Paddler groups frustrated by lack of regulation by state wildlife agency

By: - December 2, 2022 6:00 am
Anchor and thin fishing line tied to a branch for an underwater trotline. (Getty Images)

Anchor and thin fishing line tied to a branch for an underwater trotline. (Getty Images)

Brandon Archer was canoeing down the Buffalo River with friends over Labor Day weekend three years ago, when he jumped out for a swim and tragically drowned.

Archer had become entangled in a trotline, an unmanned fishing line studded with hooks that stretched across the river. The MTSU football player died a day shy of his 22nd birthday.

“When they found him he was under 10 feet of water and they found trotline wrapped around his ankle,” Courtney Archer, Brandon’s mother, told members of the Tennessee Fish & Wildlife Commission Thursday. “When I saw my son I remember the marks in his ankle from the trotline that was there.”

Archer, a Memphis resident, was among those pleading before the commission for stronger state regulation and safeguards for trotline fishing, a traditional way of fishing – typically for catfish – that stretches back generations in some Tennessee families.

The commission oversees the work of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, a state entity that champions hunting and fishing, which funds – through license sales – much of its budget

TWRA has been resistant to legislative changes that would more strictly regulate trotline fishing, frustrating kayak guides, water safety experts and paddler advocacy groups, who told commissioners that the explosion of interest in river recreation since the pandemic has made potentially dangerous encounters between trotlines and outdoor enthusiasts inevitable.

Tensions between paddlers and anglers have already begun to erupt.

Last year in Unicoi County, the state’s top kayak safety expert spotted a student entangled in a trotline on the Nolichucky River near Erwin, Tenn.  Scott Fisher, executive director of the Nolichucky Outdoor Learning Institute, cut the line as the student worked to pry one of the line’s large fishing hooks from his life jacket. A confrontation with the line’s owner soon ensued.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has been resistant to legislative changes that would more strictly regulate trotline fishing, a method that utilizes unmanned fishing lines studded with hooks — that can snare kayakers, canoe paddlers and swimmers, sometimes with tragic results.

Fisher was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of violating the Hunter Protection Act, which outlaws interfering with lawful hunting and fishing. A county judge this year dismissed the charge, saying cases like Fisher’s did not have a place in his courtroom.

On Thursday, multiple kayaking, river safety experts and a U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary water safety expert also appeared before the commission to make the case for greater regulation of trotline fishing.

“We cannot allow a situation to continue where we have a regulation that is written in such a way that it literally allows one sportsman to create a lethal hazard for other sportsmen on purpose,” said Andrea White, southeast regional chair for the American Canoe Association.

White and others seeking more safety regulations have proposed that trotlines be restricted to running parallel to shorelines, instead of running perpendicular and across a stream or river. They also want rules requiring trotlines to be submerged at least three feet deep and contain floating markers — regulations that are identical to states that border Tennessee.

There is no reliable data on how often paddlers, swimmers or others run into trotlines. TWRA tracks only incidents related to boating: there have been 69 reported boating incidents investigated by TWRA—44 of them fatal — since 2011, according to data compiled by the agency’s staff. None of them involved trotlines.

Archer noted her son’s death wasn’t among the 69 tracked by TWRA. Her son was swimming, but not boating when ensnared by the trotline, she said, and TWRA did not investigate his death.

Fish and Wildlife Commissioners on Thursday ultimately approved regulations that require trotlines to be visibly marked, checked by their owners at least once every 24 hours and limited to stretch three-quarters of the way across a stream.

They will consider stronger regulations when the commission reconvenes in January.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.