Supporters of a fish that mostly calls Georgia’s rivers home say they hope this will be the year they finally reel in a long-sought honor.
The shoal bass – more affectionally known as the shoalie – has been gaining in popularity among anglers who like a fish that will fight back. Most abundantly found in the Flint River, the speckled fish is known to travel long stretches free-flowing river and – as its name implies – prefers to stick to the shoals.
So when a group of high school kids proposed honoring the shoal bass as a way to promote the need for clean rivers, Rep. Debbie Buckner said she saw an opportunity to accomplish that while also boosting her community’s fishing credentials in rural Meriwether County. All while giving students a real-life civics lesson.
But those students, who have all graduated by now, ended up getting an education in the harsh realities of politics.
Lawmakers have resisted the call to designate the shoalie as Georgia’s official riverine sport fish for at least four years, and the proposal died in particularly dramatic fashion last session. The state Senate sliced the honor from a bill in the chaotic final hours of the last legislative day, sparking a chorus of boos in the House.
“We give millions away to big business and if we can’t name a fish for some of our entrepreneurial outdoorsmen that are trying to have small businesses, then that’s not quite fair,” Buckner said in an interview this month.
The proposal is back again this year, tucked inside a bill that brushes up the state’s hunting laws. The change wouldn’t disrespect the reigning state fish – the shoalie’s cousin, the large-mouth bass – and it wouldn’t come with any special state protections.
“We’re going to get that done,” Rep. Trey Rhodes, a Greensboro Republican who chairs the House Game, Fish and Parks Committee and who is the bill’s sponsor, said at a recent meeting.
The measure would need to pass the House during Thursday’s Crossover Day in order to have the clearest path to becoming law this year.
It competes on a long and busy day for the attention of lawmakers, who must also decide this year whether to name the pecan Georgia’s official state nut – er, drupe – and whether to crown the muscadine as the state’s top grape.
Mark Williams, commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources, says he sees the designation as a chance to tout the Flint River, which is one of just three dozen rivers in the country that flow unimpeded for more than 200 miles.
Williams said part of the appeal of the shoal bass is the chance to fly fish for it. And the growth of kayaking in Georgia has even more anglers out on the water these days in search of a shoalie. The fish species even has its own beer now, an IPA from Albany-based Pretoria Fields called “Shoalie.”
“That’s one of the biggest reasons people go to the Flint,” Williams said. “I just think you it will bring a little more notoriety to the Flint River having its No. 1 fish being designated by the state this way.”
Most recently, the Flint has found itself in the middle of a long-running interstate dispute over Georgia’s thirst for water that has gone all the way up the U.S. Supreme Court. The river flows through long stretches of farmland and woods before mixing with the Chattahoochee River to become Florida’s Apalachicola River.
“Sometimes you can’t go to north Georgia and fly fish for trout, but you may live in middle Georgia and have time to go to the Flint and fly fish for a shoalie,” Buckner said.