Attempts to overturn Montana's stream access law will not stop, and one day, anglers might be on the losing end. Enjoy it while you can.
I lived on the banks of the Gallatin River for three years and saw, on more than one occasion, naive and disrespectful anglers march across landowner's grass, sit on their furniture while pretending to be oblivious to their indiscretion. I've seen hordes of embarrassing anglers hike from one end of a private property to another, over and over and over on the Bitterroot. I was going to holler an apology to the pissed-off landowner on behalf of responsible fishermen, until I saw his silver pistol glisten in the sunlight - that was my cue to move on (see photo to the right).
In my experience, the myth of the gracious Montana ranch owner is true - they've been nothing but gregarious and warm, as long as you obey the rules and don't endanger their land or livestock. It makes me wonder if the angler who gets chewed out doesn't deserve it (most times).
Opponents of the stream access law claim it's jealousy and social warfare. Or, as in Utah, that it depreciated property values. But really, I think it's just that they don't want people on their property, which is understandable, but in Montana, folks have the right. Landowners ought not take it out on the angler - rather take it up with their legislative representatives.
Even President Obama has enjoyed the right. When he fished the East Gallatin River last summer (a river known to host its share of landowner v. fisherman conflicts), he didn't pay to fish a private stretch - he took advantage of his legal right.
Some burden to keep anglers honest is on the landowner, however. If there are not 50-square-inch orange signs posted, consent for access is implied (read it here), which can be verbally rescinded. But when you find yourself fishing a questionable place that is not posted, at least pick up some trash so if the landowner comes out and accuses you of trespass, you'll have a peace offering (to go with your defense).
So get after it - but be vigilant, respectful, law-abiding, and most of all, exercise common sense. We've got it pretty good in Montana, for now anyhow.