The Fishing Line: Nonmeandered water issue has SD anglers asking, “What now?”

Here is an example of the sign posted by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department alerting anglers that public access points and boat ramps owned or managed by the department are closed until the State Legislature takes action.

By Spencer Neuharth

By now, even those living under a rock have heard about South Dakota’s nonmeandering water issues.

In summary, 25 lakes, most of which are in northeastern South Dakota, have had boat ramps come out and chains go in. The whole thing has been entirely odd, with vague wording from the state Supreme Court and “no comment” from the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department.

The ship has sailed on the state’s decision to sit on the sidelines for this, making it extra important for sportsmen to cautiously proceed and be informed. News on the issue changes daily, as far as potential special meetings and drafted bills, leaving everyone asking, “Now what?”

For starters, there’s the question of what is currently legal for landowners and sportsmen on the 25 listed lakes. Until the State Legislature meets again and makes a new ruling, the Supreme Court’s decision from March will trump all else. In that ruling, the court declared that neither outdoors enthusiasts nor private landowners have a superior right to the water.

“We’ve spoken with several attorneys and the GFP, and everyone has a different opinion of what it means,” Rich Widman, President of South Dakota Wildlife Federation, told the Brookings Register.

I’ve also reached out to people, specifically the folks who will be enforcing the ruling for the time being. In a 10-minute conversation on April 5, a deputy from Day County told me that all would remain status quo — that fishermen could use the listed lakes, as long as they used a public landing or a private landing with permission. He told me to check back with him the following day after a meeting with their state’s attorney, though, which I did.

On April 6, over the course of a 20-minute conversation, the same deputy told me the stance of the sheriff’s office had completely changed. Under the interpretation of the Day County state’s attorney, the water over private property was now private water. Fishermen could fish these areas with permission, but only over sections of land where they had permission. The same goes for landowners who can’t fish over neighboring water without acquiring permission first.

This whole matter is complicated by the fact that some lakes in Day County have dozens of owners. To effectively fish a listed lake, you’d need to sift through plat books and make endless phone calls and front door visits. Even shore fishing is off limits, I learned.

One would think that fishing from a public road, like those that cut through Reetz and Dry lakes, two popular nonmeandered fisheries, could give the public a loophole into fishing these lakes, but the deputy explained that the landowners own to the middle of the road. The public does, however, have the ability to fish within the first 11 yards from the center of the road. That’s hardly anything, though, as most casts reach beyond 33 feet, which then makes you a trespasser.

Basically, the public is shut out of these lakes, and so are landowners, besides the water that sits directly over their property.

That’s not final, of course, and a special legislative session as soon as this summer could change all of that. Making it even more odd, though, is that this is just the Day County sheriff’s office interpretation of the ruling. The deputy told me other counties may interpret the law differently and may enforce it differently, leaving it up to anglers to know how local law enforcement reads the ruling.

Although I haven’t heard of any arrests for trespassing on these lakes, the public should use caution and avoid using the bodies of water altogether, so as not to give our group of sportsmen a black eye during this access purgatory. You can, however, help the cause in other ways.

If you haven’t yet, show your support for access advocacy groups such as Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, who work tirelessly to help our cause as sportsmen. They’ve been through this song and dance in other states and understand the inner workings of these political battles to help the fight in ways that simpletons like me can’t.

Also, reach out to your legislators. Make a phone call, send an email or do both. They listen and will feel the weight of the state’s sportsmen when inboxes fill up.

Some public-access advocacy groups will have generic emails crafted for you, which are great to send, but it’s even better if you can draft your own version. Let them know how you’ve personally been affected and how that has affected others, like the businesses you’d normally have a beer at or buy a scoop of minnows from.

As it stands right now, no one is a winner — not the state, not the sportsmen, not the farmers and not the local business owners. Surely a ruling will side one way or the other by 2018, but until then, don’t hurt your own cause by fishing in an area you shouldn’t be. One walleye now isn’t worth every walleye for the generations that follow.

About the Author: Fishing columnist Spencer Neuharth is from Menno, S.D., studied biology at the University of South Dakota and worked as a fish biologist for five years. For more information go to