Let me start by saying that I live in the country and I take very seriously property rights and privacy. I would have a problem with someone not known to me accessing my property without speaking with me first. We have a decent amount of access to water through the easements that the MN DNR has secured which gives anglers the ability to use private land for the expressed purpose of fishing, that means rod in hand and actually fishing. For this post I’m going to focus on the areas that do not have an easement. Private land and “private” water.

Let me explain. So my general approach to fishing “private” water is to scope it out and look for posted signs. If I see posted signs I try to contact landowners and ask for permission. If it is clear who owns the land, such as in the instance where there is a farm next to the creek I typically knock and ask for permission. I have been doing this for years and never had a problem. Most folks just want a heads up to someone tromping around on their land. If you give them that and do your best to leave no trace, stay close to the water and respect fence lines 99% of the time you’re going to be golden and in fact I feel doing this lends to better landowner angler relationships. If I happen to drive over a creek I want to fish on a roadway it has always been my policy to look for posted signs and evidence of angler traffic. I still try to get permission when I can but if accessing from a bridge and staying as close to water as possible seems acceptable given the location and area I’ve been known to fish these situations. This prefaces the situation I found myself in the other day which prompted a handful of phone calls and a greater understanding of angler and landowner rights.

I cross a bridge and look down to see a dark green pool. There is clear evidence of foot traffic down to the water from the bridge and no clear distinction as to who’s property it is. It’s not posted private and I can clearly see that it’s been fished recently by the weeds that have been hacked down near the creek. My thought here is that 1. It’s not posted and it’s been fished recently. 2. It’s not in someone’s front or back yard. The nearest house can barely be seen through the trees and I don’t have to cross any fences. To me this looks like someone doesn’t mind anglers accessing to fish. This is an assumption on my part of which I am fully willing to leave if asked to do so and I am also aware that I run the risk of upsetting the landowner to the point where he/she may not grant me access in the future should we end up having a chat.

So I access…follow the same path to the water as the others and I fish. I’m admittedly on the bank here. I toss a stimulator over the large dark pool and wait. Just when I look away I hear the splash. I lock into and bring close one of the biggest Brookies I’ve ever seen (maybe 15inches) then my hook slips and the fish promptly returns to the bottom of the hole. I try the stimulator for a while more getting a few looks but no solid takes. I swap to a lightly weighted #12 Dirty Mop. This is a John Jenson fly that I love and wish I had more of. I should really get that guy back for sending these to me a couple years ago. Anyway, a short time later I’m hauling in an 18 inch brown and loving it. Moments after the release a nice 12 inch Brookie and then believe it or not a second brown pushing 20+… As I’m fighting that last fish a vehicle drives over the bridge and just stops. The driver stares at me while I land the fish but doesn’t say a word. I have fought the fish for a number of minutes and I am crouched in the riffle reviving it when I hear her shout down to me something to the effect of “do you have permission to fish here?” I was crouched in the weeds and couldn’t be seen from the road. This looks bad and I know it. I shout out that I did not have permission and that I would be up in a minute. I finish reviving the trout and release it.

I walk up to the bridge in the water knowing I’m supposed to stay wet. I use the bridge pylon to help get to the roadway which is where I was met by an older lady who asked if I had permission from the landowner. I replied that I had not spoken with him and asked for his name and address so that I could in fact ask. She explained that she had already been on the phone with him and that I was fine to fish the spot today but I would need to ask in the future. She then told me that I was trespassing and that if I didn’t get permission I was not allowed to fish here. She went on to explain to me that her family asks and receives permission every year to fish this spot and it’s their family fishing spot. This whole thing quickly digresses into me explaining what I believed to be my rights as an angler. Bridge access..wet feet… You know… I was fed some nonsense about if I didn’t get permission that I needed to float the spot because my feet weren’t allowed to touch the stream bed (this I knew to be hog-wash) and when I asked who owned the upstream area above the bridge I was told that she did and that I was not allowed to fish there. I pressed the issue a bit noting the bridge access which I felt allowed me access to the water and that if I stayed wet I would be legal to fish. Turns out she didn’t own any of the land and that she was “leasing” it. To which I pushed for the name of the owner so I could ask for permission. It turns out she has a verbal agreement to pasture her cattle there and that no one fishes upstream because there aren’t any good holes. I then replied that I came in January and was well aware of the Brookie holes upstream. She looked a bit sour that I knew of the water upstream and that she was caught in a lie. I digress again…

I decided to call it a day. Told her I would contact the DNR and clarify my rights and ask for permission from the landowner whom she did eventually give me the location to. He was not home when I stopped. I left my name and number asking for a quick call to clarify the situation and to ask permission which I never got. So…I made a couple calls and found out some interesting information regarding access to water on private property.

