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Woster: Congressman seeks true soul far from the concrete jungle

The Johnson Family is, left to right, Ben, Jacquelyn, Owen, Max and Dusty.
U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson
The Johnson Family is, left to right, Ben, Jacquelyn, Owen, Max and Dusty.

The interview posted above is from SDPB's daily public affairs show, In the Moment with Lori Walsh.

It’s about the fish, of course, and the fishing.

And Keefe Lake offers some of the best of both.

But Dusty Johnson didn’t drive to the literal end of the road up in northern Saskatchewan, Canada, then climb with his family and friends into an Otter float plane and fly another 150 miles just to land on some top walleye and lake-trout water.

“It’s really remote, incredible. And it’s really not about the fishing. It’s about spending time together. It’s about reminding yourself that your soul is not in your cell phone,” says the 45-year-old Republican U.S. representative from Mitchell. “And for me, it’s also about looking around at a pristine part of the world to remind myself that there are things more important than politics.”

Which is not to say politics aren’t important to the second-term congressman, who is South Dakota’s lone member of the U.S. House. Early last month, he defeated challenger Taffy Howard of Rapid City in the GOP primary with 60 percent of the vote to Howard’s 40 percent.

It was a comfortable enough margin of victory, but it came after a difficult campaign with some pointed-and-distorted advertising against both candidates from third-party groups. With no Democrat on the general-election ballot, Johnson must only worry about Libertarian candidate Collin Duprel, who is unlikely to pose a serious threat to the Republican in winning his third term in the House.

Keefe Lake.
U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson
Keefe Lake.

Which is enough about politics for now, except to say that it’s as difficult a game to play these days as it has ever been, and probably more divisive.

That’s why time away — in this case far, far away — is so important. It has both physical and spiritual regenerative powers, Johnson says.

“At least for me, there’s a religious flavor to this,” he says. “I can’t, after five days of that experience, I can’t help but come away with more of a sense of a higher power than I can when I’m bustling around in the concrete jungle of Washington, D.C.”

So there’s the call of the wild and a congressman’s need to answer. Most often, he answers it closer to home, with family fishing trips to Firesteel Creek near Mitchell, family camping outings to East River parks and the annual Custer State Park camping trip.

They do the regular tourist things there, of course, stopping at the State Game Lodge, Blue Bell Lodge, Badger Clark’s cabin — one of my personal favorites, too — and hitting the hiking trails. A Sylvan Lake stop is a must, too.

“I think Sylvan Lake has been touched by the hand of God,” Johnson says. “To the extent that our family has one most-significant getaway spot, it is Custer State Park.”

But there’s a family connection to those far-away Canadian waters, too. His father-in-law Tom Dice has been going to Keefe Lake for 40 years, taking friends and — in more recent years — a member or two of Johnson’s family. This year Tom couldn’t go. He tested positive for COVID the day before departure.

“This would have been his first trip with Owen,” Johnson says of his 10-year-old son.

But Owen still went, along with brothers Ben, 14, Max, 17, and their mom, Jacquelyn, and the congressman. Joining the family were Bob Van Zee, owner of the Parkston Food Center in Parkston; Bryan Hisel of Aberdeen, former executive director of the Mitchell Economic Development Corp.; and Mark Morehouse, former owner of Schuver’s Cafe in Parkston.

There was no four-star resort waiting for the eight of them at Keefe Lake, just a big cabin with rustic accommodations and a camp manager.

“He’s not a guide. He doesn’t go with us in the boats. We find our own fishing holes. We clean up the boats. We clean our own fish, cook them, wash the dishes, clean up the cabin,” Johnson says.

That’s an important part of the experience, too.

“I think that’s one of the benefits the trip to Canada has, in doing your own cooking and cleaning and dish washing,” he says. “There’s something meaningful for young people to know and to do. It’s just the eight of us. And everyone has a job. Everyone has something they must do to make a fish camp work.”

And this one worked really well, including the fish catching. Fishing out of four Lund boats with two anglers in each, they caught lots of walleyes up to 20 or 24 inches, with the largest — 27 1/2 inches — being caught by Max Johnson.

They released the bigger walleyes and kept some smaller ones, 17- to 19-inchers, to eat.

There are also lake trout in Keefe Lake. And because Ben caught three lakers during a trip there three years ago, he wanted to try for them again. So two of the boats — they must always travel in at least pairs for safety — went out to deeper water and slow trolled artificial lures near the bottom in 35 to 45 feet of water.

U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson with a 32-inch lake trout.
U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson
U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson with a 32-inch lake trout.

“I don’t have the patience for lake trout,” Johnson says. “But Ben wanted to try for them so on that one afternoon we were out for lake trout.”

Even with limited patience, Johnson managed to catch the only laker, a beautiful 32-incher.

That was the biggest fish of the trip, in fact, but not the biggest wild creature. A black bear had paid the camp a visit while the previous fishing group was there. The camp manager went out with a gun and fired a round or two to scare it away. He fired another warning shot on the second day Johnson and the family were there. When the bear returned on the third day, the camp manager peppered the bear with a round of light bird shot, which encouraged a grudging departure.

“The bird shot did it,” Johnson says.

Those few shots were just about the only sounds that disrupted the tranquil setting, which is just what Johnson was looking for.

“This modern world moves too fast,” he says. “And I don’t know what to do about it at the macro level. But at the micro level of my family, what you can do is get away from that phone.”

And if you happen to catch some fish during that getaway time, that’s not so bad, either.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.