Public Access to Finger Lakes Fishing

Illustration by Mark Stash
by Joel M. Herrling

My father didn’t take us fishing all that much growing up, but 30 years later, I still remember the few times that he did.  After working all day, he would take my brother and me to a couple local streams located throughout Cayuga County. Toting our inexpensive poles, a rusty coffee can full of nightcrawlers, and some snacks, we walked down the bank to cast our lines. I can only recall ever catching one fish out of these adventures – I think it was right after the stream was stocked.

One of the streams that my father would take us to was a tributary that feeds into the Owasco Inlet. Located between Cayuga and Tompkins Counties, there are 13.3 miles of public fishing rights (PFR) along the inlet to the lake. These creeks are also in proximity to the towns of Moravia and Locke and a portion of Groton. Brown trout and rainbow trout are the main gamefish that inhabit the medium-sized, mostly open streams. The lower section tends to have more deeper pools, and the inlet receives a yearly stocking of 8- to 9-inch brown trout and fingerling rainbows. While we would park the old truck on the roadside and hike down to the stream, there is access across from the Fillmore Glen State Park as well.

We are fortunate that New York State has some of the best fishing waters in the nation, despite many of them being difficult to reach because they are privately owned. There are more than 1,300 miles of PFR easements that have been purchased on more than 400 streams across the state. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has worked with private landowners to ensure access to these prime fishing waters since 1935. The DEC has obtained public fishing rights, permanent easements from private landowners that allow sportsman right-of-way access to fish and walk along the bank. These rights also account for designated parking areas for the public to park and access streams via marked walkways.

Public fishing rights only allow the public to walk along the banks for the sole purpose of fishing; there can be no trapping, hunting, swimming, camping, boating, or picnicking activities. The DEC stresses that they have only purchased rights for the public to fish along the stream, not the land itself, which remains in private ownership. Easements along stream banks are normally 33 feet in width, but can vary depending on the purchased rights. They may be along one bank or both banks, depending upon what was purchased. Right bank and left bank are terms used to describe where the public has a right to fish and are identified as one faces downstream.

Anglers should try to keep as close to the river as possible to avoid encroaching on adjacent private lands where no public rights exist. Anglers should request landowner permission when seeking river access where no public easement exists (some PFR is surrounded by private land and does not include formal access).

Landowners of public fishing stream areas may continue to use their property for domestic and agricultural purposes. They may fence the property, cut trees, and make improvements. While they may not post the PFR area against fishing, they may legally post and prevent all other public use of the land. Public fishing rights have been purchased by the DEC from landowners that were generous enough to allow the public to fish on their property. While PFR gives you legal access to the streams, the land itself is still private. Please respect the landowner’s property and remove any trash you bring in, including bottles, cans, bait containers, and any other form of trash. The DEC asks anglers to look for official signs that are almost impossible to miss.

There are very detailed maps of each PFR on the DEC website that are very useful in showing access points, parking, and what side of the bank is the PFR. The maps are provided as PDFs, which are easy to print out or pull up on a smartphone. The maps include a description of the fishery, along with any notes. A general map of New York shows the counties that the fishery encompasses, as well as major roadways, local streets, county boundaries, DEC lands, and municipal parks.

Another spot that that my father would take us to was North Brook, which happened to be a favorite of my grandfather’s as well. I have been fishing there a few times by myself in recent years. North Brook is located between Auburn and Weedsport and has 2.5 miles of PFR along it. This small, partially open stream is stocked yearly with 8- to 9-inch brown trout. While there are several access points, some are difficult to find … but I will not divulge all my secrets.

There are numerous spots throughout the state that are just waiting to be fished, allowing you to make memories – whether you catch anything or not.

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