‘Leave the Soque alone.’ Legislative committee gets an earful at hearing in Habersham

Opening up privately held stretches of trout streams in North Georgia to public fishing would ruin a cottage industry vital to the region’s economy, a parade of waterfront property owners warned state lawmakers in Clarkesville Thursday.

The Georgia Capitol Beat News Service reports many farmers along the Soque River and other mostly narrow, shallow streams in the region operate fly-fishing guide businesses on the side.

“These waters are extremely sensitive to overfishing,” Emily Owenby, founder and operations coordinator at Noontootla Creek Farms in Blue Ridge, told members of a Georgia House study committee. “If we allow the public to access our streams, we will see immediate devastation. … You can’t promote a fishery that no longer exists.”

The study committee was formed this year after the General Assembly passed a bill on the last day of this year’s legislative session guaranteeing Georgians the right to fish on navigable portions of the state’s rivers and streams. The measure was in response to a lawsuit filed by a property owner along the Upper Flint River seeking to ban public fishing along his stretch of the river.

Committee members were told that property owners along the Soque and other trout streams in North Georgia spend thousands of dollars each year stocking fish and maintaining stream banks to sustain a trout population adequate to support a fly-fishing industry that draws tourists from around the world.

“Leave the Soque alone,” Marty Simmons, who owns and operates a trout fishing venue along his Soque property, told the committee. “Let us take care of it.”

Committee members sought to assure those at the hearing that the legislature does not intend to expand public access to fishing by confiscating private property.

“There is not going to be a change to the definition of navigable waters,” said Rep. Will Wade, R-Dawsonville.

“The intention is to find clarity,” added House Majority Whip James Burchett, R-Waycross, the study committee’s chairman.

The committee has two more hearings planned and is to make its final recommendations by Dec. 1.