Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

Breaking News for

Sportsmen Since 1967

By Tori J. McCormick

Denny Palmer knows South Dakota’s Lake Oahe, the jumbo-sized
Missouri River reservoir, as well as any angler who has wet a line
in the system.

Over the years, Palmer, who makes his living as a fishing guide
and motel owner, has been one of the river’s most vocal advocates,
whether it’s fighting for a protective slot limit on walleyes or
voicing his opinion on the current imbroglio between the state and
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“It comes down to how the river is going to managed,” said
Palmer of Mobridge, the small river town about 75 miles north of
Pierre. “It’s either for the barge industry or for the recreation
industry.”

Last week, the state of South Dakota filed a lawsuit in federal
court against the Corps to hold water levels stable for at least
three weeks to protect spawning rainbow smelt and walleye.

The Corps, in turn, agreed to hold water levels stable until
District Judge Charles Kornmann of Aberdeen rules. (Outdoor News
went to press before Wednesday’s hearing on the subject).

If the ruling goes against the state, which many observers
believe it will, a promising smelt run will likely be lost,
heightening tensions between Lake Oahe’s recreational interests and
the Corps’ water-level management plan that was established for
commercial navigation.

Indeed, fishing guides, resort owners, and anglers on Lake Oahe
have complained about falling water levels at a time when fish,
particularly rainbow smelt and the walleyes that rely on the
non-native species for food, are spawning.

“This is really a golden, if unexpected, opportunity to get the
smelt population back at levels seen before the crash,” Palmer
said. “It would be a real shame if they weren’t allowed to spawn.
We’re only asking for three weeks.”

Since about 1996, the Lake Oahe rainbow smelt population has
seen a massive decline. The reason, ironically, is that there are
too many walleyes in the system, which has caused a significant
predatory-prey imbalance.

“When smelt were abundant, prior to 1996, Lake Oahe was a haven
for football-sized walleyes,” said Wayne Nelson-Stastny, GF&P
Fisheries biologist in Pierre.

“Now we have a situation where we have to get the predator-prey
balance back in line, in order to grow some larger fish. And to get
larger fish, we need a healthy smelt population.”

According to Stastny, anglers already have done their part. Last
year, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission authorized
increased bag limits (from four to 14 walleyes) and possession
limits (from 8 to 42 walleyes).

Anglers from across the Midwest, buoyed by cheap nonresident
licenses, traveled to Lake Oahe to fish. And they got what they
came for: Walleye catch rates were excellent, and biologists agree
that Lake Oahe is poised for yet another excellent season.

“It’s not a question as to whether the bite has been good,”
Palmer said. “It’s been great. The question is whether we can grow
some bigger fish.”

According to the GF&P, state lawyers will argue that the
water levels on Oahe should be maintained at their current level
through May 22 to give rainbow smelt, not to mention walleyes, a
chance to lay their eggs and hatch.

That cannot happen, say state fisheries biologists, if water
levels in Lake Oahe are reduced, exposing eggs to air, preventing
them from hatching.

“Losing a year-class of walleye and smelt will have a
devastating effect,” Palmer said.

“We have a good chance to get the food base back to normal, but
if water levels are dropped, the future won’t be good. We’ll have
some good fishing this year, but without a smelt spawn, future
fishing on Lake Oahe will go downhill. That will affect business
here and all around. People that come from Minnesota and Nebraska
and other places won’t be stopping in South Dakota to get gas or
food. They’ll be going somewhere else.”

Said biologist Nelson-Stastny: “The eggs, which are laid in
water as deep as six inches and as shallow as one-quarter inch,
will be left high and dry.”

However, Corps officials say water levels already are well below
normal, due to a lake of spring runoff, therefore water releases
are needed to accommodate the $6.9-million barge industry that runs
below Sioux City, Iowa.

All of this puts the tiny baitfish at the center of a legal
battle that goes back more than a decade. The fight centers on the
Corps’ Master Water Control Manual, which was written in 1944 and
created to ensure proper water levels for the barge industry. At
that time, recreation wasn’t even taken into consideration, say
state officials.

The manual’s last revision came in 1979, and critics say it
favors interests such as navigation at the expense of recreation,
fish and wildlife. “It’s the feeling here the manual is out of
date,” Palmer said.

To address those concerns, the Corps has been working on a
rewrite of the manual since 1989. The process, which has been
extraordinarily contentious and time consuming, was given a kick
start in the fall of 2000 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
said river management changes were needed to protect endangered and
threatened fish and bird species.

According to state officials, the Corps must have a new master
manual in place by 2003 to comply with the endangered species
regulations. The agency will likely release the revision by the end
of May, say state officials.

Before the current lawsuit was filed by the state, Corps
officials said that the revision, whatever its form, will likely be
legally contested by recreational river interests. But the state
filing a lawsuit last week in effect beat them to the punch,
leaving many Missouri River businesses from motel operators to bait
shop owners waiting for a more fish friendly decision.

Said Palmer: “I think the lawsuit came too late in the game this
year,” he said. “We will have to wait and see. The only thing I
know is that outdoor recreation pumps about $20 million into the
region. That’s has to mean something.”

Tori J. McCormick is a freelance outdoors writer living in Red
Wing. He can be reached at torimccormick@juno.com.

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