Debate over Flint River fishing rights leads to legislative action on rivers

The Flint River hosts a diversity of unique wildlife and has been the center of a fight over private property rights. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Updated on 3/27/24 at 4:26 p.m.

On a sunny, cold morning, the Flint River in Upson County, Georgia, is wide and shallow, coursing over rocks and branches. Allen Ragsdale, a fishing guide on the river, maneuvers his small boat deftly through the area he knows well — and is regarded as one of the best places in Georgia for shoal bass.

But Ragsdale says he doesn’t fish here anymore, nor does he guide fishing trips at the location. This pass of the river, Yellow Jacket Shoals, has become one of the state’s most controversial water stretches.

Property owners on both sides of Yellow Jacket have filed suit with Georgia, arguing they should be able to control access and activities on their property, including the riverbed of the Flint, which they own.

Primarily, the landowners say they are concerned about people fishing on their property. 

But the conflict over the shoals has spilled over into a statewide debate about where private property rights stop and where the public’s rights to fish begin.

Last year, the plaintiffs won one of the suits just before the end of the Georgia legislative session, kicking off a whirlwind of lawmakers seeking to clarify Georgians’ rights both to private property and the state’s natural resources. But threading that needle has proven difficult for legislators as they head into the end of the 2024 legislative session.

Allen Ragsdale, a fishing guide, avoids the Yellow Jacket Shoals portion of the Flint River because of the controversy surrounding the water and property rights. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

The Right to Fish

Once Ragsdale passes the shoals, the current slows. His oars creak as they row him through the placid water. 

“[Yellow Jacket Shoals] is just more aesthetically pleasing to fish in just because of the way it looks, you know what I’m saying?” he says. 

Large stretches of the Flint River are left untouched from human development. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

He says one particular fish here draws crowds: the shoal bass. Anglers say they are a coveted sport fish, and the Flint River is one of the only places in the world to find them. Shoalies live in the crags and eddies in rocky, fast currents, plenty of which are found in Flint’s wide areas. The Flint River was never dammed, and its ecology has lots to show for it: clear waters and a diversity of unique wildlife. Anglers say Yellow Jacket Shoals is one of its crown jewels.

Ragsdale argues that fishing groups are good stewards of the river, despite what he says some property owners allege. He says groups on the Flint River mostly practice catch-and-release; they’re not taking fish out of the river, which he says property owners claim they do.

Private property rights

Ben Brewton, along with his family, is one of the property owners who sued the state over activities at Yellow Jacket Shoals. His family – the first to file and win a suit at Yellow Jacket Shoals – has owned property along the shoals for 50 years, including the riverbed up to the halfway mark of the river. 

Like most folks, he says that his family let friends and neighbors fish and paddle on their Yellow Jacket property for years. But as the area got busier, his family was rankled by not just the traffic from more river users but by the monetization of fishing.

“What used to be something that was done for fun and recreation now had become several people’s livelihoods, many of whom are not even, you know, from Georgia,” Brewton says. “They’re fishing guides who come from out of state and bring people, and what they do is they charge people six to $800 a day to come down there and fish on property that, of course, we paid the property taxes on.”

Brewton says to him, it’s no different than people who own land and lease it out to hunt: It’s a property tax issue. 

By the time the family sued the state, the issue had already become beyond heated. According to the Georgia Department of Corrections, Brewton’s brother, Samuel Brewton, is serving a ten-year sentence for shooting a gun at a group of kayakers fishing Yellow Jacket Shoals.

Watching the issue grow into a statewide debate has been “surreal,” Brewton says, and following the legislature and its committees studying the topic has been a real-time civics lesson. 

The Brewtons do not want anglers fishing Yellow Jacket Shoals, but Brewton says he is OK with paddlers. Outside the scope of what legislators are deciding, Brewton is clear about the goals of his family’s settlement. 

