How Do Colorado's Trespassing Laws Affect Fly Fishing?
Often anglers are in situations where they’re unsure whether they can legally fish a certain part of the river without trespassing. Some anglers assume that if you can stand in the water, than trespassing is not an issue. While sometimes this may be the case, different states have different laws. To make matters even more confusing, some rivers even have different laws than others based on their navigability.
For instance, where I grew up in Pennsylvania, any stream that‘s deemed historically navigable is open to the public for fishing, and access is legal anywhere below the average high water mark on the banks. Any wading anglers are not trespassing even if the banks are private. Smaller, non-navigable streams are a different story. The banks and stream bottom can be posted by the adjacent landowners, making legal access impossible.
In angler friendly Montana, there is basically no such thing as a private stream as long the water is accessed at a public point like a bridge. All streams are considered public domain in Montana. As long as anglers stay below the historic high water mark, even if the adjacent land is privately owned, fly fishermen are legally able to go about their business without fear of running afoul with the law.
Colorado Trespassing Laws and Restrictions for Anglers
Here in Colorado, the laws are a little different and, in most cases, favor landowners. Colorado’s stream trespassing and access law is unknown to many visiting anglers. Landowners own the stream bottom bordering or running through their property. This means that wading anglers are trespassing if the land is not publicly accessible. In a case where one side of the river is public property and the other is under private ownership, the private property extends to the middle of the river. Islands are not automatically public. While private landowners do not own the water or fish, float fishermen must also adhere to the law and may not anchor or beach their boats on private property. Pleading ignorance is a common tactic used by unscrupulous waders and floaters–it is never an acceptable excuse.
The best way to ensure you never have any trespassing issues is to know exactly where you are and to know property borders. Landowners in Colorado, contrary to popular belief, are not required to post their land in any way marking it as private. Many rivers near our shop in Edwards, especially the Eagle and Roaring Fork, are a complicated patchwork of public and private water.
Fortunately, in the West and especially here in Vail Valley, there is plenty of public access points on city, county, state owned or leased, and federal lands. These access points provide great fly fishing opportunities and miles of public water. It is also still possible to gain access to private water by simply asking politely. New world class trout streams aren’t just being invented, so please follow all access laws to ensure there is always open water for everyone to enjoy. Since access laws are different in every state, make sure you are aware of what is legal wherever you are fly fishing.
Visit Vail Valley Anglers for Access Maps
The best insurance policy is to buy access maps like the ones produced by Shook Publishing. Vail Valley Anglers carries a full line of these maps for all of the major rivers in Colorado. GPS units are also useful in determining where the best public water is. At Vail Valley Anglers we pride ourselves on providing helpful information to all of our customers, so feel free to drop by and pick our brains about local public water.