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WHO OWNS THIS RIVER?

    How can someone own a river? Well, in Georgia it is actually possible, at least according to the law. At Georgia River Fishing, I am often asked exactly what constitutes trespassing while floating or wading a stream. The laws and court decisions regarding angler and paddler right of passage on Georgia's rivers and streams can be confusing and contradictory. This is an effort to help clear up some of the confusion and offer a bit of common sense regarding the use of our moving waterways.

    Every so often, we hear stories of river fishermen being confronted by landowners accusing the fishermen of trespassing. Unfortunately, these confrontations are increasing in frequency as more and more rivers and streams become developed. Still, they are quite rare, especially since most anglers tend to be polite and well-behaved. Still, current Georgia law is rather unkind to river enthusiasts, and our state's water rights laws are among the most restrictive in the nation.

    A key point is whether or not the waterway is considered navigable. If it is considered navigable, floating or motoring through is permitted. If not, the landowner may refuse access. Unfortunately, the great majority of Georgia's rivers and streams are not considered navigable under Georgia law. A waterway is considered navigable if it is "capable of transporting boats loaded with freight in the regular course of trade either for a whole or a part of the year. The mere transporting of timber or the transporting of wood in small boats shall not make a stream navigable" (OCGA 44-8-5, 1863). Sections of streams that are affected by ocean tides are considered navigable. Basically, a section of river is considered navigable (and therefore floatable) only if it is capable of regularly handling barge traffic.

    So does this mean that only coastal anglers or those living near the Altamaha, Savannah, Coosa, and lower Chattahoochee can legally go fishing? What about the vast majority of us who want to fish nonnavigable streams? According to Georgia law, "The beds of nonnavigable streams belong to the owner of the adjacent land" (OCGA 44-8-2, 1863). This law also states that the owner's property rights extend to the midpoint of the stream.

    Now I realize that this sounds pretty bleak, but a careful reading of the statute will show that the landowner owns the stream bed, not the water flowing over it. Another reality that helps out fishermen is the fact that it is somewhat rare for both sides of a stream to be owned by the same person. In cases where the landowner owns property on both sides of the stream, courts have upheld the rights of property owners to restrict boat traffic and the taking of fish from their section of the stream, even in cases where fish in the stream were stocked at public expense. "If the riparian owner owns upon both sides of the stream, no one but himself may come within the limits of his land and take fish there and...his rights to the fishery are sole and exclusive" (Bosworth v Nelson, 170 Ga. 279, 286, 152 SE 575, 1930).

    Okay, so there's what the law says, and while Georgia law currently sides with landowners, the reality of the situation is that it is generally not worth worrying about. There have only been a couple instances of landowners denying boat passage in the history of the state, and only a few more of landowners running off fishermen in boats. 99.9% of landowners are reasonable people, and those that aren't usually don't own both sides of the river. In these cases, an angler can paddle over to the other side of the river and be within their legal rights to stay there all day as long as the adjacent landowner doesn't care (or is not present). The best thing to do in most cases, however is to wish the guy a nice day and move on. There is surely more pleasant water around the next bend.

    For anglers who prefer to wade, the law is a bit more restrictive, since wading puts the angler on the stream bed. Again, most of the time landowner's don't mind, but if they do, an angler can wade to the other side of the stream as long as that landowner doesn't own both sides. If the landowner does own both sides, you need to leave. While boating anglers almost never have problems with landowners, waders occasionally will, due to the fact that waders stay in an area much longer. For this reason, I generally try and wade areas that are out of sight from houses. Still, if a great looking wading spot happens to be right in front of someone's house, I usually wade it anyway. The few times I have actually encountered a landowner while wading, they almost always just wanted to talk fishing and often gave good advice on what the fish were biting. 

    One factor that makes river fishing so attractive is the lack of competition on the water. This is due in part to the scarcity of improved boat ramps, particularly in middle and northern Georgia. Dedicated river rats often launch boats at bridges, and we've received a few questions regarding access at public bridges. Normally, a public right of way exists 50 feet on either side of state highways, and individual counties have their own rules for county roads. Still, sometimes people's yards appear to extend all the way to the bridge and down to the river. In most cases, at least one side of the bridge is fairly undeveloped, and it is often evident (look for tire tracks or paths) which route is most often used to access the river. If you are unsure, knock on somebody's door and ask permission. Just don't do it at 5:30 in the morning!

    The bottom line is this: Fish where you want to. Be clean, quiet, and courteous. If a landowner doesn't want you there, then leave. There are surely many other good spots on the stream.

 
 

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