The Fishing Line: For better or worse, nonmeandered waters “compromise” is now permanent.

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Cables and padlocks, like the ones shown here blocking access to Reetz Lake in Day County, as well as red buoys and signs have taken the place of access and welcome signs on a few nonmeandered bodies of water across South Dakota. Photo by Andrew Johnson

By Spencer Neuharth

Well, this sucks. There’s no other way to put it. Sportsmen and women of South Dakota have been dealt blow after blow in the last couple of months, and the losses keep coming.

It started in early February, when Senate Bill 199 failed to make it off the Senate floor. SB 199 looked to establish a true middle ground between outdoorsmen and landowners, which would have ultimately helped give access to nonmeandered waters for hunting and fishing.

For the public, it recognized “recreation” as a beneficial use to lakes. For the landowners, it provided privacy zones around homes and livestock that would keep disturbances to a minimum. For both sides, it allowed due process before closing a body of water to the public.

The loss of SB 199 strengthened the footing of House Bill 1001, which passed in June 2017 during a special legislative session. HB 1001 was famously deemed the “Open Waters Compromise,” but gave landowners the ability to close thousands of acres of water with the placement of a sign. If by compromise the bill aimed to give all power to one side, then they perfected it.

After Gov. Daugaard made the bill permanent after less than a year into the four-year sunset, and summed up the matter with a deaf quote saying “we have finally brought certainty and found an answer that is working for landowners and sportsmen.”

According to the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department sales numbers from May 2017, the state sold 1,652 fewer nonresident and 958 fewer resident fishing licenses than the year before. In just five months, that’s a loss of over $137,000 in fishing license sales alone. That number doesn’t factor in the number of folks who might have stopped buying hunting licenses because of fewer waterfowling opportunities, as well.

The loss of revenue has reached beyond state government, with small businesses also reporting down years. Donna Bumann of Lake Preston said her motel’s business dropped 25 percent and her bait shop’s business dropped 50 percent last season. The South Dakota Retailers Association said several others echoed what Bumann was reporting, and it ultimately circles back to the state and means a loss of sales tax.

However, among all these tragedies are a few things that sportsmen need reminding of.

For starters, only about 5,000 acres of nonmeandered water have been closed as of this writing. That’s just 2 percent of what’s available, but it might not be indicative of what’s to come. Since HB 1001 has become permanent, the state and landowners now have the ability to negotiate with some clarity.

Kevin Robling, who has been put on special assignment by GFP, is attempting to bridge the gap between outdoorsmen and landowners. He’s been in discussions with farmers who have closed nonmeandered lakes, and he remains confident some of those waters will be reopened.

“They want the person to call them and ask for permission, and the vast majority of the time they’ll grant that,” Robling told The Daily Republic in an interview. “The other thing is they just want to be respected. They want people to pick up their garbage and respect them as far as not driving on their fields.”

Those are completely reasonable requests, but now that the ball is in the landowners’ court, it’ll be easy for even more sportsmen’s rights to quickly be stripped.

While no specifics were given to The Daily Republic in that interview, notes from a GFP update last November said that talks had been underway with landowners of Reetz, Long, Parks, Schiley and Duerre lakes. Initial meetings with landowners involved discussions of nonmotorized boats only, limited time frames when lakes would be open and special regulations to ensure a lasting fishery.

Hopefully some agreements can be made to open these waters again, even if some stipulations are put in place that resemble what Reetz Lake was just a few years ago. I don’t think anyone will have a problem with trophy regulations that allow for boating some of the biggest walleye or smallmouth bass in the state.

Don’t forget, though, that the government is trying to open up waters that they helped close. This would be like if someone took credit for putting out a forest fire that they started.

This process has also been a good reminder that sportsmen need to make it to the polls later this year. The nonmeandering water debate hasn’t been a partisan issue, with politicians on both sides of party lines casting yeas and nays.

Legiscan.com has comprehensive lists of where legislators have voted on different bills, and almost all candidates have some sort of ties to the matter.

Stay even more vigilant by joining a local conservation organization, such as the South Dakota Wildlife Federation or South Dakota Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Both have the public’s interest in mind and can offer helpful info on all things related to nonmeandered waters.

What’s at stake is just 244,000 acres of water.

About the Author: Fishing columnist Spencer Neuharth studied biology at the University of South Dakota and worked as a fish biologist for five years. For more information go to boofcommunications.com.