Stream access is a huge issue for fishermen, especially in states where current laws allow landowners to restrict river access through their property. In my home state, even if you enter a river via public access, you're not allowed to wade through a river that crosses public property. To put it mildly, it makes finding fishable water frustrating at times.
Legality of these laws aside, these waters don't need to be closed down to anglers, but a lot of landowners are tired of many of the problems anglers and hunters bring with them. And it's really hard to blame frustrated landowners when you really look at all the issues that they have to deal with. Everything from litter and property damage to fences being left open and theft are far more common than we'd like to think. So when a landowner exercises their right to shut down foot traffic across their property, it's disappointing, but understandable.
I feel like the path to increased river access is forged by creating better relationships with landowners. If you're fishing private land, make sure it's always with clearly granted permission. Trespassing damages angler-landowner relationships quicker than most other things will. Beyond gaining permission to fish private land, here are other things to be mindful of during your time passing through a landowner's property.
If a Gate is Open, Leave it Open and Vice Versa
This is an easy rule to remember and follow. If you're passing through a gate, leave it how you found it. Don't close an open gate, and don't leave a gate open that was closed. Many landowners have cattle and gates are left opened or closed by the landowner for a reason. If you're opening a gate to pass through, always secure it in the same way you found it (never lazily secure a gate).
Don't Climb, Cut, or Stomp Down Fences
Maintaining good fences is a very time consuming job for landowners. If you need to cross a fence, look for a gate or step over structure. Bending barbed wire down or up can weaken areas in the fence, so it's best finding a suitable place to cross fences. Absolutely NEVER cut a fence. It's crazy that this needs to be mentioned, but it's common to find cut barbed wire or chain link. If you accidentally damage a fence while crossing, notify the landowners ASAP and offer help in fixing it or paying for the damage. Usually it's not a big deal if the damage was accidental, and they will appreciate the offer and honesty. Letting their animals escape is not appreciated, obviously.
Don't Leave Litter, Consider Packing out Additional Trash
I don't need to explain why leaving litter is terrible. Just don't do it. To go the extra mile, try to bring a bit of extra litter out with you. Even if it's just one or two things, leaving the land better than you found it helps. Our Bring it Out Bag is easily packed along to help you bring more out than you bring in.
Ask for Permission Every Time
If you get permission to fish on private water, don't assume that you have an open green light. Always ask for permission on each trip, and if you're coming with someone else, make sure that person has their own permission as well. Landowners like to know who is on their property and when. Be respectful in how you ask and how often you ask for permission.
I know, it's not always fun tattling on others, but if you're on private land and you see trespassers, give the landowner a heads up. If those trespassers cause damage or any problems, you can cover your own backside a bit. Beyond that, trespassers need to be held accountable so we can help curb the behavior.
Limit Your Harvest
I personally rarely keep any fish, but if I'm fishing someone's private property, I never take anything unless the landowner specifically asks me to. Sure, the landowner doesn't technically own the fish, but it's a bad look to bring out a limit of fish every time you gain access to their land. Save the "limiting out" for fishing trips on public land and when you're on put and take managed fisheries.
Whatever the laws may be, always try to show your appreciation for the landowner that allows you to fish their land. A quickly spoken thank you on your way out, a friendly wave, or even a small gift is not out of line. After a season of fishing multiple times on a landowner's property, I'll often drop off a multitool, a nice pocket knife, or some small token of thanks as an opportunity to show my gratitude and speak with the landowner face to face. It's opened more gates to me over the years than just about any other thing I've tried.
When a Landowner Says No, Don't Dispute
If you're unable to get access to a stretch of river on private property, go find other water to fish. Arguing won't help, and it may only damage future attempts by yourself or others. A quick "no problem, I figured I would just ask" and a quick exit is how to handle rejection, even if it feels unjustified.
Let's work a little harder to not only be respectful of landowners' and their rights to maintain private property free of trespassing, but to also take better care of the land we are given access to. If every time someone crossed the sidewalk in front of your yard was paired with trash being left behind in your bushes and flower beds, you probably wouldn't be too excited about someone asking to cut through your backyard to grab a few apples off of your trees.
If we can increase our respect for the landowners, I truly believe that we'll increase our stream access without having to take things before a judge.