Family comes first at St. Tammany Family Fishing Rodeo _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Eila Panzeca, 10, and her father, Nick Panzeca, share a quiet moment while fishing Saturday, June 20, 2015, during the Family Fishing Rodeo at the St Tammany Fishing Pier near Slidell. More than 100 anglers vied for first-and second-place awards in various fish and age categories. The event was sponsored by the St Tammany Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism, and The Leadership Northshore ‘Geaux Fish @ The Pier,’ project team.

With an overhaul of its licensing structure on the horizon, Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries wants outdoorsmen to know that their lifetime hunting and fishing privileges aren't going away. 

But beginning in June 2022, instead of selling separate lifetime licenses for hunting and fishing, Louisiana will only offer its combination license: a "Lifetime Sportsman's Paradise" license for $500 that covers both hunting and fishing.

Those residents who already own individual lifetime hunting and fishing licenses — which cost $300 each and will be on sale for another year — will be grandfathered in to the new program and won't see a fee increase.

The changes are part of a wide-ranging effort recently approved by Louisiana's Legislature and Gov. John Bel Edwards to streamline the state's antiquated licensing structure and increase fees to raise revenue for the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

It's the first time in two decades Louisiana has tweaked its recreational licensing structure — and with annual licenses set to expire at the end of June, questions about the changes are pouring in, department officials said. 

But outdoorsmen can rest easy for another eleven months: the overhaul won't go into effect until June 1, 2022. 

The new structure will include fewer licenses that cover more privileges, making it easier for those who hunt and fish across multiple categories to comply with the law. The basic fishing license, for example, will increase from $9.50 to $17, but will also cover activities that once involved eight different recreational licenses for crab traps, crawfish traps and other types of fishing. 

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Instead of expiring on June 30, licenses sold next year will be good for 365 days. That should offer some relief for springtime fisherman, who often purchase their licenses in March only to have them expire by July, said Brian McClinton, a department undersecretary. 

Senior citizens who already qualify for discounts also won't see a fee increase. Those who were born on or before June 1, 1940 will continue to pay nothing, while those born on or before June 1, 1962 will only pay $5. After June 1, 2027, residents 65 and older will qualify for a discounted $20 license. 

Lawmakers agreed to the changes after officials painted a dire picture of the department's finances. Historically, the agency relied on royalties from oil and gas drilling in its wildlife management areas to sustain its operations. But as production declined, those revenues dried up — dropping roughly $60 million in less than a decade. The Legislature bailed the agency out this year with $17 million in taxpayer funds, and officials warned that if they didn't revamp the fee structure, they'd be back again next year asking for more. 

The restructuring will raise nearly $17 million for the agency in the budget year that starts in mid-2022 and will grow to about $19 million in later years, according to a nonpartisan financial analysis of the bill. The legislation as it was originally introduced would have raised more money, but lawmakers watered it down, arguing that some of the fee hikes were out-of-reach for their constituents. That included a proposal to increase the combination lifetime license to $1,000, which was pared back down to $500 in the final bill. 

“It seems like a pretty dramatic increase in the lifetime license,” Rep. Gabe Firment, a Republican from Pollock, said during debate on the House floor. “I can tell you there’s not going to be many people in my district (who) can afford that at $1,000.”

McClinton said that two-thirds of license-holders would see a cost increase of $10 or less. 

Beginning in January, commercial license holders will also see a bump in fees, though those changes will be phased in through 2024. 

Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater