Fishing tournament bill sparks interest from proponents and opponents in North Dakota Legislature
HB 1538 would establish in Century Code the fee structure and policies for holding fishing contests in North Dakota, whether they be professional events or local charity fundraisers.
Politics has never been Geremy Olson’s aspiration, but the Washburn, North Dakota, fishing enthusiast has found himself immersed in the process during the current session of the North Dakota Legislature.
Olson played a key role in persuading state lawmakers to introduce HB 1538, a bill that would establish in Century Code the fee structure and policies for holding fishing contests in North Dakota, whether they be professional events such as the Bass Pro Shops/Cabela’s National Walleye Tour, local charity fundraisers for volunteer fire departments and other nonprofits or youth fishing events.
Tournament fees and requirements would then be set in state law rather than through the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s administrative rule process.
HB 1538, which passed the House by an overwhelming 90-2 vote and now awaits action in the Senate, is among the most prominent outdoors bills before North Dakota lawmakers this legislative session.
The bill in its current form would eliminate the 10% “conservation project fee” the Game and Fish Department currently requires for fishing tournament organizers and replace it with a permit fee not to exceed $2,500 or, in the case of nonprofit groups, $75. The bill also removes payback requirements for charity fundraiser tournaments that Olson and other bill proponents say are too restrictive.
The permit fees would go to the Game and Fish Department.
“I’m new to this political process,” said Olson, a first-responder who owns a sound, video and lighting production company in Washburn and has helped organize charity tournaments and other fishing events in both North Dakota and Minnesota. “I’ve been working on trying to get some of these rules changed for over 12 years.”
To understand why Olson and other proponents of HB 1538 feel the legislation is necessary requires a quick lesson in North Dakota fishing tournament history. Since 1984, the Game and Fish Department has required fishing tournament organizers to pay the conservation project fee – 10% of entry fee proceeds – to hold a contest. Funds from the conservation fee then go toward fisheries projects such as boating access and other infrastructure.
Since 2010, the conservation fee has generated slightly more than $1 million, all of which goes back to North Dakota fisheries resources, according to Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.
“Boat ramps, courtesy docks, fish cleaning stations and other infrastructure have been enhanced considerably over four decades using tournament conservation fees,” Power said in written testimony opposing the bill. “In addition to boat ramp infrastructure, tournament monies have been used for youth fishing and education events.”
Beginning in 2000, a change to the administrative rule capped the 10% conservation fee at $5,000, but the Game and Fish Department through its rulemaking process removed the cap in October 2020.
“The rationale for the elimination of the $5,000 cap was the belief that all tournaments, regardless of size, should pay the fixed rate of 10% as a matter of fairness,” Power wrote in a March 31, 2021, letter to tournament organizers.
As a result, major tournaments such as the NWT and Masters Walleye Circuit haven’t held a tournament in North Dakota since 2019, although NWT is scheduled to hold its championship tournament in September on Devils Lake.
“The National Walleye Tour can be anywhere above $25,000 just in the conservation fees alone — and they’re not going to pay that,” said Suzie Kenner, executive director of Devils Lake Tourism.
A three-day championship, which brings walleye pros to Devils Lake for a week to 10 days before the actual tournament, can result in nearly $250,000 in direct spending, Kenner says, generally during “shoulder season” when tourism is slower.
“That’s just in our community,” she said. “So (major tournaments) are a big deal for our community, and that’s why we’re fighting to make the change.”
Neighboring states, by comparison, either don’t require permits or charge considerably less to host a fishing tournament. In Minnesota, for example, fees range from $50 for youth contests to $560 for large contests with off-site weigh-ins.
Another drawback of the current tournament policy, opponents say, involves big-money events that don’t charge an entry fee but award cash and prizes. In that case, the Game and Fish Department requires a flat $10,000 conservation fee for the tournament to proceed.
Pro anglers qualify for national championships based on their finish during qualifying events held throughout the spring and summer tournament season. In most cases, there is no fee for pros who qualify for national championships.
The $10,000 fee was implemented in the ’90s, when the now-defunct In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail held its national championship in North Dakota – before his time as fisheries chief – Power said.
“The whole idea was even though there’s no entry fees, they’re high-profile” events, Power told the Herald. “That’s great for commerce and tourism, Main Streets maybe of a few towns, but there’s also a whole lot of people that don’t want that attention.”
For the NWT championship coming to Devils Lake in September, the event essentially is considered two tournaments under one application, Power says, because it will pair the top 40 pro anglers with the top 40 amateur co-anglers, based on their finishes at four qualifying tournaments in Illinois, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Michigan.
