Busted: Understanding Pennsylvania’s stream trespass law, Part 2

I am a rural property owner and I thought that I had a pretty good understanding of trespass laws in Pennsylvania. However, as I discovered, there are still lessons to be learned. This one was learned the hard way.

Spinner fishing for trout on a small stream is a lot different than most other types of trout fishing. Fishing upstream, I cover almost a half-mile of stream per hour, and that eats up a lot of real estate during a morning’s fishing. Unless I am on state forest or state game lands, I might fish through a half-dozen or more properties in just a couple of hours.

I have been fishing this particular stocked trout stream, about 45 minutes from my home, for over 30 years. For the purpose of this blog, I’ll call it Rhododendron Run (not its real name). It has over eight miles of fishable stream, and in 1985, all of it was stocked by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, open to public fishing. Gradually, but progressing like a disease, sections were posted and stocking ceased.

Over the years, I walked or drove around posted sections, and I was granted permission to fish one two-mile stretch. Unless we are talking the Letort, Spruce Creek or some other famous water, many people put up no trespassing signs because of hunting. If you politely ask permission to fish, you are often allowed.

In 2012, one of my favorite sections was posted. Fortunately, right below some of the posters was another sign, “Fishing Permitted – Walk In Only,” one of my favorite signs.

Flash forward to June 2016 – I was planning to fish the same section with my friend, Andy. We parked right beside some “No Trespassing” signs, walked down the highway, and then accessed the stream from below the clearly posted section. I assured Andy that this landowner allowed fishing, even though it was posted.

We had only been fishing a few minutes when someone approached us asking, “What are you guys doing?”

We stopped fishing and attempted to politely talk with him. He claimed to be the landowner and he was informing us that we were not allowed to fish there. No amount of polite apologies nor explanation about previously-posted “Fishing Permitted” signs made any difference.

“How could you not know this was posted? You parked right beside my signs,” he said. “I’m going to have you arrested.”

We quietly left and continued fishing above his property.

A week later, a summons arrived in the mail — my friend, Andy received one, too. We were being charged with “defiant trespass” and fined the maximum amount plus court costs — over $400 each. The criminal complaint was signed by a state police officer who did not see me or my friend fishing. I wondered how that worked.

I consulted a lawyer friend, and he suggested that since we were being fined the maximum amount, we should not pay the fine and wait for our day in court. That is what we did, but I was worried about the outcome.

In the meantime, I attempted once again to talk with the landowner. Why would I park right in front of his no trespassing signs if I didn’t think fishing was okay on his property? He would not even talk with me. I also checked tax maps, Google Earth, and I went back to the “scene of the crime” to take photos.

As it turned out, we parked on the PennDOT right-of-way, walked down the public highway and to the stream without setting foot on his property. We had not yet set foot on his property when he confronted us.

Our day in court arrived. The district judge was very fair — listening to all parties, allowing for cross-examination and studying the photos and diagrams that I presented. The landowner admitted that he had never seen us on his property.

To make a long story short — we were found not guilty — no fine and no court costs, but a lot of aggravation and wasted time.

Two assumptions led to this unfortunate incident. One, I assumed that, because the property had once been posted, “Fishing Permitted,” fishing was still allowed. Two, the landowner assumed from where we parked that we had already fished downstream through his property.

Two incorrect assumptions — and a hard lesson for me. In the process, I learned a lot more about Pennsylvania’s trespass laws

My advice: Ask permission and don’t make assumptions or you might find yourself with a summons in the mail.

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