Saturday, May 26, 2018
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The Minnesota DNR fights fish poaching
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DNR officers found these 173 sunfish, 81 crappies and four bass in a Minnesota man's home and car in March of 2005. The DNR fined the man $4,500 as a part of the state's Gross Overlimit Law. (Photo Courtesty Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)
Thousands of anglers will take part in Minnesota's fishing opener. While most people who fish play by the rules, some will try to catch and keep more than they should. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has some serious law enforcement tools to combat overfishing. Honest anglers say they welcome the crackdown on poachers.

Stearns County, Minn. — Officer Sam Hunter drives her Department of Natural Resources truck down a twisting country road. Small lakes dot the central Minnesota landscape of rolling farm fields and forests. Hunter, a 27-year-old DNR conservation officer, covers the eastern half of Stearns County. Anglers out on a lake might not realize she's watching them from shore, and she likes it that way.

"I like to do a lot of surveillance. That way I can check everybody. Once you hit one boat on the lake everybody knows you're there," she said.

While she watches, Hunter is on the look out for violators. Most of the time she ends up ticketing anglers who don't have a license, that'll cost you $120. Some people leave their fishing license at home, that's an $80 fine. And if you borrow a friend's license, the penalty is even bigger, $170.

But this fishing season Officer Hunter expects to write up plenty of people for overfishing.

"It's a lot more common than we know because it takes lots of observation to get those big cases. And a lot of it happens that we will never know about," Hunter said.

Poaching is hard for the DNR to prevent. Officers have huge areas to cover, many with dozens of lakes, and it's easy for people to catch and keep more than their limit. "I guess they feel they're entitled to take more fish than they're supposed to," she said.

Some anglers have told Hunter that they catch extra fish to make a long trip to the lake worth their while. That's the kind of attitude that irks serious Minnesota anglers, like Bob Nasby.

"How do you think you're owed any more than the legal limit," said Nasby, a St. Paul-based fishing guide. "Who makes you the governor of that? To say 'It's not worth my time to drive up here to only take back four fish,' then don't drive up there."

Nasby says overfishing throws the ecosystem of a lake out of balance, ruining fishing for everyone. And he has little sympathy for people caught with too many fish.

"For people that step out of line with that stuff, and they're caught doing it, they ought to hang them big time," he said.

Until a few years ago, dishonest anglers who fished over their limit, saw the small fines imposed as part of the cost of fishing. But in 2003, the state legislature passed a law giving DNR officers the power to levy big fines and seize fishing licenses. They can also confiscate equipment. That includes everything from fishing tackle to boats and vehicles.

The law has helped break some major cases in the past couple of years with fines topping several thousand dollars. But Glen Schmitt, who reports on fishing for the Plymouth-based weekly Outdoor News, hopes that doesn't make all anglers appear dishonest to the general public.

"There's always going to be a few guys, whether it's fishing, driving 4-wheelers or driving down the road, who don't follow the regulations and fortunately those guys are getting caught," Schmitt said.

Those high profile cases make everyone who casts a line reconsider going over their limit, according to Schmitt. But he also says anglers have a connection with the environment, and that keeps most of them on the right side of fishing laws.

"I don't think it's as big of a deal as it was even five years ago. People understand that if we're going to keep catching fish we need to implement some of these things. For the most part I think people do a pretty good job of that," he said. The Minneseota DNR hopes people won't catch and keep too many fish out of consideration for the health of Minnesota's fish population. But if that doesn't work, DNR officials don't have a problem making their point by reaching into an angler's wallet. A ticket for overfishing is $120 for the first fish, and $20 for every fish after that.

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