As the rural areas of Western Wisconsin develop, properties along our rivers are being bought and sold. Businesses are being started and homes are being built. This is the nature of the beast. “Buy dirt, they aren’t making it any more” right? As we all attempt to live, work and recreate in 2022 and beyond, it is important to understand the trespass laws, as defined by the state of Wisconsin. Although the laws are pretty clearly stated, some land owners have reached a new level of creative thinking when it comes to deterring anglers from accessing water adjoining private property. Conversely, anglers sometimes need to be more diligent in recognizing the boundaries of their access.   

As we draw closer to more clement weather(fingers crossed), which invariably will bring more anglers to the trout streams, I thought a summary of Wisconsin trespass laws might be helpful along with some first hand experiences I have had over the years.

Here is a summary for walk, wade, anglers in Wisconsin. Members of the public may use any exposed shore area of a stream without the permission of the riparian (i.e., landowner) only if it is necessary to exit the body of water to bypass an obstruction. Obstructions could consist of trees or rocks, shallow water for boaters or deep water for wading trout anglers. The bypass should be by the shortest possible route.

More specific questions regarding entry, exit from the water and the history of the laws can be answered by the links below.

It is important to understand that the laws in each state can be vastly or slightly different from one another. As anglers and land owners, it is up to us to know and understand these laws to minimize conflict. If there is a conflict, trespass complaints in Wisconsin are handled through the local sheriff’s department or police department not necessarily the DNR game warden, although the two agencies may act in concert in some situations.

The examples here are just a few, first hand recollections of my own personal experiences with this subject. I believe the stories probably get more exiting as the years fly by. 

The well worn path to the river through Farmer Frank’s pasture has just been purchased by Bob. Frank allowed folks to use the path as long as anglers asked permission and stop by every once in a while to shoot the sh%# or drop a small gift of gratitude, like a pie or cookies or something. Harmony, right? Bob, the new owner, does not convey the same open arms policy. As a mater of fact Bob has let me know he is fully armed, posted the standard “No Trespassing” signs along the path and informed me he is not interested in any damn cookies! Silly me. Bob is within his full rights of the law. The path is no longer a legal access point for anglers to the river. End of story. As real-estate changes hands, access to streams will likely compress. This is nothing new.. 

A new family builds a house along the river that once was a woodlot with a trail along the river bank. Although the family is kind and allows anglers the use of their river frontage, I am basically angling in their front yard. The lab that is let out the front door jumps into the river upstream from me and swims around the pool I am fishing. He is catching just as many trout as I am, and having a much better time. Harmony? Not so much. Mojo gone, I move along.

A place of business appears along the banks of my favorite evening, quiet, dry fly heaven. It was the very first place I met Tom Helgeson. It was around 10 PM when he came stumbling around the bend, cane rod in hand. He said to me,”I though I was the only crazy one left.” We became friends. Now, in this location, there is singing and microphone chatter and cars and folks wandering the banks. The owner has not been restrictive to anglers. However, the ambiance has changed. There are no trespass issues here and maybe it is a good model of how we can all get along, it is just a developed spot instead of a wild spot. I still go back when no one else is around.

Passage through a small dairy farm has now become a medium sized residential development, what was once a single stretch of river needing only one permission slip now belongs to 10 owners and 5 of them don’t want me there. Mojo gone. I move along.

After a long slog to an upstream, highly touted honey hole, the land owner verbally abused me for ten minutes calling me the N____,word a total of 9 times. I am a pasty White German/French mongrel! I couldn’t believe it! The next year I go back to stand my ground since I had entered the location legally. He let me have it again,,,,with both barrels. Only later did I find out that he had cameras in the shoreline trees that alerted him to my presence. Turns out he is still alive, giving his best verbal abuse in years to all anglers who will take it.The point is, I go to the stream to avoid conflict, when the mojo that brought me to the location is gone. I move along. I realize that standing up for my stream access rights is important, but in my life time there has been plenty of other places to fish. In the future this may not be . 

A new land owner had purchase a substantial portion of river frontage and the adjoining land. Easily a 2 to 3 hour fish for two anglers. I had guided this stretch of river numerous times. On opening day of fishing, new land owner guy decides that target shooting, with his pistol, along the bank, would be a good idea. In the course of the year other anglers report the same occurrence on this stretch of water. Again, cameras in the trees. Perfectly legal for the land owner. Clearly the intent was to send a message. 


It has been my observation, this since the beginning of my walk, wade, walkabout in Wisconsin, trout anglers are sometimes trespassers. The stream side trails we walk many times run through private property. We see the signs but believe they might not apply to us. The vast majority of us mean no harm nor cause harm. The fact remains that many anglers don’t know how many property lines they have crossed on any given day exploring new stretches of water or wading across to the other side of the stream. There is no doubt that these boundaries will continue to change with time and it is up to us to know where we are and if we are trespassing. 

Many times land owners don’t know or don’t care if we are trespassing, but sometimes they do! It is the responsibility of the angler to know if they have permission to be where they are. As a Wisconsin land owner you are no longer responsible for posting your property. As time goes on, and our access options as sportsmen and women shrink, we all may need to do a better job at knowing where we are and asking permission if we intend to walk there.


The laws concerning stream-side trespass in the state of Wisconsin need to be followed by both anglers and land owners alike. Land owners cannot consider the riffles, runs and pools of their location to be exclusively their’s if anglers can obtain legal access to these locations. Anglers who break the laws should be accountable for their actions. Skulduggery by either side should not be permitted.

Have fun, be safe

Goat on a roll,

Tell me your trespass story