 14 CCR § 507.5, and FGC § 3003.5.)

Meanwhile, there are forces at work to widdle away hunter’s rights to navigable waters. In July 2014, for example, the East Bay Regional Park District recently affirmed a ban on shooting within 150 yards of it’s shoreline located on the San Francisco Bay.  The Park contends that it has authority to protect non-hunters using pedestrian trails on the shoreline.  Hunters have been using the shoreline levees as blinds for years, while shooting away from the shoreline.  The California Department of Fish & Wildlife contends the Park overstepped its authority, in part, because the Bay is subject to ebb and flow, and because the CDFW already bars hunters from shooting on or over public roads or trails (see Contra Costa Times, Shooting Ban Causes Rift in East Bay Park District and State Agency, July 21, 2014)


Hunting in navigable waters while drifting, floating or paddling in a boat has many pitfalls and may be highly contentious.  Some property owners either don’t know the law, are scared, or are opposed to hunting.  If you hunt navigable waters long enough, you’ll surely have an encounter with law enforcement, some of which have their own agenda. They’ll check you thoroughly for any violation in order to deter you from hunting there. That’s just the reality of hunting navigable waters. Don’t be surprised if law enforcement arrives in a helicopter, armed with ferocious dogs and automatic rifles.

Use the checklist below, to avoid violations related to the access points, body of water, method of take, surroundings, and equipment:

A. The Basics

  • Do you have your hunting license, validations, and duck stamps?

Under federal and state law, you need a valid hunting license, a California duck stamp/validation, a federal duck stamp and a HIP validation. With a few exceptions for juniors, you must possess and carry those records with you on the water.  Those items are further described on the CDFW website.

  • Are the birds in season?

Not to state the obvious, but seasons vary by species, method of take, and location.  In fact, some rivers pass through more than one waterfowl zone, which may also have Special Management Areas that further restrict hunting seasons. Click here for seasons by waterfowl zone.

B. The Launch

Boat ramps

Legal access points

  • Do you have legal access points for launch and take out?

If you don’t have permission from a private landowner, you’ll need to find public access points that would allow you to launch and take out. [See FN2]

  • Will the public area be open when you want to launch or take out?

City and county parks, for example, often have hours of operation that would prevent you from launching before sunrise or taking out after sunset. Depending on where you intend to launch, the area may restrict hunting days, e.g. the Mendota Wildlife Area has boat launches, but they’re only available on hunt days (Saturday, Sunday & Wednesday).

  • Does the area allow weapons?

    Shotgun restrictions

    Shotgun restrictions

Many public areas prohibit weapons of any kind, which would prevent you from launching with your firearm. Some of them prohibit firearms unless they are either disassembled or in a case. Other areas allow firearms but prohibit shooting. Pay close attention to signs, and contact your local CDFW office and/or law enforcement.

  • Does the area have registration or permit requirements?

Some public areas require entry permits, which are issued either at a check station or self-registration at a kiosk.

  • Does the area allow or restrict hunting dogs?

    Hunting Dogs

    Hunting Dogs

Areas that allow dogs typically require them to be under control at all times, either by leaving it in the vehicle or placing it on a leash (some areas even restrict the type of leash).

  • Does the area have parking requirements?

Most areas have designated parking lots and often charge a fee.

C. The Water

There are several rivers in California that form in the high Sierras and empty in the Pacific Ocean.  In addition to natural obstructions, many of those rivers pass Nation forests, reservoirs, gorges, special recreation management areas, state and county recreation areas, dams, coves, and ecological reserves, as well as county and city parks.  It’s crucial that you thoroughly research and investigate the body of water, plus federal, state and local rules, regulations and ordinances.

  • Are any portions of the waterway closed?

Some rivers are closed for things like bridge construction, dredging and wildlife restoration project e.g. the San Joaquin River Restoration Program (SJRRP).  Some also pass through national wildlife refuges or State wildlife areas, which may be closed on certain days of the week, e.g. Mendota WLA and certain units of the San Luis NWR Complex.

  • Are there any “no shooting” zones?
No Shooting Zones

No Shooting Zones

Some cities, like Fresno and Clovis, have “no shooting zones” that extend to the center of the San Joaquin River.

