Packing up the Rapalas for the trip to Pierre, where scant-hope fishing and a hunting-license fight were waiting

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Three Rapalas and a mini jig hanging out in the basement

“Just hangin’ around, not doin’ nuttin.”

If you’re about my age, you might remember that oft-repeated status report from Crazy Guggenheim, the inebriated friend of Joe the Bar Tender on the Jackie Gleason Show.

It also describes the real-life status of my Rapalas down in the basement over the last, oh, 10 years or so.

I used to fish Raps all the time, especially when I lived in Pierre and liked to fling the slender, hooked minnow imitations into the fast water below Oahe Dam, hoping for a walleye.

But over the years I’ve switch mostly to lead-head jigs with plastic twister tails, when I’m not flailing over likely trout water with a willowy rod and a delicately designed fly slightly bigger than a grain of rice.

The old Raps — some them weighted with crudely inserted lead pieces to be neutrally buoyant — don’t see much action. So they’ve just been hangin’ around at different spots downstairs, not doin’ nuttin for far too long.

I had something different in mind for them today, as part of a Monday morning travel plan that would have taken me to Pierre for my first working visit to the South Dakota Capitol since, oh, maybe early in January of 2012. That’s when I showed up at the Capitol for the Rapid City Journal to cover Bill Janklow’s memorial service.

The long-slumbering Rapalas were going to join me on the trip today, along with a spinning outfit and just a hint of hope. Because this time of year, a hint of hope is about all a guy could realistically have when pitching Raps below Oahe.

But we’ll talk more about my walleye worries in a minute.

The professional part of the trip was to refresh my relationship with legislative coverage and put some new faces to some new names. Also I was hoping that HB 1094 would make a working appearance on the floor of the state House of Representatives. That’s the bill that allows certain property owners to transfer a limited number of special — those available to landowners only — big game licenses to certain hunters, possibly for a fairly hefty fee.

It turns out it did make it to the floor, and got voted down -- hard. That is likely to end debate on this issue for this legislative session. But it won't make the issue go away.

If you’re like the majority of South Dakotans, you haven’t paid all that much attention to the fight over the transfer of big-game licenses. But it’s been around for along time. And it’s a fuss that will raise the collective blood pressure of resident hunters in South Dakota, regardless of how it’s presented.

“I know they’re trying to make it palatable,” House Democratic leader Spencer Hawley of Brookings said by phone on Sunday. “But just the fact that it’s a transfer of tags is where the battle will be.”

And always has been. Hawley knows that perhaps better than most legislators, because he is also a former member of the state Game, Fish & Parks Commission. That board of citizens appointed by the governor oversees the professionals in the Game, Fish & Parks Department.

Hawley was appointed in 2003, and the transfer of big-game tags was hot then, and prior to that, just as it’s hot now.

“This is an issue that comes up every year,” Hawley says. “And it has come up every year since I was on the GF&P Commission. It’s nothing new, and sportsmen are against it. That’s been our stance in South Dakota — no transferrable tags.”

The concern expressed by Hawley, by the ever-vigilant South Dakota Wildlife Federation, by its Camouflage Coalition and by GF&P officials is that allowing landowners who qualify for special landowner licenses to transfer them would mean putting at least some of those tags up for sale. And that is perceived as another win by commercial interests and another loss by regular hunters, most of whom won’t or can’t pay hundreds and more likely thousands of dollars to shoot a big buck.

It also removes some management control from GF&P and gives it to the landowners, which doesn’t thrill GF&P folks or their sportsmen friends much, either.

But there’s another side, of course. And this year it was presented by a what turned out to be a relatively small collective of lawmakers led by Republican state Rep. Elizabeth May of Kyle in the House and state Sen. Billie Sutton of Burke in the Senate. Sutton is a rancher, investment banker and Hawley’s Democratic Party counterpart in the Senate.

But the two Democratic leaders parted ways on this issue, which tends to cut, with some exceptions, more on urban-rural rather than Democratic-Republican lines.

Sutton said on Sunday that he was representing the wishes of a number of landowners from farm/ranch country who feel like their property offers food and shelter for deer herds — sometimes at a cost of lost livestock feed and crops —without much in return financially.

It’s not like having pheasants on your place, after all. People willing to pay to hunt the popular state bird simply go buy a pheasant license, make a deal with the landowner and open fire. The state doesn’t restrict the number of pheasant licenses sold.

