by Linda Steiner

photo-Art Michaels

If you're a Pennsylvania trout fisherman, chances are better than average that you have been the guest of a private property owner. About 70 percent of the state's trout fishing takes place on private land, says Tom Greene, Commission Coldwater Unit Leader. "A considerable amount of our wild or stocked trout streams flow through private land," says Greene, "so we are interested in minimizing landowner/angler conflicts."

Pennsylvania is fortunate. Mostly through farsightedness earlier in this century, large tracts of land through which both wild and stocked trout streams flow, were made public. But if anglers did not have access to private ground to fish, their trout recreation would be greatly diminished.
Especially in the areas of the state that do not have much state, federal or other public land acreage, trout fishing and its accompanying economic effect are reliant on the willingness of private landowners to be hosts. Angling brings more than $1 billion into the Pennsylvania economy annually. So not only anglers, but restaurant, tackle shop, campground and gas station owners, and other businesses, need to tip their hats and say "thanks" to private landowners who allow fishing on their property.

Those parts of the state without the huge public tracts are also the places where most of us live, because that's where the bigger towns are. If we want to have trout fishing fun within a reasonable driving distance of home, we must rely on the graciousness and good will of the folks who own the property the streams flow through.

Just using courtesy when you're on privately owned land and water goes a long way to keeping the recreation available to you, says Greene. "A lot of landowners aren't anglers themselves, and whatever we can do to tell fishermen to mind their manners helps," he says. "Sometimes fishermen take access for granted and think it's public ground, because we stock the waterway that goes through private land."

The Fish and Boat Commission doesn't require formal agreements with private landowners who allow fishing and who permit trout to be stocked on their property, says Greene. But if there is a special-regulation area, such as the Delayed-Harvest Program, the agency does like to have something signed (though it isn't mandatory) to show understanding and intent to leave the stream open to the public. Allowing the public on your ground, letting trout be stocked or even a special regulation project to be initiated in no way diminishes that this is your own, privately owned and controlled ground. It just means you're a partner with the Fish and Boat Commission to provide much needed public recreation.

To help make public access more palatable to cooperating landowners, says Greene, the Commission provides signs that help direct what the public should and shouldn't do. These signs might be "Fishing Permitted, Walk-in Only" signs, or "litterbug law" signs. This is mostly just common sense for the angler, says Greene, like not blocking the driveway or a gate, or keeping one's car off lawns and cultivated meadows.

Still, where to park and where to walk may not always be obvious to visiting fishermen, and landowners can help minimize their problems by using signs to direct anglers. Sometimes it's lack of information or direction that causes friction, not intent. Because he's the guest, says Greene, "The responsibility is on the angler, not the landowner, and if it looks as if you could be getting in somebody's way, you should ask what to do. Most landowners are agreeable if you mind your manners."

Sugar Creek

Sugar Creek, Venango County

photo-Linda Steiner

Richard A. Snyder, Chief of the Commission Division of Fisheries Management, concurs with the importance of the private landowner's contribution to angling in Pennsylvania. "There's no question that across the state, in particular those areas where public ownership is at a premium, that we count on the private landowners to provide property that we can manage, especially with the stocked trout program," says Snyder.

Because landowners change and problems may occur with the public from time to time, Snyder agrees that "we anglers need to police our own ranks and be courteous. From year to year, we probably lose more miles of streams through posting than through pollution." Anything extra that can be done to keep the landowner host happy, such as picking up litter even if you didn't drop it, helps all anglers.

The Bureau of Fisheries can raise and stock the trout, but it's the Bureau of Law Enforcement, with its Waterways Conservation Officers, that is on the forefront of the Commission's partnering with private landowners. Guy Bowersox, Commission Bureau of Law Enforcement Assistant to the Director, says that officers try to maintain a working rapport with private landowners in their districts.

"During the peak onslaught of the beginning of trout season, we try to respond to any complaints and help monitor those private lands that are adjacent to stocked waters for illegal activity," says Bowersox. "The officers help protect the landowner's land from abuse by inconsiderate anglers who may litter or block gates, drive across fields, and so on. It's a 'delicate scenario' that requires some finesse on the field officer's part in keeping lands open to the public. Too often an inconsiderate few impose on the landowner's rights or abuse his property, which then hurts the majority. It's a continual challenge," says Bowersox.

"Maintaining stocked waters open to the general public is year-round for the officers, at least touching base with the landowners," says Bowersox. The Commission also relies on sportsmen's clubs and individual sportsmen partnering with them to "help us develop and maintain rapport with landowners." This includes organized events, like litter clean-ups and building angler fence crossings. "These projects help us stay on good terms with property owners," says Bowersox. Just stopping to say "thanks" to your host for his hospitality means a lot, too.
"Some property owners are also sportsmen who love to fish for trout themselves and readily welcome us," says Bowersox. "Other landowners who do not fish or who relish their privacy are not accustomed to the imposition of strangers walking on their land. Those folks need additional attention." If a landowner has an urgent situation with an angler's infraction, says Bowersox, he can call the Commission's regional office or his county's communication center to get an officer dispatched.

