A test case is cast on Wolf By Tom Charlier Contact February 6, 2006 MOSCOW, Tenn. -- It was supposed to have been a relaxing fishing trip on the Wolf River, but all Bob Alkema came away with was one little crappie and one trophy-sized headache. Returning to the public boat ramp from which they'd launched last spring, Alkema and his son found a state wildlife officer and private landowner waiting for them. They received a citation for fishing without permission on the owner's property. Alkema says he was stunned. "When you're on the water, nobody owns the water," the Collierville resident said. Turns out, that isn't necessarily so. In a property-rights battle that could have statewide implications, a former Memphis businessman has been prosecuting boaters who fish in a swath of Wolf River backwater within his property lines. Following a series of citations last spring, three more cases go to court this week. The issue is attracting wide attention because it centers on a chronically flooded area adjacent to the Ghost River State Natural Area and Wolf River Wildlife Management Area -- two scenic and bountiful sites popular among Memphis-area canoeists and other outdoor enthusiasts. It is accessible by public boat ramps both upstream and downstream. "This is a much broader issue than just one little spot on the Wolf River," said W. David Smith, secretary-treasurer of the Fayette County Rod & Gun Club, whose members have been among those ticketed. Statewide groups have taken notice, as well. "We have great concern that in a public waterway, a private landowner can restrict access to a public resource, such as a fishery," said Mike Butler, executive director of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation. The landowner prosecuting the trespassers is Bobby Pidgeon, former president of the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. operation in Memphis that his family owned for generations. Property records show he and his trust own seven tracts in the area totaling nearly 1,900 acres and appraised at $3.93 million. Along a stretch of the Wolf between Moscow and LaGrange, Tenn., less than 50 miles east of Memphis, Pidgeon has posted his property line with blue paint on trees and orange signs reading "Posted and Patrolled." Pidgeon's property line extends to the river's original north bank. But in the years since the tract was laid out, sediment pouring in from tributaries has clogged the Wolf, transforming it into a broad swamp reminiscent of the Okefenokee. Pidgeon's property encompasses about 144 acres of water along the north side of the river. Efforts to contact Pidgeon were unsuccessful, but his attorney, Scott F. May, said no one has the right to fish within his client's property without permission. "It's his property. He pays taxes on it," May said. "He doesn't see any reason why someone should go on his property without his permission." That's especially true given that the state natural area and state wildlife area lie adjacent to Pidgeon's property, he said. "There's 6,000-7,000 acres of state land that wraps around Mr. Pidgeon's land," May said. "It's not like the public doesn't have anyplace to go." The issue pits riparian rights -- the claims of a landowner along a stream -- against the rights of the public to use a waterway. Tennessee law divides navigable waterways into two main categories. Streams large enough to convey commerce upstream and downstream during normal water levels are considered navigable in the legal or technical sense. Along those waterways, the stream and its bed are held in trust for the public by the state. But along waterways that are navigable in the ordinary or common sense -- meaning they can float boats but not commercial vessels -- the riparian landowners own the bed to the center line of the stream. However, the public has an easement to navigate the waterway. Neither the property owner nor the waterway users should "unreasonably interfere with" or obstruct one another, court rulings have held. In a 1980 opinion dealing with another Tennessee stream, then-state Atty. Gen. William M. Leech Jr. said that along any navigable waterway, adjoining property owners "may not impede commerce or prohibit reasonable public use of the waterway." May said that even though Pidgeon could claim ownership to the centerline of the Wolf, the boaters he's prosecuted have ventured 100-250 yards off the main channel into his acreage. Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officials, who issue the citations, say fishermen have no right to use Pidgeon's acreage. "If they get off the WMA (state wildlife management area) and onto his property, even though it's under water, they're fishing without permission," said Ronnie Shannon, the agency's area law-enforcement supervisor. Fayette County General Sessions Judge William Rhea ruled last June that the fishermen charged in the case were "well beyond the questionable area" and on Pidgeon's property. Fishing without permission is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $50, or up to 30 days in jail, or both. Rhea dismissed the initial cases, in part, because Pidgeon at that time hadn't adequately posted his property. But he warned fishermen they need to "steer clear" of the owner's property. "There's an abundance of other places to fish right along this area," Rhea noted. Smith, however, said that interpretation of the law would allow property owners along other Tennessee streams to prohibit trout fishermen from wading in front of their land. Alkema, one of those whose case was dismissed, can't understand the prosecutions. "This is the only place in the United States that I've heard that you could not stay on water that you accessed publicly," he said.