Public fishing rights a thorny issue for General Assembly


ATLANTA – Legislation on fishing access Georgia lawmakers may take up during this winter’s legislative session will pit public interest against private property rights.

That was the takeaway message from the initial meeting this week of a House study committee on fishing rights created at the end of this year’s session.

The legislature passed a bill on the last day of the 2023 session guaranteeing Georgians the right to fish in navigable portions of the state’s rivers and streams. The measure came after a property owner along a stretch of the Flint River known as Yellow Jacket Shoals banned fishing from the bank on its side of the river.

The question before the study committee promises to be how to define what constitutes a navigable river or stream and what does not.

“The law can be a little blurry on navigable streams and the rights of adjoining landowners,” Scott Robinson, chief of fisheries management at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, told members of the study committee, who met Wednesday in the small town of Gay in Meriwether County near the Upper Flint River. “The determination of navigability can be difficult.”

Mike Worley, president and CEO of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, said public fishing rights are increasingly coming under threat in Georgia.

“In recent years, a growing number of landowners are seeking to limit the public’s access to our rivers and streams,” he said. “No fishing signs have popped up all over Georgia’s rivers. … The rivers belong to all of us, not just to those who own the land.”

Quint Rogers, a fishing guide who hosts clients on trips on the Upper Flint and Upper Ocmulgee rivers, said his business depends on public fishing rights.

“Open access to Georgia’s navigable waters is key to my business model,” he said.

But Ben Brewton, a lawyer who owns land along the Flint River, said his family’s property legally extends to the center of the river, not just to the low-water mark at the river’s edge. It was Brewton who filed the lawsuit that prompted the General Assembly to pass the fishing rights bill.

“The land out in the river is owned by us,” he said. “Every year, we get a tax bill from the county. If you’re going to take that away, that land is going to go off the tax rolls, economically impacting the county.”

Brewton warned there are other riverside landowners all over Georgia who wouldn’t take kindly to their properties being taken by the state. He predicted a rash of lawsuits likely would follow.

Shawn Lumsden, who also owns land along the Flint, said interlopers on privately owned land along the river have become a nuisance.

“We support the public’s right to fish,” he said. “[But] our family has had problems for years with poachers and trespassers. We’re concerned that opening up streams and tributaries will give non-law-abiding citizens a direct corridor into private property.”

The study committee plans to hold several additional meetings around the state this month before coming up with recommendations for the full House to consider.