“One of the things we demanded as part of the settlement was that the public’s rite of passage be completely unimpeded,” he says. “We insisted that the public be given the right to come through there to float, canoe, kayak. Our lawsuit was an issue about fishing.” 

Ben LeChance owns and operates Appalachian Outfitters outside of Dahlonega. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Impacts on the recreational community

The debate has been a major source of concern for people who live and work on the water. Ben LaChance owns and operates Appalachian Outfitters on the Chestatee and Etowah rivers outside Dahlonega, where he’s seen generations of customers and employees at his outfitter.

“Here we are facing the need to define, to be respectful to landowners, the paddling community, the outfitters,” LaChance says. “How you tie this all together with making everybody happy is beyond me.” 

LaChance and his wife have been running their seasonal paddling operation for decades. But they have a luxury that keeps them protected: his wife’s family owns the riverbed they operate on. They also have a partner in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; they lease their take-out location from the agency.  

Appalachian Outfitters on the Chestatee and Etowah rivers outside Dahlonega, has seen generations of customers and employees. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

LaChance says he’s grateful not to worry about his business, but he worries about outfitters on smaller waterways who might lose access – and, with that, their livelihoods.

Although the Brewtons are not opposed to people floating through their property, things at the Georgia capitol have become more complicated, asking who can float where and whether paddlers and fishers are allowed to touch the river’s bottom on private property.

Many in the outdoor and environmental community are concerned that the confusion will cause more disputes and that it will affect novice paddlers less familiar with the state’s waterways.

“You kind of wonder what’s going to happen in the next few years,” LaChance says. 

At the Gold Dome

While the Brewtons’ settlement lays out one image of private property rights versus fishing and paddling rights on Georgia rivers, the Georgia legislature has been working through several scenarios — but finding compromises hasn’t been easy. 

Right after the Brewtons’ lawsuit was settled last year, legislators quickly passed a bill to protect the rights of anglers in Georgia waters.

“That, in essence, restated what has always been the case: That the state owns the right to hunt and fish on all of these streams, regardless of who owns the bottom of the stream,” says Mike Worley, president and CEO of the Georgia Wildlife Federation. 

However, some private property owners bristled at what they considered to be overreaching legislation.

Legislators spent this past summer holding study committee sessions to learn about the issue with workshops across the state. This session, lawmakers introduced three separate bills tackling related questions. 

Two of those bills – one introduced in the House and the other in the Senate – are largely similar. However, the House version has drawn criticism from the paddling and fishing communities because it does not allow river users to touch the bottom of a river while passing through private property.

The third bill seeks to list all the rivers that can be categorized as “navigable,” in the state. 

“Navigable river,” an old term, technically refers to a river big and deep enough to float a boat weighted down with cargo. As some have pointed out, the definition doesn’t always fit well in the modern day.

Critics say it is unclear how that bill’s list was made since it is not based on water flow rate, river size, or other metrics. In a February 2024 committee hearing, the sponsor, Rep. James Burchett (R – Waycross), was asked about the list. He answered that he based it on the Georgia definition of a “navigable” river.

HB 1172 passed late in the evening on March 26. This bill is in response to legislation introduced in the Senate last year meant to protect the rights of anglers and paddlers on Georgia waters.

The bill also removes language referencing the “public trust doctrine” from last year’s legislation, which refers to the idea that the state holds public lands and natural resources — like rivers — in public trust for the people of Georgia.

Advocates of the bill say this legislation is a compromise between the outdoors community and private property owners. Still, opponents have an issue with the language in the bill that says river users can float but not touch the bottom of the riverbed on private property.

But even after this legislative session, the debate will likely not be settled. Rep. Lynn Smith (R- Newnan) is proposing another study committee. This one would look at navigable streams and smaller bodies of water.

Ragsdale, the fishing guide on the Flint River, says local disagreements about this small stretch of the river set off all of this drama.

“I want to say it’s about 500 yards on the longest section and way less than that on the other side”

But those 500 yards could end up changing how Georgians use rivers throughout the state.