North Georgia property owners warn expanded public fishing would hurt fly-fishing industry


ATLANTA – Opening up privately held stretches of trout streams in North Georgia to public fishing would ruin a cottage industry vital to the region’s economy, a parade of waterfront property owners warned state lawmakers Thursday.

Many farmers along the Soquee River and other mostly narrow, shallow streams in the mountainous region operate fly-fishing guide businesses on the side. They use the income to help keep their farms in business rather than being forced to subdivide their lands and sell to developers.

“These waters are extremely sensitive to overfishing,” Emily Owenby, founder and operations coordinator at Noontootla Creek Farms in Blue Ridge, told members of a Georgia House study committee at a hearing in Clarkesville. “If we allow the public to access our streams, we will see immediate devastation. … You can’t promote a fishery that no longer exists.”

The study committee was formed this year after the General Assembly passed a bill on the last day of this year’s legislative session guaranteeing Georgians the right to fish on navigable portions of the state’s rivers and streams. The measure was in response to a lawsuit filed by a property owner along the Upper Flint River seeking to ban public fishing along his stretch of the river.

Some of the language both in Senate Bill 115 and the House resolution that created the study committee has waterfront property owners worried the state will seek to broaden the definition of “navigable” waterways to encompass privately held stretches of rivers and streams.

Mark Alley, who owns a farm in Habersham County that is split by the Soquee, said the river in no way should be considered navigable.

“We’re talking about a strip of land a few feet wide covered by a few inches of water,” he said.

Alley and other speakers Thursday said property owners along the Soquee and other trout streams in North Georgia spend thousands of dollars each year stocking fish and maintaining stream banks to sustain a trout population adequate to support a fly-fishing industry that draws tourists from around the world.

They said a state takeover of those privately held stretches of waterfront not only would kill their businesses but represent an unconstitutional taking of private property without compensation.

“Leave the Soquee alone,” Marty Simmons, who owns and operates a trout fishing venue along his Soquee River property, told the committee. “Let us take care of it.”

Committee members sought to assure the property owners who attended Thursday’s hearing that the legislature does not intend to expand public access to fishing by confiscating private property.

“There is not going to be a change to the definition of navigable waters,” said Rep. Will Wade, R-Dawsonville.

“The intention is to find clarity,” added House Majority Whip James Burchett, R-Waycross, the study committee’s chairman. “The property owners and fishermen all want to know, where can we fish and where can we not?”

The committee is scheduled to hold two more hearings this month and make final recommendations to the full House by Dec. 1.