Public-Access, Navigable Stream Status Coming To A Head

Daryl Kirby | April 27, 2023

In three and half decades of making outdoor magazines in Georgia, I can’t remember the idea of a group of politicians getting together that has me more interested—and fearful—than a House of Representatives Study Committee that will be meeting this summer.

If you own land in Georgia with a stream or river flowing through your property, or if you like to slip the kayak down the riverbank under a bridge and sling Rooster Tails for whatever might bite in that thin water, pay very close attention to something called the House Study Committee on Fishing Access to Freshwater Resources. The issue is whether the public should have access to fish a waterway, and it could hinge on what comes out of that committee.

Public access and whether a waterway is navigable has always been a gray area, probably dictated more by traditional use than some standard that is clearly defined. It’s all coming to head because of that natural wonder of unique beauty called Yellow Jacket Shoals on the Flint River. Yellow Jacket Shoals was private, then it was kinda private, then it was public, and then the issue went to court and it became very clearly very private. For now…

So a law gets passed in the final moments of the legislative session that says any navigable stream in Georgia will be open to public fishing—and hunting. For sportsmen, that’s a great thing. For landowners, there are assurances that this new law only affects waterways that are currently ‘navigable,’ so nothing changes for them.

But there’s that group of legislators getting together, and there’s the possibility that out of that study committee could come a future state law that clearly defines what a navigable stream is in Georgia. What could go wrong? Well, for every action there’s a consequence. Let’s say the study committee decides to finally set a clear definition for a navigable waterway in Georgia, and next year it becomes law of the land. The consequences depend on how they define navigable. If it’s  whether a barge can float commerce, we’re about to lose access to most of every river and stream in Georgia. If navigable is whether a kayak can float it, you’re about to go to war with private landowners, whether they own part of a trout stream in the mountains or just some prime hunting property with a creek flowing through it. And do they measure navigable by average flow, low flow, periods of high water?

What could go wrong here?

I keep thinking about that time my dad and I were in the Mississippi Delta where he grew up and where I grew up hunting. When a river gets out of the banks there, the fields for as far as the eye can see look like an ocean… just endless water that’s usually and hopefully only a couple feet deep. We didn’t shoot any ducks that morning, as expected. Hard to attract ducks to a spot when literally tens of thousands of acres had new water. But we stood in waders against big hardwoods on the edge of a flooded bean field and watched decoys.

We first heard the boat running the river.. very common during duck season. What’s not common is then seeing a jonboat speeding across your flooded soybean field. When he saw our decoys, the boat turned and headed straight at us. These clowns obviously thought our dekes were ducks. Before they got too close, I stepped out where they could see me. They weren’t coming to say hello—they boogied it back to the river, and last we heard that outboard was singing its way south toward Greenwood.

These guys came off a clearly public and navigable river channel, but they decided since the river was out of its banks, they could just run across the flooded Delta like they owned it.

Now, obviously, that’s not the kind of public access that’s going to come out of a special House Committee that could decide what’s navigable in Georgia. There’s no way they are going to define any waterway as navigable—and maybe then open to public fishing and hunting—based on whether you can float a kayak during high-water flows, right?

On the other hand, there’s no way they’re going to say a waterway is only navigable if it can float a barge carrying bales of cotton, right?

Anyone else interested—maybe a bit fearful—of what comes out of a special House Committee meeting this summer? Gray areas and traditional use sounds pretty good.

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  1. pdupree on April 27, 2023 at 9:59 pm

    There are many public boat ramps on Georgia streams that are considered/recognized as “non-navigable” by US Army Corps of Engineers and the state. Most of these ramps were built by the state with state taxpayer dollars. A lot is at stake here and I hope that legislative committee makes the right decisions for the sportsmen and landowners. But, not everyone is gonna be happy after the smoke clears.

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