1. As an angler you are only allowed to use the land to access water if an easement exists.

2. Easements are granted to most publicly maintained roadways but not all. Most county roads that are paved are going to have an easement. Some of the smaller township gravel or chip surfaced roads may not have an easement at all.

3. In order to determine exactly what easement exists you need to contact local governments. In my situation the local town board for the township in question.

4. I was informed that most townships have a 0, 2 or 4 rod rule. A rod being a measure of distance. This is granted the township to use public dollars to maintain a road way. So this is where the access to public water from a bridge comes in. If the township has the road zoned a 4 rod then you have access to 33feet from the center of the road to enter the creek. 2 Rod roads you have 16.5 feet from the center of the road and a 0 Rod road you have no legal right to touch the land to access the water. You could jump in from the bridge (in theory).

5. The Rod rule does not apply to only bridges. If the creek runs within 33feet of a 4 Rod road you can in theory walk the bank. Landowners are unlikely to be aware of this so be careful.

6. These easements I am describing have nothing to do with public fishing easements secured by the DNR. You have to contact local governments to get exact information on a particular road to make an informed choice about you’re method of access. If you don’t you run the risk of trespassing.

The follow-up…I’ve yet to return but I will. I’ve already contacted and spoken with the Conservation Officer who oversees the area and informed him of the easement status of the road which in my case is fortunate in that it is a 4 Rod road. I will obviously stop and ask permission first because that is the right thing to do. However, it is public water and a public resource and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let someone else bully me into not fishing. If denied access to the land for fishing I will explain the laws as I have been informed and pass along the names and numbers of those who gave me that information including the Conservation Officer at which point I will use a tape measure and use the 33 feet I have to get to the water then I’ll stay wet. I will likely video tape my hiking in the creek to the hole I plan to fish simply to back up my claim to legally access the water. I know this will upset some folks. Not my intention. If it was someone’s yard I would probably let this one go but it’s not and no one should be denied fishing access especially when I go out of my way to leave no trace. I’ll keep you posted of this when I go back next week.


  1. 1st and 3rd pic are the same fish? Looks like it. In Wisconsin the stream access laws are so much more clear and concise. Ron Benjamin is the man I’ve talked to in the past about Wisco and MN access. Ron was the head DNR guy in Wisco land, Vernon, Crawford, Lacrosse, and Madison counties previous to his career in Minnesota. He’s well versed in both of state’s stream access. Between him and Vaughn, the only good way to access private water is by landowners permission. That being said, I know a lot of fisherman who access at any and every bridge in MN, and have a horror story or two about an encounter with an angry landowner.

    avatar Ryan
  2. First of all, good for you for paying attention to the the laws. I have had similar experiences but by and large most people will let you fish so long as you are responsible in accessing and leaving no traces. Access is obviously a contentious issue all over. I am currently residing in New England and other than some places in Maine its absolutely fine to access from a bridge. On the other hand I’ve lived in Colorado. There is a ton of public water but there is an equal amount of private water and you damn well pay attention to the rules. They do not have to post water as private to be “trespassing” in CO. It would be nice if the ancient (some of these laws go back to Colonial Days) laws were more uniformly interpreted from state to state. Montana…be really careful and I think they are having a dustup in Utah. That all being said its way more fun to find public water and fish it well than to go to the local catch and release special regulation water which normally gets pounded. Great blog!

    avatar BobT
  3. That’s some really interesting info. I’m only minimally aware of the MN laws on this. The primary stream I fish there is Stony Brook up in Lake Shore/Nisswa. it’s got a great public access area and well described easements when beyond the public area. Here in MA, we have a set of rules many seem to think of as crazy. Here’s the rough description: non legally posted land is 100% legal to access. If a landowner asks you to leave you have to, but if you do not know who the owner is, and it’s not posted, it’s legal. On top of that, if land is posted, you trespass and get hurt, you can sue the owner, but as a motivator to keep land open to public access, if you do not post the land you are protected. Sounds backwards and sideways to lay it out! But it certainly sustains much more access for outdoor recreation of all types and keeps more land open for hunting and fishing as well.

    Just interesting to see the differences in other states – it seems MA and NH are about the only states left like that…

    avatar Will
  4. Great info here Justin! Thanks for doing the research for us. I’ve rarely if ever been called on it but when I did, I just killed them with kindness, explained that I always pick up trash (and show them the trash I’ve already collected) and they tend to change their tune really quick and tell me I’m invited back anytime! Beautiful fish as well! Cheers man!

    avatar Ross

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