Get Off My Lawn! Fishing Public Water Next To Private Land

By: Ryan Wilson

Owner and Operator of Madison River Fly Fishing Outfitters


I always cringe when I hear a story regarding an altercation between an angler and a landowner.  I cringe because while I am outwardly sympathetic to the angler that is telling it, a big part of my brain is screaming “You dumbass – what were you doing there in the first place?!”  While there are some conflicts where one party is wholly in the wrong and the other wholly in the right, it’s my experience that a little bit of courtesy and common sense can go a long way in heading off negative interactions.


Besides the fact that getting screamed at by an irate farmer doesn’t exactly contribute to the tranquility that we seek on the river, there can be serious consequences to landowner conflicts.  Many of our best and most popular public trout streams are bordered by private land.  Although conflicts are fairly rare, anglers need to know why they should be enthusiastically avoided and what to do if it happens.  Three of the most pressing concerns are Safety, Legal and Future Access.


The most obvious and immediate concern is safety.  If a landowner, or anyone else, is willing to openly confront you, it must be assumed that they are prepared for the situation to escalate to violence.  Regardless of who you think is in the wrong, it is your responsibility to do what is in your power to keep that escalation from happening.  Anger met with more anger will not resolve the conflict, so keep calm, back away and diffuse the situation as much as you can.  If the person is willing to talk to you, start a respectful dialogue and figure out where you supposedly erred.  If they are not willing to talk, leave fast and fish someplace else.


In North Carolina, with few exceptions, navigable waterways (basically anything you could float a kayak down) are considered part of the public trust.  That means that legally, the public can access and utilize those waterways.  That does not mean that an angler can cross over private land to access the water.  There can also be some grey area surrounding what is considered navigable.  Some landowners will provide posted access points, some will not.  Use your common sense here.  Even if you think you have a legal right to access, if it’s clear the landowner doesn’t want you there, find someplace else to go.  Respect the property owner’s wishes and obey all posted signs and gates.


Satisfied people are generally not the ones writing letters.   By creating a conflict with a landowner, we’ve potentially motivated that person to press for reduced angler access.  It doesn’t even take a face to face altercation to make this happen.  The most common offense is a lack of respect for the property and the resource.  Just a few of us littering, poaching, parking in undesignated areas, leaving gates open, and disobeying posted signs can damage the reputation of all anglers.  If nine people treat an area with respect and the tenth trashes it, all the landowner sees is the trash.  We need to go above and beyond by leaving the river in as good or better condition than we found it and by calling out anglers who are not.


In case you haven’t noticed, the trend has generally not been to open up more spaces for public fishing access.  To maintain what we have, we need to burnish our reputation with landowners and show that not only are responsible anglers not a problem, but that we can actually be an asset.  Showing honest respect and appreciation for our resources and the property around it is a responsibility of all anglers.  When you’re up in the mountains, common sense and courtesy will take you a lot further than your ability to quote NC Riparian Rights.  Keep the locals on our side and not only will you be able to enjoy fishing today, but you’ll contribute to keeping that resource available for years to come.


Ryan Wilson is the Owner and Operator of Madison River Fly Fishing Outfitters in Cornelius, NC.  If you’d like to learn all about fly fishing, please contact him at or call at (704) 896-3676.  Check us out on Facebook: Madison River Fly Fishing Outfitters or on the Web: