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The Daily Memphian

Tennessee's trotline fishing decision delayed

By Keely Brewer,


Memphis native Brandon Archer drowned in the Buffalo River on Labor Day in 2019 when his leg got caught in a trotline and trapped him under the water. It was the day before his 22nd birthday.

Trotlines consist of a main fishing line covered with hooks set at regular intervals that fishers string across a body of water. They leave them unattended until they come back to gather their catch.

“When I saw my son, I remember the marks on his ankle from the trotline that was there,” Courtney Archer told the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission on Thursday.

With Archer’s death — and another near miss — some groups say Tennessee’s current regulations aren’t protective enough.

The commission wondered aloud how common trotline-related accidents are. There wasn’t a clear answer during Thursday’s meeting since the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency can only track-boating related incidents, meaning Archer’s swimming accident isn’t included in the total count of 69 accidents and 44 fatalities.

But Scott Fisher said one death is too many.

Fisher is a kayak instructor, and in May 2021, he was guiding students along the Nolichucky River when a trotline snagged one of their lifejackets. The student — who was certified as a swift water rescue instructor — managed to escape.

Fisher determined the line was a threat to other recreationists on the water and cut it, but a confrontation with the owner ensued, and he was charged for interfering with fishing. He was acquitted, but it fueled a campaign for more protective measures.

The commission’s discussion about the frequency of trotline-related accidents is a nonstarter for Fisher. He posed a scenario to the board: A speed limit has always been 65 mph along a particular stretch of road, but then a neighborhood is built. Do you wait until there’s a fatality — or in this case, a second or third — before you lower the speed limit?

“Part of leadership is being proactive,” Fisher said, especially because of the river’s increasing recreational activity, which has doubled nationally over the past four years.

Robin Pope is the director for recreational boating safety outreach for the Coast Guard Auxiliary. He’s also the father of David, the student who got caught in a trotline on the Nolichucky River during Fisher’s course.

Pope said his son escaped because of skill and good luck, but he said the commission shouldn’t rely on that to protect the public.

The judge from Fisher’s trial advised the fisherman to make his trotline more visible with floating markers and sink it deep, but Tennessee’s current regulation doesn’t require that, said Andrea White, regional chair of the American Canoe Association.

The American Canoe Association has heavily lobbied for trotline regulations that stack up to neighboring states. Its four-part proposal advocates for floating markers along all trotlines to increase visibility; setting lines parallel to the shore instead of across the water; requiring the lines to be at least three feet below the surface; and drafting an explicit statement that trotlines can’t be a hazard to public safety.

“I think that these things they’re asking for make good common sense,” Commissioner Monte Belew said.

The last part of the proposal is implied, but an explicit statement would be more protective, said Assistant District Attorney Daniel Roger. He’s held a fishing license for at least 25 years and said he doesn’t want to make life more difficult for fishers.

“The only cost to fisherman I’m proposing that’s in addition to what they would already have to do is the cost of the floating markers. Given the fact that we’ve lost (a life) in Tennessee due to trotlines, and there have been some very near misses in the recent past, that’s not a very high cost,” Roger said.

After much discussion, and despite a few commissioners’ requests to wait, the commission opted to approve a few different trotline regulations on the table, which required fishers to check their lines every 24 hours and limited their length to three-quarters across any body of water.

The commission will revisit trotline regulations at its next meetings on Jan. 12 and 13 in Dyersburg.

“We want to get it right,” Commissioner Jimmy Granbery said.

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