by Greg Care
If you hunt waterfowl or fish the waters of Maryland, you can enjoy your outing that much more knowing that two new laws meant to help Maryland’s outdoorsmen went into effect on October 1. One changes the test of when a hunter is liable for hunting over bait, while the other gives those who buy fishing licenses a full year of fishing privileges.
With the first split of the duck season just days away and the migratory seasons for Canada geese around the corner, the change in the law for baiting comes none too soon. As Maryland waterfowl hunters may know, our state has been stricter than most in its approach to prohibiting the baiting of ducks and geese, a misdemeanor charge with a fine up to $1,500 (subsequent convictions carry the possibility of a year in prison and up to a $4,000 fine). In 1990, the General Assembly changed Maryland law to say that a hunter could be liable for hunting over bait if there was bait in the area, regardless of whether the hunter knew or had reason to know it was there. In legal terms, hunting over bait became a “strict liability” offense. This was in contrast to the federal rule that (to this day) makes hunting on a baited field or body of water illegal only if the hunter knows or has reason to know the area is baited. 16 U.S.C. § 704(b)(1). As of October 1, 2015, the Maryland law returns to the old/federal rule: “A person may not hunt wetland game birds or upland game birds, except quail and pheasant, by the aid of baiting, or on or over any baited area, if the person knows or reasonably should know that the area is a baited area.” Md. Code Ann., Natural Resources § 10-412(b) (emphasis added). The legislation creating this change was Senate Bill 88.
The return of the old rule is most welcome for a host of policy and practical reasons. Simply as a matter of fairness, hunters who have no idea there is bait in the area should be safe from a misdemeanor charge. Because most waterfowl hunting begins before sunrise, the darkness of the hour at which hunters are setting out decoys makes it unreasonable to expect hunters to know that there may be something that could be construed as bait in the area. Indeed, since bait includes corn, wheat, and other grains – all very small items – it makes the location of bait all the more difficult, even in daylight.
A personal experience last year is an example of the problem. Some friends and I were hunting out of a goose pit in Cecil County and, despite our best calling and flagging, flock after flock would slide away from us. When one member of our party left early, he happened upon a shiny Mylar balloon lying about 100 yards from our pit that none of us noticed on the walk in or during our hunt. If four of us could not spot the shiny balloon that was ruining our day, we certainly would never have been able to notice shelled corn (had there been any) that the Natural Resources Police might have deemed to be bait.
This example also raises another scenario that proves the wisdom of the recent change to the law. This hunting season, there are at least 48 waterfowl hunting days that overlap with a deer hunting day. Because baiting deer is legal (on private land) and because “baited area” is not defined by the statute addressing waterfowl hunting, under the strict liability rule there would have been a distinct possibility that a corn pile being used to lure deer in one part of a field could be construed by a Natural Resources Police officer as bait in an area where goose or duck hunting was happening. The change also helps deal with the problem of offshore blind site hunters who hunt near properties where, unbeknownst to the hunters, nearby landowners purposely feed the wild ducks and geese as if they were pets.
The other change in the law will delight those fishermen who felt cheated out of the full benefit of a fishing license purchased late in the year. Prior to the change, Maryland law required that fishing licenses expire on December 31 of the year in which they were purchased, regardless of whether the purchaser get two or 12 months of benefit. Now, the whole array of fishing licenses will be valid for a full year from the date of purchase. Md. Code Ann., Natural Resources §§ 4-216(c), 4-604(h), 4-745(a)(3). Maryland law now matches that of our neighbors in Virginia. The measure creating this change was Senate Bill 666.
Good luck to all of the hunters and fishermen reading this post. And if you find yourself facing some kind of game law violation, please contact us to help advise you on your rights.