Trespassing; maybe

Access to a creek I like to fish is via a county bridge. A small parking area is on the south side of the bridge, from which a rutted lane follows the creek upstream for about a quarter-mile. This path was recently gated but it’s generally known that fishermen are welcome if they park out of the way, close the gate and clean up after themselves. The downstream side is well-marked with “No Trespassing” and other notices. I’ve been repeatedly warned that the property owner is not friendly toward fishermen. I’ve been fishing this spot regularly for a decade and always honored the signs and never had any trouble. I’ve also never encountered the downstream landowner, who is reportedly willing to wave a shotgun to help get his point across.20120731-084127.jpg

The creek has a gravel and sand bed that shifts regularly after a day or two of rain so each time you fish the stream it’s a little different from the last time you fished it. The last gully washer had pushed a gravel tongue about 20 yards downstream from the bridge, where it opened to a patch of water too deep to wade comfortably. Bank access is limited: one side is fenced and one side is posted. It was near the point of this gravel tongue from which I was fishing; trying vainly to roll cast a black wooly bugger under a low hanging branch, when a voice – startling in its shrillness, volume and clarity – came from above.

“Hey. What the hell are you doing? You’re trespassing. Didn’t you see the signs.”I had seen the signs. All three of them. “POSTED,” “NO TRESPASSING” and “KEEP OUT.”

I craned my neck and looked up to see tall man dressed in work cloths and wearing a wide-brimmed hat. He was about my age; maybe a little older. “Yes sir. I saw the signs,” I said in the most friendly tone I could  muster. “But I’m not trespassing. I’m standing in the middle of the creek.”

“By God, you are trespassing, too,” he shouted. “I don’t allow it. You’ll have to leave.”

The current had pulled the line away from the bank and into the center of the stream. At that instant I had a strike and from reflex set the hook.  It was a rainbow trout, which are stocked here. Short but chunky and surprisingly colorful. Not a fresh stocker.

Strictly speaking, I may have been trespassing. In my home state the waterways are public property but the stream bed over which the water flows belongs to the property owner. It’s a ridiculous statute and one state game officials say has never been legally tested. But if you’re floating through private property you are legally sound. If you step onto the stream bed without the owner’s permission, you’re technically trespassing. The property owner on the other side of the creek does not post his land and doesn’t mind fishermen but the fence largely blocks access.

I decided to repeat my apology but point out that I was not and would not be in the man’s field. But when I turned my attention back to the shoreline above me the enraged property owner was gone. I was about to make another cast then I heard a truck door slam. Then, in about the time it would have taken to pull a 12-gauge from the seat cover sleeve, I heard the door again slam.

The fishing upstream, I quickly decided, would be just fine.