Public Access To Waters and Riparian Rights
Public rights to and on the water is a very complex area of Pennsylvania law. In Pennsylvania, the public's rights to fish in a particular stream depends in large part on whether the stream is "navigable." In general, the public has the right to fish in a navigable waterway. The accepted test of navigability is whether the waters are used, or are susceptible to being used, in their ordinary condition, as highways for commerce. If the water met the navigability test at any point in its history, it remains a legally navigable waterway. There is no single published listing of all the navigable waters in Pennsylvania.
Although the public has the right to fish in a navigable stream flowing through private lands, this does not mean that the public has the right to cross posted private lands to get to the stream.
FAQ - Public Rights in Pennsylvania Waters
In the Courts
Luzerne County Court Decision
Superior Court Decision
Little Juniata River
Agencies' Commonwealth Court brief
Judge’s ruling further confirms public’s rights on Little Juniata River
Little Juniata civil decision
Public’s right of access to Little Juniata River wins critical protection
Huntingdon County Court Decision
Agencies file suit
Agencies' proposed findings of fact and conclusion of law
Agencies' memorandum of law
Plaintiff Bright's proposed findings of fact and conclusion of law
Plaintiff Bright's memorandum of law
Pennsylvania has a long and rich history of private landowners allowing the public access to on stream-side lands for fishing. While this practice has benefited generations of anglers, it also means that fishing as we know it in Pennsylvania is also very susceptible to privatization. Of our stocked trout waters, 83% are on private lands. About 70% of our wild trout waters are on private lands and 59% of our Class A trout waters are also on private lands.
The number one reason waters are removed from active management programs (like stocking) by the Commission is because of increased landowner posting in response to poor behavior such as littering, building open fires, trampling farm fields and blocking driveways and access roads. Preserving public access to private lands is a simple matter, but one that requires us all to take action to police ourselves. Recognize that the land you are on may very well be private property and act like a guest. Respect all postings, such as prohibitions against Sunday fishing.
Landowners: Did you know that Pennsylvania has legislation protecting landowners who hold their lands and waters open for free public recreational use? Read more about the Recreation Use of Land and Water Act.