Please Sign In

Please enter a valid username and password
  • Log in with Facebook
» Not a member? Take a moment to register
» Forgot Username or Password

Can I Fish This Stream?

April 24, 2012
Can I Fish This Stream? - 2

River and stream access regulations involve a confounding tangle of legalese with a heaping helping of misinterpretation. Can’t we just go fishing?

Perhaps, if you had time enough to conjure such things, you’d see it in your mind’s eye: An impossibly clear river journeying through idyllic valleys and lush meadows. Deep undercuts running along willow-choked banks. Boulders, fallen timber, riffles, pools, and back eddies hiding trout—not ignorant fresh-off-the-hatchery-truck fish, but wild browns, rainbows, cutthroats, and brookies.

And you’d be welcome to fish its entire length—it says so right in the regulations. Don’t like one river? Fish another—more than 1,500 miles of accessible stream lie at your feet. Pure fantasy? Not in the least.

Thanks to the most permissive stream access law in the country, fantasy is reality in at least one place: Big Sky Country. The 1985 Montana Stream Access Law states: “The public may use rivers and streams for recreation up to the ordinary high-water mark, without regard of the ownership of the land underlying the waters.” Anglers in other states should be so fortunate.

For the rest of the country, it might be easier to solve the riddle of the Sphinx than to assess whether or not you’ve got a legal right to fish a particular stream. Your right to fish is tangled in state history, embedded in private domain rights, and obscured in public use and access laws for lakes and streams. And make no mistake—access is every bit as big an issue in the fishing community as it is for hunters. Indeed, 20 percent of fishermen responding to a recent online poll by AnglerSurvey.com cited access as the biggest impediment to their sport. Today, merely understanding access law is mired in a morass of ownership and trespass rights and navigability interpretations—all essentially regulated by individual states.

My fishing buddy, Joe, provides a classic anecdote.

“One day I was slowly working my way downstream on my trout fishing club property and I saw a dude fishing in a kayak that he had back-paddled and wedged onto this sandy spot on the bank,” he said. “I told him that he was trespassing, but he told me that because he was fishing from a boat and was on a ‘navigable’ waterway, he was legal. Except for the beached boat part, he was right and I was sort of wrong. Why can’t every place be like Montana? At least they’re clear.”

The simple answer is that individual states get to make up their own laws regarding stream and river access. And although Montanans were able to ward off impingement of their access rights last fall, it’s not likely that assaults on stream and river accessibility are over.

 

From the May issue of Outdoor Life magazine.

 

Comments (2)

Top Rated
All Comments
from bigboylotz wrote 2 years 11 weeks ago

Bob you are right, private property is private property and in this case streams in Montana (or Wisconsin) isn't private property. I've had to point that out many times to landowners while trout fishing in my home state. In Wisconsin if your feet are wet you are on public ground.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Bob Hansen wrote 2 years 11 weeks ago

Hi...

I'm not a fan of "legal trespassing". Private property is private property. Hunting or fishing or trapping with permission should be sought on private property.

Public property is the property that others can encroach on if they wish. Even then there could be restrictions, but it's still public property.

0 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment (200 characters or less)

from Bob Hansen wrote 2 years 11 weeks ago

Hi...

I'm not a fan of "legal trespassing". Private property is private property. Hunting or fishing or trapping with permission should be sought on private property.

Public property is the property that others can encroach on if they wish. Even then there could be restrictions, but it's still public property.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from bigboylotz wrote 2 years 11 weeks ago

Bob you are right, private property is private property and in this case streams in Montana (or Wisconsin) isn't private property. I've had to point that out many times to landowners while trout fishing in my home state. In Wisconsin if your feet are wet you are on public ground.

0 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment (200 characters or less)

ADVERTISEMENT

About Open Country

Hunters and anglers across the nation consistently list one challenge as their primary obstacle to spending more time in the field: Access.

Outdoor Life's Open Country program aims to tackle that issue head on and with boots on the ground. The program highlights volunteer-driven efforts to improve access along with habitat improvements to make existing public lands even better places to hunt and fish. The program's goal is to substantially increase sportsman's access across the country by promoting events that make a difference.

Here on Open Country's blog page, contributors take a close look at access issues across the country. Some are public-policy discussions, where we investigate the nuances of public access. In other blogs, we shine a light on attempts to turn public recreation opportunities into private hunting and fishing domains. In still other blogs, we interview decision makers about access issues. Together, we fight for the ability of America's hunters and anglers to have a place to swing a gun or wet a line.

We promise the discussion is always lively, interesting, and fresh, so visit this page frequently to tune into the latest access issue.

The Open Country program culminates in grants and awards with top projects and participants being honored.

Submit a project for the Open Country Grant Award.
Nominate an individual for the Open Country Award.

Open Country

  


 


Event Calendar

  • June 1: Red Oak Planting in Gwinn Forest Management Unit
  • June 7: Pinegrass Restoration, Willamette River (Eugene, OR REMF Chapter). Contact.
  • June 7-8: Lower Deschutes River Thistle Cut (OR Foundation for North American Wild Sheep and OR Fish and Wildlife). Contact.
  • June 13-15: Prairie City Aspen Habitat Enhancement (Oregon Hunters Association, Capitol Chapter) Contact: 503-399-1234
  • June 21: Smith Ridge Meadows (Eugene, OR Chapter RMEF). Contact.