Not so with big game, including deer. Licenses are allocated by number and type — some allowing bucks, some only does, some both — according to established hunting units across the state. Buck licenses in good units are in especially high demand. And a competitive drawing system means that some hunters with the means and will to pay don’t draw permits.

In the past, some West River landowners and their hunters have gotten in legal trouble for unauthorized use of landowner permits by paying hunters. Those situations might include a landowner putting a tag on a buck shot by a hunter who didn’t have a tag.

The ill will from legal and political battles coming off such law-enforcement actions still lingers in western South Dakota. And it still hurts the relationship between GF&P and the ranch community in certain areas. GF&P tries to help through special deer-reduction hunts in areas with troublesome herds and programs that offer protective fencing, payments for walk-in public hunting access and other assistance for landowners.

It never settles the issue.

Sutton said 1094 was carefully designed to respond to landowner desires without destroying the hunting culture.

“I know there are unintended consequences in transfers,” he said. “And we’re trying to avoid fostering that big-buck, big-pay situation. The constituents I talked to felt like they just wanted the option of transferring  licenses that they were already getting.”

To avoid at least some divisive battle points, HB1094 was changed to limit the transfer of licenses only to South Dakota resident hunters. Original language included non-residents, another sore spot to resident hunters.

And while landowners with 160 acres may qualify for the special licenses, the bill stipulated that only those with at least 640 acres could transfer their licenses. It would have also allowed just two licenses in any immediate family to be transferred.

Elizabeth May, a rancher and business owner who was prime sponsor of 1094, also suggested amendments to lower the required minimum age of recipients of the transferred licenses from 18 to 12. The idea of helping young hunters plays well to everyone, although Hawley points out that young hunters already have special seasons and mentored hunts.

Another change May liked would say the landowner could not charge more for the license to be transferred than he paid to the state to get it.

“I think that maybe addresses the big-pay concern a bit,” Sutton says. “But of course who is going to police that? I understand that concern.”

It’s unclear if that requirement would have allowed a separate access fee to private property, beyond the direct payment for the license itself. Which was one of many hard rubs in the bill, Hawley says, in spite of well-intended efforts to soften it.

“If you limit the cost of the tag, landowners could still charge $3,000 or $4,000 or $5,000 for someone to go hunting through that access fee,” Hawley said. “And that’s what sportsmen are worried about. Once we go down that road, where does it stop?”

He fears it stops with fewer opportunities to hunt for those with limited financial means, and a continued erosion of the hunting tradition in South Dakota — where private land holds most of the wildlife and most of the hunting opportunities.

“In other states that have this (transferrable licenses), a large majority of the land is public access,” Hawley says. “In South Dakota, 95 percent is private.”

And it’s true that in the best parts of South Dakota pheasant country, much of the private land that was once open to public access with a knock on the door or a friendly phone call is now tied up in commercial-hunting operations.

That means fewer opportunities for non-paying hunters but also a better financial picture for many participating landowners. Sutton is especially sympathetic to that, and wonders why landowners with good deer numbers shouldn't benefit in a similar way.

“With ag kind of struggling right now, my intent for some of these landowners with big-game populations to be able to make a small amount of money, and maybe help them get by,” he says. “I sure hear the frustration from landowners who feed the wildlife all year and then really can’t get much back on it.”

Hawley has sympathy for those landowners, too, but not enough to support a move that he thinks would have grave impacts on the future of hunting in South Dakota.

“The transfer of licenses just creates a bunch more access problems for our hunters,” he says.

So he and other opponents took aim on the latest of a long line of transfer bills. And eventually they blasted it, as they always seem to do.

HB 1094 had passed the House Ag & Natural Resources Committee, which is typically sensitive to farm and ranch concerns, on Jan. 31 by a 7-6 vote. It was then deferred from debate and a vote on the House floor three times, as sponsors worked on amendments aimed at lowering the blood-pressure of opponents and making the bill more likely to pass.

It didn't. And the bill went down on a 52-16 vote this afternoon. That margin doesn't seem to leave much practical hope for a rivival attempt.

So what’s all that got to do with my Missouri River fishing plans and my not doin’ nuttin Rapalas? Well, not much today. I changed my travel plans when I noticed the forecast in the Pierre area had been downgraded from highs in the 40s to a high closer to 25 or 30.

That’s about all it takes for a semi-retired newshound to change plans.

But it could hit the 40s by Thursday or Friday. So I could still make it to the Legislature this week to snoop around on other bills, and give those Raps a workout.

A guy’s got to have his priorities straight.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.