Stream Access Rules & Etiquette

When given an inch, don’t take a mile.

Montana’s Stream Access Law is the envy of anglers the world over. Ratified in 1985, the law states that rivers and streams capable of recreational use may be so used by the public, regardless of adjacent-land ownership. That provision may be great for the recreationist, but to the landowner through whose property a creek or river flows, easements can arouse uneasiness. Abuse of this access causes friction between private-property owners and public fun-seekers. If we anglers hope to enjoy the benefits of stream use in the future, it behooves us to maintain good rapport with landowners. The best way to do that is to know the rules and follow them.

Recreationists can use rivers and streams up to the ordinary high-water mark for fishing, swimming, floating, boating by paddle or propeller (except where prohibited), and other water-related pleasure activities (the law’s wording, not ours). The law does not apply to ponds or lakes (it’s called the Stream Access Law). An ordinary high-water mark is not difficult to distinguish: it marks where spring runoff has flowed long enough to cause different characteristics, such as washed-out topsoil or lack of vegetation. Floodplains are considered above ordinary high-water mark, and are thus off limits. Sticking to the stream and keeping your feet wet is the best way to ensure you don’t unintentionally trespass. 

There are plenty of designated public-access sites all across the region, connecting anglers to miles of fishable water. Unless specially restricted, an angler can also access a stream from a county bridge, but make sure your vehicle is parked unobtrusively and your tailgate isn’t hanging out in the middle of the road. The law only allows you to park within the road easement, which can vary but is usually 30 feet from the center of the road.

While the stream-access law grants a lot of liberty to the outdoorsperson, it does not give you license to be a jerk. As Thoreau said, “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right”—meaning, laws are often imperfect, and you should tend toward doing what’s right, not simply what’s legal. When in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of caution and get in touch with landowners. Respect their property, including gates and fences, and be as courteous and unobtrusive as possible.

Montana law reflects the great value we place in water recreation: it’s so important that everyone is entitled to enjoy it. The success of the Stream Access Law, a piece of unprecedented legislation in terms of fishing permissions and conservation advocacy, hinges upon the mutual trust, cooperation, and goodwill of landowners and anglers. Laws can be repealed—let’s all help make sure that the stream-access law is here to stay.