Bud Guilinger

Bud Guilinger, standing by the entrance to the railroad grade that runs through his property along Big Sandy Creek, Venango County. Bud's signs, he says, tell the public exactly what they need to know and do.

photo-Linda Steiner

In western Venango County, "Big" Sandy Creek is a stocked trout stream near the small town of Polk. A long stretch of the fishing there is open to the public, thanks to private landowners, including Bud Guilinger. An avid sportsmen himself, Guilinger's son and daughter-in-law are active in the local Trout Unlimited chapter. Even though they're kind enough to allow the public to fish in the stream, Bud also likes the privacy of his 300 acres, and directs what uses the public can have on his land.

Although Guilinger says he has had some "run-ins" with people, like their driving around gates and through fields, his experiences have been generally good. The local Fish and Boat Commission officer could be counted on to respond quickly to problems, he says, and that meant a lot toward his keeping the stream open.

Why does he allow the public to use his property? Guilinger says he likes "to see people really enjoying themselves in the outdoors and getting a feel for the land and the stream. Most of them are like me. Whether they're catching fish or not, they're just enjoying themselves."
"There's a lot of stress in this world," says Guilinger, "and if that person can be by himself, he can get a lot sorted out within himself, and solve his problems just being on the stream." Guilinger says a lot of the same people, "good people," come back every year, and he's gotten to know them.
Some of Guilinger's do's and don'ts for anglers are common sense, treating your neighbor as you'd like to be treated. "Don't wander up here around the house and pick the flowers," says Guilinger (one woman helped herself to the daffodils). He has also had cut firewood stolen. Though this may not have been the act of a fisherman, all the public could be affected by such inconsiderate behavior.
Guilinger says that when he wants to fish or hunt or trap on another's property, he spends time renewing or making contacts, and would like the same consideration. "Some people think that because it's just woods, nobody owns it," says Guilinger, "or that it's a game lands." He doesn't like the crush of people on opening day, and says he'd be happier if there wasn't such hype. But all in all, says Guilinger, "my fishermen are pretty much ok."

Rainbow trout

This stocked rainbow trout was caught in a stream open to public fishing on private property. Access to fishing opportunities is precious, and with increasing human population and urbanization, it is likely to become more so. As in so much, caring, sharing and partnering with one another will make the difference.

photo-Linda Steiner

On the other end of the state, Jack Good owns 2 1/2 acres that straddle Falling Spring Branch, on the northeast end of Chambersburg, in Franklin County. An avid fly fisherman, Good plays both parts as an angler using private property and as a landowner host. He, too, says he has a good relationship with the local Waterways Conservation Officer, which means a lot to his property-owner side.

Especially before his stream section was placed in the Delayed-Harvest, Articifial-Lures-Only (DHALO) Program, Good and his landowner neighbors experienced problems with fishermen. Too often these became unauthorized picnickers and campers, those who left trash, tore down fences, and more. "Sometimes there were 25 cars parked here and I couldn't get out of my driveway," says Good. Some of the neighbors were thinking about closing their property to fishing altogether.

"Falling Spring Branch is a national treasure we have going through the middle of Chambersburg," says Good. So he sought the help of the Fish and Boat Commission, which suggested the DHALO Program. Good spearheaded it and signed up the adjacent property owners. "It took about two years, but I secured it all," says Good. The results? "It's been tremendously successful, with a lot of youngsters using it," he adds.

The DHALO Program seems right for both the public and these landowners. Though slightly restrictive over general angling (bait can't be used and there's a short summertime window when trout can be kept), it has allowed all parties to keep partnering and preserve the recreation opportunity.

Nowadays, says Good, "I know lots of people on the stream." But as a landowner, he still has a caution: "You're more than welcome to fish here on my property, providing you follow the law. The Delayed-Harvest sign says what you can do and how you can do it."
Good enjoys educating the children who fish there. "I think I've given away countless spinning lures," he says. He's more tolerant of kids who have bait, "because it's a question of education," and less tolerant of adults who knowingly fish illegally. That's when the Fish and Boat Commission officer gets a call. And there are no more problems with parking, because the officer also gave him a sign for that, says Good.

Good says he would "absolutely" encourage other landowners to be a host to fishermen. But one aspect of allowing the public on their ground often worries property holders. What about liability for injury? Suppose someone gets hurt here?

Lands and streams don't have to be posted "no trespassing" to protect the landowner's liability. The public can be allowed in. The issue of liability for injury was addressed by the Pennsylvania legislature more than 30 years ago in the Recreation Use of Land and Water Act.
As the text of the law begins, "The purpose of this act is to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting their liability toward persons entering thereon for such purpose."

By keeping private property open for recreational public use, the act says the owner does not "extend any assurances that the premises are safe"; does not confer on the person entering "the legal status of an invitee or licensee to whom a duty of care is owed"; and the owner does not "assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury...caused by an act of omission" of the persons using the land.

As a streamside landowner myself, I found comfort and assurance in that law. I've experienced on my bit of land along Sugar Creek, a stocked trout stream in Venango County, much of the same concerns and pleasures as landowners who have more stream frontage. I've had to direct anglers where to park and let them know (by a sign the Waterways Conservation Officer gave me) that I don't want them camping here. I've had some fishermen visitors pick up litter, and I've had some people, not necessarily anglers, leave trash.

I've also had the opportunity to talk to folks who were just having a great day trying for trout. As an appreciator of the outdoors, I've had the satisfying feeling of being a host, of giving a gift to others that I could so easily provide.

Access to fishing opportunities is precious, and with increasing human population and urbanization, is likely to become more so. As in so much, caring, sharing and partnering with one another will make the difference.

September/October 1998 Angler & Boater

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