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Big changes being considered for SD fishing

Some rule changes on South Dakota lakes to loosen fishing restrictions could be finalized Thursday, including on Lake Mitchell.

The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks Commission will meet Thursday and Friday in Deadwood for its regular meeting. The meeting begins at 1 p.m. Central time Thursday at the Cadillac Jack's SpringHill Suites in Deadwood, with the public hearing at 2 p.m., and the meeting continues through Friday.

The primary statewide change proposed is to eliminate possession limits and allowing for an unlimited domicile possession limit. The GF&P says in its narrative supporting the change that "possession limits do not have a biological impact on fish populations are difficult to enforce" and that "removing domicile possession limits would provide additional flexibility in how and when anglers keep and store fish."

"For several years now, we've been working at making regulations simpler across the state," said Todd St. Sauver, who works as GF&P's area fishery supervisor in Sioux Falls. "After many years of evaluation on many length limits across the state, we are just unable to identify any benefits that these regulations provide."

GF&P would define domicile generally as a person's established and permanent home, allowing storage of fish at home as people please. Another change would eliminate the 15-inch minimum requirement for largemouth and smallmouth bass, except on Lake Yankton and Burke Lake. The proposal also would eliminate the prohibition of harvesting bass between 14 and 18 inches, with at most one fish greater than 18 inches for almost all waters in the state.

"Black bass (largemouth and smallmouth bass) are not targeted by the majority of anglers and harvest of bass generally is very low compared with other game fish species," GF&P's official reasoning says. "Length restrictions have not been shown to have a biological impact on fish populations. Regulation removals would occur on 35 waters."

In addition, the Commission will consider approving a change to remove minimum size restrictions on Lake Mitchell and a number of other lakes for walleyes. Lake Mitchell and Firesteel Creek have had 15-inch minimums for walleyes, smallmouth and largemouth bass. The proposed change removes the 15-inch minimums on walleyes only. The removal of the minimums would run from Lake Mitchell and up Firesteel Creek to the 405th Avenue, or the Loomis Oil Road.

Generally, South Dakota lakes have a daily limit of four walleyes, allowing only one over 20 inches of a combination of sauger, saugeye and walleye. The possession limit has been eight.

St. Sauver said the decision comes after years of study, including looking at the annual fish population studies on Lake Mitchell.

"When you look at our long term dataset, before and after the regulations, we can't determine any significant improvements in walleye populations on the lake," he said.

St. Sauver said it's an issue that GF&P is finding across the state. He noted that in the northeast part of the state — on popular waters such as Waubay Lake, Bitter Lake and Lake Poinsett --

lake limits were harming those fisheries and protecting too many fish and growth was slowing down.

But Lake Mitchell is a different case, in that it generally has a self-sustaining, but low level population of walleyes.

"The population is so low, it's difficult to determine if it's a detriment one way or the other, and you can't always determine if stocking is helping or hurting," St. Sauver said. "But the public has made it clear that it feels it's necessary to preserve a degree of walleye fishing in the lake."

GF&P has continued to regularly stock Lake Mitchell with walleyes, with small fingerlings, including stocking at least 47,000 fingerlings annually three times in the last five years. This year, 47,040 fingerlings were stocked after 59,000 were placed in the lake in 2017. In each of the last four years, the stock purpose has been for maintenance, according to the GF&P's stocking report.

The state is also considering similar minimum removals from Clear Lake, Roy Lake (Marshall County), Pickerel Lake and Lake Enemy Swim (both in Day County), and Richmond Lake and Elm Lake (Brown County). In both instances of the rule changes, lakes with ongoing evaluations taking place would have their rules remain in place.

Also up for changes this week are liberalized fishing rules, which officials say have not been used in years because they're no longer effective. St. Sauver said those rules have allowed anglers to harvest fish that might otherwise be lost to winterkill, while taking into account low oxygen levels and water depth.

"The Catch-22 is that by the time the lake would satisfy the criteria, the fish were in the process of dying or already dead," he said. "The anglers didn't really get a chance at them either way."

St. Sauver cautioned that no regulation or decision is irreversible, noting that if population habits were to get worse, GF&P could consider putting the regulations back on. But overall, he believes the changes are for the best.

"We really feel, on a statewide basis, we need to get rid of regulations that we can't show that have a benefit," he said.

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