Pros who qualify for the championship won’t pay an entry fee, he said, but the amateur co-anglers still have to pay an entry fee of $500. Game and Fish will then assess the NWT a conservation fee of $2,000, based on 10% of co-angler entry fee proceeds of $20,000, Power said. As a result, the NWT won't have to pay $10,000, as required in theory for big-money tournaments that don’t charge an entry fee.
“Because of that, we’ve had feedback from people who think that’s wrong that we’re allowing this,” Power said. “But we’ve got to allow it.”
As introduced by Rep. Todd Porter, R-Bismarck, HB 1538 originally called for replacing the conservation fee with a permit fee of no more than $250 for a tournament or $75 for an event run by a nonprofit organization. Lawmakers in the House amended the legislation to cap the entry fee at $2,500 in the case of for-profit fishing contests while keeping the fee for nonprofits at $75.
HB 1538 First Engrossment by inforumdocs on Scribd
In addition, “fishing contests,” as defined in the legislation, would be limited to events offering a prize or cash for catching fish in public waters. That would include big-money tagged fish contests, fishing tournaments, biggest fish contests, contests awarding prizes for the largest number or weight of fish and fishing leagues or tournaments comprising multiple fishing events with a cumulative fee of $50 or more per event.
Events would not be considered a tournament or required to pay an entry fee if they charge less than $50, have fewer than 50 participants and fewer than 15 boats.
Organized youth fishing events with participants younger than 19 or enrolled in high school, online contests not held on a single body of water and individual big fish promotions that don’t charge an entry fee also would be exempt from the permit fee requirements.
Despite claims to the contrary, youth fishing events are already exempt from the conservation fee policy, Power says.
“We made an administrative rule change in 2020, the same time that we took that ($5,000) cap off, to change that they’re exempt,” Power said. “As it is, they can have their youth events; their hands aren’t tied whatsoever.”
Meanwhile, HB 1538 would allow nonprofit groups and charities to retain 100% of the proceeds from a fishing contest. Currently, North Dakota requires the organizers of a charity fishing event to return 85% of its proceeds — 10% for the conservation fee and 75% for event participants in the form of cash or prizes.
“It really became a big deal for me when I started helping with charity fishing tournaments in Minnesota, and we’re raising $400,000 one year and $500,000 the next year, and a charity tournament I was helping with in North Dakota was struggling to make $5,000 to $10,000 a year for the same tournament for the same cause,” said Olson, who lived in Minnesota for 12 years before moving back to his home state in 2003. “That’s where it really ignited the fire to get these rules changed.”
In his written testimony opposing HB 1538, Power said eliminating the conservation project fee and replacing it with an application fee is the department’s biggest concern.
“The Department has permitted well over 3,000 fishing tournaments over the years,” he wrote. “Except for a few high entry fee, high payout tournaments, the Department has received essentially no negative, unsolicited comments about the conservation fees.”
The rules also have reduced tournament-related conflicts and increased support from non-tournament anglers for the fishing competitions, Power said.
“Most see it as a reinvestment into the state’s fisheries resources,” he wrote.
At the same time, though, the conservation fee is “fairly insignificant” to the department’s fisheries development budget, which is “somewhere over $2 million” for the biennium, Power said in an interview.
The Senate hadn’t scheduled a hearing on the bill as of Wednesday, March 8, but the House vote, coupled with strong written support, makes a good case for the bill to pass, Olson said. Of 70 written comments submitted on HB 1538, only a half-dozen were in opposition, including Power, the North Dakota Sportfishing Congress and the North Dakota Wildlife Federation.
Kenner, who was part of a mediation team that met with Game and Fish last year in an unsuccessful effort to restore a cap on the conservation fee at a compromised amount of $7,500, said Devils Lake Tourism supports the amended version of the bill, even though it raises the permit fee to $2,500 for tournaments that aren’t sponsored by nonprofits.
“I would support any of the changes at this point,” she said. “I think the conservation money is a good thing, but I don’t necessarily think that it has to be funneled through Game and Fish and then to an agency.”
While the permit fees outlined in the bill would go to the Game and Fish Department, Power says he’s not sure how that money would be allocated. There likely would be an administrative rule process to determine tournament fees, he said, whether it’s the $2,500 maximum or a smaller amount prorated by the number of boats or participants.
The challenge as always, Power says, is finding a balance between anglers who like tournaments and those who don’t. That’s why Game and Fish opposes the bill.
“It’s very hard to turn back on 40 years of a process that has worked,” he said. “Public support over the years has been very much in favor of the conservation projects. And it’s been without much controversy until the last couple of years and the out-of-state tournaments that say they can’t come here because they can’t afford it.
“The bottom line for us is it’s hard to turn our back on what the public has told us – not just today or yesterday, but over the course of time.”