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Stream access rules clarified for anglers
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It’s getting to be that time of year. The catch-and-release trout-fishing season started officially on Saturday, Jan. 7. However, there seemed to be a little bump in activity with the unusually warm weather earlier this spring.

Although cold, windy weather has slowed that activity recently, it will only increase as the weather continues to warm this spring and the official opening day of the season to keep the catch arrives on Saturday, May 6.

Most of the trout fishing done in Crawford County occurs on streams that run through private land and landowners and fishermen alike may benefit from a brief review of the rules and etiquette that situation requires.

To tackle that job, the Independent-Scout talked to an avid fisherman, a local landowner, the county conservation warden and a DNR fisheries employee. What we learned was enlightening even if it wasn’t exactly earthshattering.

Local angler Len Harris fishes for trout in area streams more than most people and on occasion he writes about for the Independent-Scout. So, we asked Len about the best ways to access the trout streams.

“The best thing to do is to ask the landowner for permission,” Len told us. “I prefer having permission over using the navigable stream law.”

Len explained as a fisherman you don’t want an angry landowner confronting you. It’s best to keep things calm, easy and friendly.

The local fisherman typically approaches landowners asking for permission to fish during the closed season and yes persistence can pay off. He recalled one instance where he had gotten no for an answer four times and the fifth time the answer was yes.

“I was nice each time,” Len said. I wasn’t rude and the guy’s dog liked me.”

However, Len doesn’t always get permission from landowners. After a couple of tries, he might use the ‘wet feet law.’

Fishermen in Wisconsin are allowed to wade in streams that are considered navigable and almost every stream in Crawford County is considered navigable. To be navigable according to the law a stream must float a vessel not a boat in its high water period. That’s most streams in the county.

This law once was interpreted to allow anglers to walk on the land up to where the high water mark would be. However, the law was reinterpreted a few years back and now requires fishermen to be in the water hence the ‘wet feet law.’

There are some exceptions to being in the water under the wet feet law and primary exception is that anglers are allowed to get out of the water to get around an obstruction in the water. That obstruction could be lots of things including logs or snags in the water, deep water or other things. When the angler leaves the water to go around the obstruction, they are obligated to get back into the stream as soon as possible.

To access a stream on private property you must get in at a public entry point—generally that means a roadway bridge. A public road has right of way on either side. If the angler stays close to the bridge on the way to the stream, they will be legally entering the stream on the road right-of-way, which is open to the public to access.

Crawford County Conservation Warden Cody Adams emphasized that under the law fishermen “must be in the water at all times.”

While anglers can get out of the water to go around obstructions they cannot be fishing from the bank at any point.

There is another option for trout fishermen seeking access to trout streams in Crawford County—DNR stream bank protection or fishing easements. Under this scenario, the DNR purchases the right to use and in many cases improve habitat along streams. Anglers can typically be 66 feet back from the water on an easement. Unlike the ‘wet feet law’ fishermen can fish from the banks, if they so desire.

While most anglers know the locations of the easements, according to the local warden, the location of DNR easements can easily be looked up on the internet. To do that go to dnr.wi.gove and search for the key word ‘streambank.’ You will arrive at a site for the stream bank protection program. By clicking on the department’s ‘public access land mapping applications’ and selecting ‘streams and rivers’ you can eventually select the exact stream and county that you are looking for and observe where any easements might be located.

Warden Adams stressed that just because there’s an easement doesn’t mean anglers can walk across corn or soybean fields to get to the stream. Most access will still be done from public road bridges, according to Adams. In some cases, the DNR has purchased easements for access along fence lines. Where that is the case it will be indicated on the map showing the easement.

Adams said there are very few problems with use of the easements. There are more problems with trespassing to get to the easements than problems actually on the easements.

Like Harris, Adams recommended anglers ask the local landowners for permission when possible.

While problems are not that common, when they occur anything having to do with trespassing is handled by the sheriff’s department because the conservation wardens don’t have the authority to deal with trespassing.

Crawford County Sheriff Dale McCullick said the instances of the sheriff’s department getting involved with trespassing complaints involving fishing are rare.

Adams feels it goes a long ways toward make things smoother if the fisherman talks to farmers and local landowners. However, he noted that fishermen do have certain rights to be in the stream and harassing a fishermen is against the law that protects fishermen.

The warden also explained it is not legal to hunt on a fishing easement. It is also not legal to gather mushrooms, pick berries, collect rocks or participate in a host of other activities.

Some Managed Forest Land allows for both hunting and fishing. It still does not grant access for the other activities.

One local landowner, who declined to have their name used for this story, described some of the problems that can occur when anglers don’t understand easements and how to access them.

This landowner supports fishing in the rural streams and people using the easement on a stream that runs through their property. The problem is that people park in  the landowner’s driveway and on the property and then walk 300 to 400 yards across the property through pastures with livestock in them to get to the stream instead of using a nearby bridge to access the stream.

“They (anglers) think that every line fence is an access point,” the landowner said. “And, it’s not.”

Parking in the driveway has gotten so bad at points that the landowner and their family have been blocked in their driveway by illegally parked vehicles.

This landowner has also observed people using the access of the easement to hunt for mushrooms and other activities besides fishing. Anglers have also brought dogs with them and entered pastures with livestock on their way to the easement.

“Look, we want people to come to the area and stay and enjoy the land,” the landowner said. “But they need to understand where the easement is and how to access it. We do not want to discourage fishermen. We want to encourage them.”

So, let’s enjoy the fishing and follow the rules, which can only make it more enjoyable for everyone involved.