Chamberlain lures out-of-state anglers, reels in rewards
CHAMBERLAIN — On Wednesday afternoon, Mick Niles reeled his first walleye of the day onto Chamberlain's fishing pier.
The temperature never broke 50 degrees, but Niles, a 79-year-old Chamberlain resident, has braved colder days. He rigs his fishing line a couple times a week each winter just to spend a few hours by the water.
"I love being outdoors," Niles said. "We keep very few (fish). Some of our elderly friends, it's like handing them a brick of gold, handing them a fish."
The pier isn't Niles' usual fishing spot. He's waiting to take his boat out on the river, and with the last of the ice finally clearing, he could soon get his chance. And he won't be alone.
Niles was one of two people in sight fishing from shore Wednesday, but in coming weekends, the coast could swell with visitors, many from out of state, looking for an early spring walleye bite.
Ice has largely kept anglers away from the shore until this week, but boaters have already found a way into the current.
"I would say the last three weekends, we probably had at least 300, 400 boats in here," Niles said.
Starting in late winter, Niles said the water is busiest on weekends, when anglers from Iowa and Minnesota spend a few days in Chamberlain. In Minnesota, walleye season doesn't begin until May 13 on inland waters and Lake Superior, and it's closed until May 6 on Okoboji and Spirit Lakes in Iowa.
So out-of-staters come to South Dakota instead, where every day is walleye season.
Most walleye fishing is done in early morning and late evening, and hundreds of lantern-wielding anglers dotting the Missouri River banks makes for quite a sight, said Eric Weeman, another Chamberlain resident.
"It just glows sometimes. It's really pretty neat that way," Weeman said.
Weeman, owner of River City Fishing Tackle and Guide Service, said a basic rig and some minnows is all someone needs to have a successful trip. He said the fish travel a long distance to spawn in Lake Francis Case, and the people follow them, which he said has a huge impact on Chamberlain.
"I couldn't even put dollars to it," Weeman said. "If Chamberlain didn't have that, or just say we didn't have it for a couple years, the impact would really be felt."
Last Saturday, City Engineer Greg Powell said one of Chamberlain's two boat ramps was still frozen. He estimated 150 boats used the open ramp that day at American Creek Campground and said even more traveled to Fort Thompson to launch and travel downstream.
The campground ramp opened a few weeks ago, but cooler temperatures threatened to refreeze the boat launch, leading the city to take action.
"The wind came up Friday (a few weeks ago), the first day they were on the water, so every two hours, we would drive down to the boat ramp and drive our loader into the water and push the ice out so the boats could get back into the shore," said Powell.
The city even laid salt sand on the ramp to prevent freezing as anglers venture into early-morning waters.
Reeling in revenue
While anglers are arriving early in the year, Powell said this year has gotten off to slow start, as the 2016 fishing season started much earlier.
In January 2016, Chamberlain reeled in $9,681 from its third-penny bed, board and booze tax, which taxes restaurants, motels and alcohol and is used as an indicator for tourism. This January, the town earned only $6,809.
February collections, too, were lower this year. The town collected $5,929 this year compared to $6,119 in 2016, but Powell said that may have less to do with fishing and more to do with the poor agriculture economy.
"If we don't have our farmers and ranchers coming in and spending money at our restaurants and in the bars and whatnot, that affects our third-penny sales tax," Powell said.
Late winter is not the most important time of the year for tourism in Chamberlain, though. The bed, board and booze tax brought in more than $10,000 each month from June through December last year, peaking at more than $17,000 in September.
Hotels agreed. In a survey of four Chamberlain-Oacoma hotels, all said summer was their busiest time of the year, but they are still grateful for the early-season bump.
"The fishermen that we do get in, they're always a great group of guys to have in, and we try to do everything we can to be as accommodating to all they need, as far as offering cleaning stations and things they are in need of," said David Carver, a front desk associate at AmericInn Lodge and Suites in Chamberlain.
The hotels said room reservations this time of year are connected with the weather, and with possible snow in the forecast through Sunday night, this weekend could be slow for business.
But within the next month or so, Mark Gembara, a front desk clerk at Days Inn in Oacoma, said his hotel could be completely booked, and about a dozen boats were already parked at the hotel last weekend.
"Fishing picks up progressively during April and May," Gembara said. "It's an excitement, certainly, to see all these boats out here."
Despite lower tax revenue, some in town believe the late-winter tourism boost helps even more than summer and fall attractions, like pheasant hunting opener.
