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Popular fishing spots along GA rivers could soon be off-limits

There are not many things Georgians like more than fishing.

So, when angler Marshall Stamps posted a video of being told he was not allowed to fish along a stretch of the Flint River, people paid attention.

“He saw me out in the water. He quickly waded out and grabbed my kayak, held me in place, and informed me that I was not allowed to fish in the area, that it was private property, and it was posted,” Stamps said.

Mike Smith is the man in the video. He leases the land along Yellow Jacket Shoals. He told Stamps that he could float through the area, but fishing was not allowed.

Stamps told Channel 2′s Bryan Mims that his initial reaction was disbelief.

“I’m on a public river. There’s a public access sign right behind me,” Stamps said.

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However, according to a lawsuit settled last year with the state and landowner, that area is not public to fish.

The settlement agreement that was entered into contains the language that the plaintiff, which is the landowner, is the sole owner in fee simple title to the river property and the plaintiff as the sole and exclusive right to control fishing on the river property,” Smith said.

That title dates to a land grant from 1863. Beginning that year, the state limited property to the water’s edge. The settlement granted the landowner exclusive rights to fishing from the riverbank to the middle of the river.

Now, “no fishing” signs hang from the trees.

Gordan Rogers is the executive director of the Flint Riverkeeper. He told Mims that the entire situation is absurd. He believes all rivers should belong to the people.

“I understand that those landowners are passionate about it, and they’re not trying necessarily to influence policy for the whole state, but they opened a can of worms,” Rogers said.

Stamps is worried about the impact on future generations of river users.

“It could be a stepping stone to more public areas and more things going private and not accessible to the public,” he said.

Smith disagrees.

“This does not in any way impede people from floating through and enjoying these shoals. This is all about fishing, nothing else,” he said.

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Soon after the lawsuit, state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 115. The law affirms the public’s right to fish, hunt, and travel the state’s navigable streams.

Deciding what is navigable and what is not is tricky.

Since the 19th Century, the state has defined navigable streams as those capable of carrying boats hauling freight.

April Lipscomb is a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. She said there is very little case law interpreting what a navigable stream means.

“So, if you ask most people, they would say, well, if you can float a boat down, it’s navigable, right? not necessarily, because we have to make things complicated with legal definitions,” Lipscomb said.

Republican State Rep. James Burchett wants to clear up the murky definition.

If a stretch of water is not deemed navigable, a landowner can claim exclusive rights to the center of the waterway.

A landowner who owns both sides can claim the entire area.

“We’ve been working on this non-navigable, navigable issue for two years now with the general assembly,” Burchett said.

He said there needs to be map that clearly defines where people can be.

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Justin Pearson owns land along the Satilla River in South Georgia. When the river floods, he told Channel 2 boaters sometimes venture onto his underwater property.

He thinks this legislation will help river users better understand what is private, and what is not.

“Maybe they’re thinking just because the river is this high, we can just cruise around wherever we like,” Pearson said.

Stamps thinks clarification cannot come soon enough.

“The game wardens told me one thing. I’ve had legal representatives tell me another. So, myself and other anglers, we’re just really now sure of what the law actually is,” he said.

The state legislature passed yet another bill this year guaranteeing citizens’ right to hunt and fish on the state’s navigable streams. But river advocates say it doesn’t go far enough to protect public access.

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