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GF&P agrees to seasonal Day County lake deal

PIERRE — Reetz Lake, a trophy fishery for walleyes and other game fish in Day County, could re-open very soon.

But paying $1,600 per month for public access, for at most May through September, was more than some anglers said they would swallow. Many also didn't like restrictions the Reetz family insisted be part of the one-year deal.

Anglers would be allowed to keep at most one walleye or sauger that must be at least 28 inches long; one yellow perch 14 inches or longer; one black crappie 15 inches or longer; and one bluegill at least 10 inches long. South Dakota's general fishing regulations otherwise apply.

Anglers can use the lake during the other seven months only with permission from a member of the Reetz family. State law prohibits the Reetzes from charging to use the lake.

With all of those complications, the state Game, Fish and Parks Commission voted 7-1 Wednesday to accept the arrangement.

"It's a winner for everybody to go forward with this," Chairman Barry Jensen of White River said.

Kevin Robling negotiated for the state Game, Fish and Parks Department. He said the next step is getting signatures from the two sides.

"Fishing is not open tomorrow on Reetz Lake," Robling said. "We will make sure to inform the public when that occurs."

Members of the Reetz family didn't attend the commission meeting.

They intend to donate the $8,000 to the Webster school district's sports program, according to Jensen and Robling.

The non-meandered lake was open to public use from 2001 through 2016. Robling said Wednesday the state Wildlife Division spent about $212,000 at the lake, including fish stockings in 2001 and 2002 that cost a total of about $4,200.

A state Supreme Court decision led to the commission closing public access on all non-meandered waters in 2017. Non-meandered waters are those that government surveyors during the territorial era decided weren't sufficiently wet enough to be officially designated as lakes.

Those decisions from nearly 150 years ago meant landowners could farm or graze or hay the areas when dry enough. It also meant landowners paid taxes on the land and lived with the prospect the areas would flood again, as many did in northeastern South Dakota in recent decades.

Last summer the Legislature passed a law in a special session that dealt with non-meandered waters of more than 40 acres. Lawmakers set a list of some non-meandered waters that must be re-opened but let landowners decide to open or close other non-meandered waters such as Reetz Lake. The commission received many dozens of comments from sportsmen criticizing the proposal to get Reetz Lake open again.

Chris Hesla, executive director for the influential South Dakota Wildlife Federation, opposed the deal Wednesday.

"The basic reason is the two different limits of fish," Hesla told commissioners.

Hesla said the restrictions would create two different classes of fishermen. "We don't believe in that," he said. Hesla also said he doesn't believe the lake was worth the $8,000 sought. He suggested the department remove the public facilities there.

"These fish regulations are social," Robling said. "They are not recommendations by biologists. I want to be very clear on that."

Among the state's past spending was a lease for $500 annually for the 16 years. Robling said the lake averaged about 4,000 angler-use days annually. He said the $500 lease equated to about $3.33 per angler-use day. He thanked the Reetz family for the recreational opportunity.

Robling described Reetz Lake as "one of our highest — it has a phenomenal fish population in it." He noted the one-walleye limit was in place for the 16 years at the Reetz family's request. Research found the one-walleye regulation helped maintain a high-quality walleye fishery, he said, calling it "a tool in our toolbox." The perch, crappie and bluegill limits were put in place by the landowners, according to Robling, while the special regulations that had been in place for bass will be removed.

Commissioner Mary Boyd of Yankton asked Robling to briefly outline the negotiations. Robling said there were five personal visits starting in March.

The maximum that he could give, without getting special approval, was $4,800. "We presented that offer and it was counter-offered," he said. The Reetzes wanted $2 per acre for 800 acres per month, for a total of $8,000 for five months.

He said the department wanted to let the public say whether the agreement should move forward. "We understand, there definitely are some concerns out there," Robling said. There are 140,000 resident anglers and 80,000 non-residents who buy fishing licenses in South Dakota. "That's a lot of folks who want to fish," he added.

Agreeing to five months wasn't easy. "It's hard for us to stomach that, as well. I'll say that. I'll say that," he repeated. He was "almost positive" the lake would be closed year-round to the public without the deal.

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