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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Trespassing on Wyoming Waters



It doesn't seem fair, but most of Wyoming's stream beds are privately owned property. As a sportsman, the concept of the great outdoors belonging to another person seems preposterous. As a landowner and a sportsman, this is the American dream. Who doesn't want to have their own personal, private sporting sanctuary? Once you finally get to the point in your life where you can afford that small piece of fishing or hunting nirvana, you will protect your rights to it.

In Wyoming and Colorado the bottom of the river belongs to the landowner. This is unlike Montana and other western states where the land between the ordinary high water mark is state domain, and available for the general public to access. The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that no waters, within the state of Wyoming, were historically used for commerce and thus were deemed NON-NAVIGABLE. This ruling gave all the land beneath the rivers to the private landowner while still keeping the river,only the water, as state domain. Access to Wyoming state lands is a privilege and not a right. In essence the public can use the water, but is prohibited from using anything associated with the stream bed. This includes wading in the water, dropping anchor, beaching your boat on a rock or a sandbar or grabbing vegetation along the river bank to halt downstream progress. The Grey Reef section of the North Platte River is no exception.

The property lines along the North Platte River are generally set up to follow the middle of the stream bed. So, if you are on a piece of property that is marked public only on the right side of the river, then you can only access the right side of the river bottom out to the middle of the river. If you walk or anchor on the left half you are trespassing. The fines for trespassing range from $220-$700 per offender. If there a 3 fishers in an illegally anchored boat, 3 citations will be written. This is enforced by the Wyoming Game and Fish as well as the Natrona County Sheriffs Department. One of the deputies owns land at Lusby and is intimately familiar with this issue because folks routinely trespass on his land.

When I first started fishing Grey Reef in the early 90's, it seemed there was an open door policy on the river. You could drive or float onto private property to fish. At that time there were very few fishers using the river and no major guide service operating. I know, from talking with landowners, that they were not concerned with folks respectfully enjoying their stream bank. Respect, that is the straw that broke the camels back. Fire rings, beer bottles, and a stinky turd (with toilet paper attached) dropped right where the owner was going to bring his family the following Sunday was enough to for them to close the door on the unwritten policy.

Fast forward a few years to around 1996 when Kyle Wall, then an independent outfitter, secured the first lease on the Grey Reef section of the North Platte River. He made an agreement with the Marton Ranch, who owns most of the land on the south side of Grey Reef from Grey Reef Dam to Government Bridge, to outfit on their land for a fee. Kyle hired on with the North Platte Lodge in 1998 and the lease was transferred. The provisions of the agreement were/are North Platte Lodge gets to use the land, but we must patrol and prosecute trespassers. It is very rewarding, to our guests and guides to be able to drop anchor or wade. But, it is also a frustrating task having to be the river police. Nobody wants to have conflict in their day, especially when they are enjoying the outdoors.

It is a funny thing when trespassers have the attitude that we are spoiling their day, when we feel the same way. It would be like blaming the cop for catching you speeding. It would be great if we never again had to talk to other sportsman about trespassing. But, there are things you can do to avoid a conflict. 1. Get a BLM floaters map to Grey Reef. It isn't perfect, but will give you a good idea of where the access points are. The Wyoming Game and Fish has colored signs posted along the river to designate private and public property. A square RED sign means anything beyond that point, on the side of the river where the sign is posted, is private property. BLUE means anything beyond that point, on the side of the river where the sign is posted, is available for public access. 2. Don't assume you are on public property, chances are your not. 3. Don't assume that you can beat the system by floating odd hours and illegally using private property when you THINK no one is around. 4. Don't assume that because other boats are stopped there you can too.

Unfortunately, there is very limited public access on Grey Reef, but it is getting better. The BLM just purchased all the river frontage that was owned by the North Platte Lodge. And, the North Platte Lodge has been working with our lessor's to provide public access on private property via the Wyoming Game and Fish Access Yes program. Between The Reef Fly Shop, Miles Land and Livestock and the Marton Ranch we have in the neighborhood of 5 miles of prime North Platte River access on their private property available for public use. In fact, The Reef Fly Shop is one of, if not the top collector of Access Yes donations in the state of Wyoming. We are aware that this program is not perfect, but it works very well around Grey Reef.

So, while Grey Reef is completely accesible by boat there are limited areas to stop. If you are not familiar with the North Platte River stop at a fly shop and ask if they can assist you in planning your float. The most common lunching spot is at the Fence Hole. It is about 3.5 miles downstream of the Grey Reef boat ramp and the last public access before Lusby. From the Fence Hole to Lusby is about 4.5 miles of no public access. The river is easy to row as there are no major rapids or rock gardens. But, the Wyoming wind can play hell with a green oarsman.

Come see what all the fuss is about. Grey Reef is an amazing fishery.

Erik Aune

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