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The new legalities of floating Missouri waterways

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Darrell Cureton Mug

Darrell Cureton

So, I have been floating and fishing Missouri streams for the better part of my life. During that time, I have traveled hundreds of miles on streams and rivers throughout the state and some other states.

The Missouri Department of Conservation has released what they call your "Legal Right to Use Missouri Streams." There is no complete list that says you can use this list of streams. The following is the vague description stated on the Missouri Conservation website:

"Missouri’s rivers and streams can be classified as:

Public, navigable — Large rivers on which commercial boats such as barges can navigate.

Public, non-navigable — Middle-sized streams that are capable of floating smaller boats such as canoes.

Private, non-navigable — Small streams that are not capable of floating even small boats such as canoes.

"On private, non-navigable streams, adjacent landowners’ property extends to the center of the stream. Consequently, anglers and floaters have no right to use these streams. Fishing, wading, and boating are illegal unless you have the landowner’s permission.

"On public, non-navigable streams, property lines are the same as they are on private, non-navigable streams. The difference is that although you are on private property, you have a right to use public, non-navigable streams for fishing, wading, or boating as long as you stay within the stream bed. The stream bed includes gravel bars that are submerged during part of the year.

"The stream bed begins at the high-water mark. In practical terms, this is the point where trees and other permanent vegetation grow. Floaters and anglers need landowner permission to go beyond this point.

"On public, navigable streams, property lines end at the high-water mark. The area inside the high-water marks is public property.

"Although all of this may seem clear-cut, opinions can vary dramatically about how to classify a particular stretch of stream and where the high-water marks lie. Furthermore, permanent islands in public, navigable and public, non-navigable streams are often private property."

Along with this description and statement from MDC, the local prosecuting attorney is your best reference to determine how a particular stretch of a stream is classified and where to find nearby public accesses. The county assessor’s office can tell you where the property lines are. When in doubt, always ask for permission from the landowner.

These parameters for what are legal to float can easily change from week to week and definitely month to month — because Missouri’s weather is so unpredictable. Bottom line is that outdoorsman and landowners need to get together and help make rules and regulations that make sense for everyone.

Paddlers and anglers often ask whether they have a legal right to use Missouri’s streams. The answer is yes… in some places and in some ways.

That all being said we are blessed here in Missouri. We have natural waterways around every corner. Whether it be a creek, river, or a spring, they are pretty much everywhere you look. Most of the time you can park in a reasonable location near that said water way and enjoy it.

So, the bottom line is to use common sense and stay near or in the water when using the rivers. Be respectful to our environment and to our landowners and you won’t have a problem. Please share your opinions on this new layout of what is legal and not at

Darrell Cureton is a retired veteran of the U.S Army, which he says, "gives me the time to do everything I love to do in the outdoors." Married to his wife Melissa for 15 years, the couple has four children and a grandson. Cureton looks forward to providing readers with information about the outdoors throughout Missouri. If you have a subject you want to hear about, email him at or check out his website at


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