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Two words: ‘Keep out’

Thoughts on fishing, navigating private property

Keep out.

No trespassing.

No fishing.

Private property.

Those of us that fly fish hate to find those two words on a sign nailed to a tree or fence post. And the reason we usually find them is that we haven’t done our homework. Since states’ rights are inherent in this country, and sometimes usurp federal laws and mandates, different states have different rules and laws for river accessibility. Some states have laws that allow a fly fisherman access to most, if not all, rivers. Other states give the land owner control of the stream bed and banks.

In the October-December issue of Fly Fisherman Magazine, an article by Cullen Battle rated 10 states on their river accessibility laws. Colorado was one of the 10, and along with Utah, received F’s for their access laws. Idaho, Montana, Missouri and Pennsylvania received A’s. As I understand it, the issue for accessibility is based on whether a river was at some time navigable and used for commercial traffic. So, if the river was or is navigable the stream bed, surface water and banks are public. If not navigable, they’re private. There are lawsuits in all that language.

The above explanation leads me to Colorado. Until now, the stream beds and banks have been private. Which means, without permission from the landowner, you are trespassing if you are standing on the banks or in the river. You can legally float on the surface, but not touch the stream bed or banks. Some land and river owners have carried their ownership rights to an extreme and put fences across the river to hamper people from floating on the surface in front of their property. And, to carry it further, some landowners and fishermen, have let the rights arguments escalate to heated verbal confrontations and, in one case, to rock throwing. The rocks thrown were from a landowner at a fly fisherman floating through the owners property. When this happened, law enforcement was called in. Tempers cooled only slightly, then the inevitable lawsuit was filed.

On Christmas Day, the Durango Herald ran an article by Jason Blevins of the Colorado Sun about this case. It has made its way to the Colorado Supreme Court, and could bring a change in the stream accessibility laws to Colorado. That raises the question, should the courts or legislature decide this issue? Since, in my wildest imagination, I do not see the Colorado Legislature taking up an issue guaranteed to anger half their constituencies, we’re stuck with a court ruling.

As a riverside landowner, and fly fisherman, I think I see both sides of the argument. The landowner believes that since he owns the land and the water that flows through it, he gets to control its accessibility. It’s been that way since private ownership came into being; don’t change it now. The fly fisherman, on the other hand, acknowledges I can’t trespass across your property to gain access to the river, but if I can get to the river legally, the stream bed is public and I can stand in the river and on its banks.

Who’s right, and who’s wrong? The landowner doesn’t want strangers anywhere near his property. He doesn’t want the trash and bad behavior that comes with public access. And, he doesn’t want the liability of someone getting hurt on his property. The fly fisherman just wants to fish. I have fly fished in states with F’s and A’s. I’ve caught fish and had fun in all those states. I believe that by doing my homework on access laws in the states I find myself fly fishing, everyone can remain civil and enjoy the day. In Colorado, there is an incalculable amount of public water to fly fish. So, the access law has little effect on places to fish. In Colorado, and other states, should you accidentally wander onto private property (and I have) and meet the owner streamside, just be courteous and respectful. For owners, mistakes happen. Politely let the fisherman know he’s trespassing and needs to move on. There is no need for rocks and law enforcement. Everyone loses when this happens.

Reach Don Oliver at durango.fishing@gmail.com.