you can read all the legal mumbo jumbo you want, but the question varies state by state, and is entirely dependent upon how each state views it. There is supposedly a federal navigability law, but no state in the Union pays any attention to it except in the cases of a few large, commercially navigable rivers like the Mississippi. If it has barge traffic on it, it's navigable and the public owns the riverbed up to the high water mark. If it's any smaller than that, in MOST states, the private landowner owns everything but the water, including the riverbed beneath the water. If the landowner only owns one side, he owns the riverbed to the center of the channel. If he owns land on both sides he owns the entire river bottom.
That's how, in various states, you can float it, but if you touch the bottom or even throw out an anchor you're trespassing. There are a number of Western states where this is so, and while some landowners don't care, many are true PIAs and seem to just sit and watch for some floater to hit a rock or brush a willow limb, and then they jump all over them.
And when it comes to marginally floatable streams, things get REALLY sticky.
The only states where I KNOW what the law is are the two states where I have residences, Missouri and Montana, and actually both states are pretty liberal in their interpretations of the public's right to float and fish rivers. Montana has a river access law that basically states that if you can legally access it, at a bridge crossing or a public access, you can wade it or float it and go anywhere you wish, no matter who owns the land. Even Montana has that gray area on when a stream is too small to be considered "public", but you can legally wade and fish some pretty small creeks, streams that are far too small to float.
In Missouri, there is no hard and fast "law", it's all based upon court cases. Basically, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that even though the landowner owns everything but the water, the public has an easement to float, fish, camp, picnic, and swim anywhere below the alluvial banks (this includes gravel bars, but not the bottomland fields off the river). The court based this upon several rather obscure factors, including whether the stream had ever been used to transport logs to market, but the court case that decided it was on a pretty small stream, one that is only floatable during spring or high water periods, so theoretically it should cover most marginally floatable streams. Problem was that it was decided ONLY for that one section of stream, so further court cases were necessary to decide for other smaller streams. The larger float streams were fine, but there have been cases that went both ways on some of the smaller streams. And as a practical matter, if you're on a smaller stream, it pretty much depends upon the outlook and beliefs of the sheriff and county prosecutor in the county where you happen to be floating. Some counties are more friendly to floaters, others are more friendly to influential landowners. But basically, if people float it regularly it's okay to float, if it's small enough that not many people float it, you're in that gray area.
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