Stream access laws
State anglers, canoeists and others who frequent Wisconsin's rivers and streams need to be aware of changes to rules pertaining to access along waterways that were enacted in the 2001 Wisconsin state budget bill (2001 Wisconsin Act 16).
Navigability determines whether a water body is public or private. Navigable streams are public waters. Because navigable waters are public, they may be used for fishing, provided public access is available, or you have the permission of the landowner to cross their property to reach the water.
The law passed in 2001
Effective September 1, 2001, people using these waterways will, for the most part, have to return to the old "keep your feet wet" test, as created by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
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. In addition, a member of the public may not enter the exposed shore area except:
- from the water,
- from a point of public access on the stream, or
- with the permission of the riparian (i.e., landowner).
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.
Paddling among fish and wildlife: who needs a permit and under what circumstances?
Under this law, using the exposed shoreline for purposes such as picnicking and sunbathing is not allowed.
Section 1255j of 2001 Wisconsin Act 16 amended Chapter 30.134 of the Wisconsin Statutes to make this change. If you wish, you can view Wisconsin Act 16 on the Wisconsin Legislature's Web site. (You can also find the language on page 247 of 2001 Wisconsin Act 16.)
Lakes and impoundments
The right to use the exposed shoreline applies only to rivers and streams. On lakes and flowages, the requirement remains that users must be in the water with no right to use the exposed shoreline without the owner's consent. For more information on the difference between a lake and a river or stream, please see What's the difference between a lake and a river?
The prior law
A prior law in effect from 1999 to August 31, 2001, allowed people using Wisconsin's rivers and streams to have access to the exposed shoreline up to the ordinary high water mark at any time for water-related recreational activities.
If you are having difficulty applying these general principals of stream access law in Wisconsin to a specific situation, please contact your local DNR conservation warden for further assistance.
Frequently asked questions
For additional information on Wisconsin fishing (e.g., maps, fish consumption advisories), please see our list of frequently asked questions.