Review local ordinances and check with law enforcement, e.g. sheriff.  As noted above, some areas like the East Bay Regional Park District may have a “no shooting zone”  located near the shoreline.

  • Are you hunting “on” navigable the water?

If the body of water is navigable, you (and your dog) can only hunt on the water to the high water line, which is the subject of much controversy. The main things to look for are water features and whether there is enough water to prevent the growth of vegetation. It is unlawful to hunt in flood waters.

  • Are your decoys in the water?



Hunting includes decoys, which must be at or under the high water mark.

  • Do you have skills necessary to navigate the body of water?

Some navigable waters , like rivers, are treacherous and require a high degree of skill.

D. The Method of Take

  • Are you using a motor or sailboat?

    Boat Restrictions

    Boat Restrictions

It’s illegal to herd, pursue or take waterfowl while your boat is under propulsion by a motor (or even the wind). If you’re using a motor, turn it off, take it out of the water, and wait for all forward momentum to come to an end. [Ref. FGC 3002 and 14 CCR 251]

  • If your using archery equipment, are your arrows compliant?

No arrows or crossbow bolt without fluflu fletching may be used for the take of pheasants and migratory game birds, except for provisions of section 507(a)(2). [Ref. 14 CCR 354]

Bow and Arrows or Crossbows. Only arrows or crossbows bolts with flu- flu fletching may be used except that conventionally fletched arrows may be used to take waterfowl sitting on the water from scullboats or similar watercraft. Archers hunting during any archery season may not possess a firearm while in the field engaged in archery hunting.* [14 CCR 507(a)(2)]

* Proposed Regulation: there is a proposal to delete the part of 14 CCR § 507(a)(2) that says “Archers hunting during any archery season may not possess a firearm while in the field engaged in archery hunting.”

E. The Surroundings

It’s very important to know your surroundings, some of which cannot be seen from the water.  If you don’t, you could be charged with negligent discharge, which may be charged as a misdemeanor or felony and your shotgun could be taken for several years.

  • Are there any building or structures located within the safety zone?

CDFW prohibits shooting within 150 yards of any building, structure, or attachment, which is commonly referred to as a safety zone [ref. FGC § 3004]

  • Are there any bridges or roadways?

    No shooting

    No shooting

CDFW prohibits shooting over or across bridges or public roadways [ref. FGC § 3004]

  • Are you able to retrieve your birds without trespassing?

It would be considered trespassing if you (or your dog) retrieve a bird from private property without consent from the landowner, his or her agent, or a person in lawful possession of it, or if the property is either (a) under cultivation, (b) enclosed by a fence, (c) posted at least every 1/3 mile, or (d) has building or structures on it.  On the other hand, if you don’t re retrieve the bird, you could be cited for animal waste. The best is to make sure the bird will fall into the water. [Ref. Cal. Penal Code §  602(l) and  FGC § 4304]

  • Are you able to shoot without trespassing?

Technically, it’s trespassing if your shell shot lands on certain private property without the owner’s permission. Law enforcement has adivsed that the only way to be sure is to shoot birds on the water.

F. The Equipment

  • Is your shotgun compliant?

    Shotgun restrictions

    Shotgun restrictions

It’s illegal to hunt with a shotgun larger than a ten-gauge or capable of holding more than three shells (a plug is allowed) [ref. 14 CCR § 507(a)(4)]

  • Are your shells compliant?

Shotgun shells with lead shot is NOT allowed for hunting waterfowl, coots, or moorhens.  If you’re hunting those species, don’t even take lead shot in the boat.  Only use  steel or other non-toxic shot approved by the USFWS [ref. 50 CFR 20.21(j)(1), 20.108 and 20.134].  In addition, only non-toxic shot is allowed in the California Condor Range (click here for more information).

  • Is your boat compliant?

Don’t forget to comply with all boating regulations, e.g. personal floatation devices and light for nighttime. In addition, some areas also have restrictions, like speed limits and motor restrictions. Link to State boating regulations.

  • Did you leave behind any trash?

Littering is illegal, including shell casings [ref. 14 CFR 550(b)(9)]


2 Responses to Navigable Waters

  1. Pingback: Proposed Regulatory Changes for the 2016-2017 Hunting Seasons | Legal Labrador

  2. Pingback: Rules for California Turkey Hunting Seasons | Legal Labrador

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