When it comes to public land access through private lands, this conversation can sometimes become quite heated. In Alberta all rivers and streams are publicly owned! It is the access that can sometimes be the issue.
The fact of the matter is rivers and streams are yours to discover as long as you follow a few simple steps and leave them better than you found them.
Canada as a whole wanted to get away from the style of ownership in Britain where the stream bed is owned by the land owner and you have to buy specific licenses and permits and more often than not hire the owners “Gilly” to fish these watersheds. This goes back to the medieval era of land ownership.
The Province of Alberta defines the property lines between private and public as found in the Public Lands Act, as well as the Surveys Act “The Legal bank in Alberta is the line separating the Crown-owned bed and the shore from the adjoining upland. This is also known as the ordinary high-water mark”. See Section 17 of the Surveys Act for a definition of the bed and shore of water and its bank.
“The bank is a natural boundary formed by the action of water over time. Unless coincidental, it is not a historic high-water mark, flood line or current water line”
So that being said let’s break this down for you no one in Alberta can own the stream bed period, there used to be during the era of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) King Charles II of England granted ownership of what was known as Rupert’s Land to the HBC. This Area included what is now known as the province of Alberta but in 1870 this all changed, and HBC surrendered its lands to the Dominion of Canada.
The ownership of the land starts at the top of the bank which is also known as “upland” by the Alberta government. Private land ownership, especially on rivers and streams is in its nature fluid, and can change over time as the waterways find new courses. If you are climbing up on a bank and it’s, not public land, you are at this point on private land.
How can we maintain public access and still have a good relationship with the private land owner? The answer is to ask permission. If you would like to access a river or stream that flows through a landowner’s property it is as simple as knocking on the owner’s door and asking.
In my experience most landowners are more than happy to give you access if you approach them with respect. Remember, farmers and ranchers are just as protective as you are of your backyard.
We as fly fisherman need to maintain these good relationships with the owners as it can take only one bad experience for us to lose access to these fisheries.
If you access areas that are on private land, I implore you to start knocking on doors and building those good relationships.