Department of Environmental Conservation

D E C banner

Accessing & Navigating Waterways

This is a summary of the rights of navigation laws in NYS. See the full Public Rights of Navigation and Fishing policy here.

Navigating Waterways

Float fishing in the Adirondacks

Tidal Waterways

If you are using a boat or canoe, you have the right to navigate tidal waterways, that are publicly or privately owned, regardless of whether they are posted. Tidal waterways are "navigable-by-law."

Freshwater Waterways

If you are using a boat or canoe, you also have the right to navigate publicly-owned freshwater waterways.

If the public waterway crosses into a privately-owned waterway, you can access it by boat or canoe only if the privately-owned waterway is "navigable-in-fact" or, if not navigable-in-fact, you have permission from the landowner.

A navigable-in-fact waterway is a waterway suitable for trade, travel, or transport in its natural state and with its ordinary volume of water. A navigable-in-fact waterway:

  • May have a current that prevents navigation going upstream;
  • May contain occasional rapids, falls, dams or other natural or manmade obstructions;
  • Does not need to continuously be at capacity for supporting navigation; and
  • Must be at capacity for a sufficient length of time to make the waterway useful as a highway or for trade, travel, or transport.

Only a court can determine whether a waterway is "navigable-in-fact". You can use a waterway that you believe to be navigable-in-fact even without a court decision on navigability and even if the waterway is posted, but you run the risk of having a conflict with the landowner or being charged or sued for trespass. If you are charged or sued, the navigability of the waterway would then be determined in court. Therefore, in cases where the "navigable-in-fact" status of a waterway is uncertain, the DEC encourages the public to seek permission from landowners in order to avoid these problems.

Public Rights on Navigable-In-Fact Waterways

If you are maneuvering a navigable-in-fact waterway, you have the right to get out of the boat on private property to portage (carry vessel over land) in order to avoid obstacles, so long as the portage is by the most direct, least-intrusive, safe route possible. The right to navigation doesn't authorize you to enter onto or cross private property to access or leave the navigable waterway, or to use the land for other purposes, such as camping, hunting, hiking or picnicking.

Fishing Waterways

You have the right to fish in tidal waterways and publicly owned non-tidal (freshwater) waterways. Even if the privately-owned waterway is navigable-in-fact, you don't always have the right to fish in that waterway. The right to fish in a privately owned navigable-in-fact waterway depends on other factors such as:

  • The property owner's deed rights of the property and
  • Whether the State has acquired public fishing rights from the landowner.

A 1997 New York Court of Appeals ruling found that the public did not have the right to wade in the water to fish, or anchor a vessel to fish, in the navigable-in-fact freshwater Salmon River where it crossed property owned by Douglaston Manor.

  • Important Links
  • Contact for this Page
    Bureau of Fisheries
    625 Broadway
    Albany, NY 12233
    Send us an email
  • This Page Covers
  • Page applies to all NYS regions