ATLANTA РThe General Assembly passed legislation this year guaranteeing Georgians the right to fish in the state’s navigable rivers and streams.

Now comes what promises to be the trickier question of deciding which rivers and streams are navigable and which are not.

“This is the harder one to figure out,” said Mike Worley, president and CEO of the Georgia Wildlife Federation.

A Georgia House study committee will begin tackling that task this summer and make recommendations to the full House – if any – by Dec. 1.

It will be chaired by Rep. Lynn Smith, R-Newnan, who also chairs the House Natural Resources & Environment Committee, and include Majority Whip James Burchett, R-Waycross, who chaired a study committee on the fishing rights issue last year and was chief sponsor of this year’s bill. Neither lawmaker could be reached this week to talk about the upcoming effort.

The study committee won’t be working from a blank slate. Burchett introduced legislation this year naming 64 rivers and creeks “presumed to be navigable.”

The list includes such no-brainers as the Altamaha, Chattahoochee, Flint, and Savannah rivers. But others that may or may not make the list aren’t so clear-cut.

“There are some well-known streams throughout the state that are going to be question marks,” Worley said.

Worley named the Toccoa River, Seventeen Mile Creek, and Ichawaynochaway Creek as examples. The Toccoa is on the list included in Burchett’s bill, but the other two are not.

“There is a lack of clarity over what’s navigable and what’s not,” said Gordon Rogers, executive director of the environmental advocacy organization Flint Riverkeeper. “We need to hash that out.”

Historically, Georgians have enjoyed the right to fish in the state’s navigable waters. But that right came into question early last year when a property owner along a portion of the Flint River asserted an exclusive right to control fishing from the bank on its side of the river to the center of the stream and banned fishing there.

Four Chimneys LLLP sued the state alleging failure to enforce the ban and won an agreement from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources in March of last year promising to enforce the ban. That agreement prompted the General Assembly to pass a bill on the final day of the 2023 legislative session codifying a public fishing rights guarantee into state law.

No sooner had the ink dried on that legislation when some waterfront property owners began objecting to language in the bill guaranteeing access to fishing on navigable waterways as a “public trust.”

After holding a series of hearings on the issue around the state last fall, Burchett introduced a fishing rights bill removing the public trust doctrine. The General Assembly passed House Bill 1172 in March primarily along party lines after minority Democrats complained it didn’t go far enough to protect fishing rights.

Although the bill won’t take effect until July 1, Worley said he’s already heard stories of people fishing being approached by property owners and told they can’t fish.

“I don’t think the language (in the bill) was clear enough,” he said. “There are going to be lawsuits.”

Rogers said he doesn’t fear the threat of litigation.

“I’m fishing where I’ve fished for decades and doing it the way I’ve been doing it for decades,” he said. “If a property owner wants to bring an action contrary to that, fine.”

Rogers praised Burchett’s efforts to get a bill that would satisfy both property owners and the state’s anglers.

But Rogers warned that the new study committee faces a difficult task when it comes to deciding which rivers and streams – or portions thereof – will be open to fishing and which won’t.

If it was easy, Burchett’s bill declaring dozens of waterways navigable would have passed this year. Instead, it died without even a committee vote.

“Whoever does that is going to run into a buzzsaw from both sides,” Rogers said. “There’s going to be people who say it’s not enough and people who say it’s too many.”