"Fishing is much better," said Patty Johnson, manager of the Bottle Shop, which sells bait, gas, alcohol and other items. "The hunters basically, some of them do come in, but most of them go to the lodges anymore, so they are provided with everything there."
The Bottle Shop, which Johnson said was the largest of about five bait providers in Chamberlain and Oacoma, gets a 20 to 30 percent boost in sales when the anglers arrive, Johnson estimated.
The rapid influx also requires some forward thinking. Local fishing guide Weeman only makes tackle and guides fishing trips, but was surprised when someone came to him last April or May looking for bait. He started calling bait shops around town and found minnows in very short supply.
"The bait dealer can't get here fast enough. The entire town, you could not buy one minnow," Weeman said, adding there is room for more bait shops.
Johnson said the Bottle Shop tries to always have bait available, but the city-wide shortage occurs about once a year.
Clint Soulek, owner and manager of Cruzer's Pit Stop, said he already ran out of minnows for one day this year when anglers took advantage of a burst of warm weather.
"We didn't expect that warm weather to come flying in, and when it did, you're stumbling to get your bait guy to get here as soon as possible," Soulek said.
During winter, Soulek buys about two gallons of minnows every couple weeks, but once March arrives, the bait supplier comes a couple times a week and leaves eight gallons of minnows on each trip.
Soulek estimated 90 percent of the anglers are from out-of-state, and beyond bait, they buy gas and food at his convenience store. He said the revenue generated is about equal to pheasant season opener, excluding the hunting licenses sold in the fall.
Enough for everyone?
Niles, who has lived in Chamberlain for 42 years, said the population of the 2,400-person town doubles on warm weekends in March and April. With thousands of lines in the water, Niles worries the heavy fishing pressure could hurt the walleye population, as many females have yet to lay their eggs.
South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks doesn't know how many individual walleye are in Lake Francis Case, but Chris Longhenry, a fisheries supervisor in Chamberlain, said angler success has fallen in the last four years. Anglers targeting walleye caught 1.3 walleye per hour in 2016, 1.7 walleye in 2015 and three per hour in 2014.
Still, the lake is well above the department's target of at least 0.3 walleye caught per hour, which it uses as a standard for a quality walleye fishery.
Longhenry said the decline could be caused by reduced water flow. The river's water level was unusually high in 2009 and 2010, and it flooded in 2011, he said. Walleye typically flourish when more water flows into the system, but the river has returned to average levels over the last four years.
GF&P continues to monitor the population, but Longhenry said stocking isn't a likely solution. He said an immense amount of fish would have to be released, which would prevent the department from releasing walleye in smaller bodies of water.
"A lot of people think stocking is the answer, but in a system this size, it would be difficult to stock enough to make a measurable impact," Longhenry said. "There would definitely be an impact to the distribution of walleyes across the state."
Despite lower populations, Longhenry said anglers are still showing up in big numbers. With the exception of 2010, when fishing pressure was low, anglers have spent between 450,000 and 650,000 hours fishing Lake Francis Case in each of the last 10 years, with 500,000 hours spent fishing in 2016.
And some are concerned about crowding. Steve Anderson, of Tea, traveled to Chamberlain to fish for the first time Wednesday, and he planned his trip in the middle of the week specifically to avoid the crowds.
"I try to stay away from people," Anderson said. "On weekends, I'll stay home, or else I've got a cabin at Okoboji (Iowa) and I'll go down there."
About 140 miles from home, Anderson decided to stay at a hotel in Chamberlain or Oacoma for one or two nights. A lifelong fisherman, he usually casts his line near Lower Brule, about 20 miles northwest of Chamberlain.
But on recommendation from his brother, he tried his luck from the Chamberlain shoreline. It's his first trip on open water for the year, and after catching two walleye in one morning, he plans on coming back.
"I like it. It's very good," Anderson said. "If the weather's like this next year, I'll probably come here first and then go to Lower Brule."
For those who live in Chamberlain, the crowds are no problem. Even with 5,000 people in town, Niles said there's room for everyone and something for everyone to enjoy.
"If you like peace and quiet, serenity, outdoors, wildlife, we have it all," Niles said.
Niles said the out-of-staters may not be as sociable as the locals, but he's happy to see them come to provide a much-needed economic boost. Chamberlain doesn't have a single, town-fueling industry, he said, but a lot of small things, like fishing, keep the town alive.
"If we didn't have tourism, and if we didn't have our wildlife, like ducks and geese and antelope and deer and fish, it might be a little bit slim pickings, but we have a lot of small things," Niles said. "If you like the outdoor sports, it's quite a good community to live in."