Poaching Still a Problem

By Judy Nugent - November 1, 2006
Every fall thousands of fish enter the tributary streams of Lake Michigan, and where there are fish there are fishermen. While the vast majority of anglers are honest and ethical, there are still individuals who poach and find the salmon an easy target.

I recently got the chance to talk to Joe Jerich, Marine Unit Supervisor and Warden. He said that in a 5 day period this past October, they issued 72 citations with over $19,000 in fines! All of that in only 5 days. Twenty two citations were given for fishing without a license, followed by failing to release a foul-hooked fish, fishing in a refuge, snagging, and over bagging. There were also four counts of resisting and obstructing a conservation warden with a total of $1200 in bonds. Mr. Jerich said most of the illegal activity was concentrated in a few days because of the lack of a major rain event. Water levels remained low through much of the salmon run, in fact no fish were able to swim upstream of the Root River weir because of the low water. This not only concentrated fish in the lower stretches, but also concentrated the poaching. Most of the citations on the Root were made in the same area of the river.

Poaching can take several forms but usually it involves snag hooks, nets, spears, or bare hands and can happen day or night. There are organized groups of poachers with two way radios and lookout men, as well as spur of the moment guys who can't resist. When I asked Jerich about the most extreme case of poaching he had seen, he said that on the Pike River they once caught an individual with 44 salmon! According to Scott Bartosh of the Kenosha Country Club, this individual was using a shopping cart to haul his illegal loot. This years stories aren't that extreme, but they still illustrate the point that repeat offenders and other poachers are still finding creative ways to illegally capture fish.

In a recent case, a warden observed an angler net a large salmon underneath a bridge on the Pike River along Sheridan Road in the shallows created by a rock dam. The warden noticed a similar manmade rock dam underneath another bridge and would break it down each time to help the fish migrate past it. The warden believed the rocks were put there to block the fish's movements so it was easier to get the fish illegally. Upon contact, the angler was found with a bowling bag full of rocks and he admitted he was taking the rocks to create a dam. The warden issued several citations, seized the rocks, and ran a records check that showed this individual had been cited for illegal fishing in the past.

Up on the Menomonee River a warden observed a flashlight shining the waters near the first bridge south of I-94 at County Stadium. Using night vision the warden observed three males in the river, one with a fishing rod, and other with a gaff hook, and a third with two Mag-Lite flashlights. The person with the flashlights was chasing the fish and clubbing them. The other was using the gaff hook to stab the salmon. When confronted by the warden, they had eleven fish lying on shore. One subject had a warrant for his arrest. All equipment was seized and $1800 in citations were issued.

I found the following example too bizarre to leave out. Two wardens were working night fishing enforcement on the Milwaukee River near Estabrook Park. They were working a couple of fishermen that were at the spillway on a colder October night with little rain. While watching the fishermen with night vision, they observed one of the subjects strip down to his underwear. The subject entered the water and started chasing fish trying to catch them by hand. His partner held the flashlight and was pointing out fish. When the wardens made contact with the subjects in the parking lot, he was still in his underwear!

When I asked Jerich if the poaching problem was getting better or worse, he said it was hard to say. "If the fish are here, people will come to get them, both legally and illegally. The wardens in the area are very good at catching violators. There simply aren't enough wardens to provide complete coverage of the rivers all the time. With hunting seasons also underway, wardens are working at the limit of their capabilities at this time of year. The fish run attracts tens of thousands of people over the course of several weeks."

In an attempt to curb the poaching, the DNR has taken several steps. According to Jerich, "For the past several years, we have deployed wardens from all over Wisconsin to Racine and Kenosha to work the rivers and assist the local wardens. We also bring down each year's 'Recruit' warden classes for a week of work on the rivers. This exposes new wardens to a high level of enforcement contacts and provides a new officer with much needed experience."

In addition, in 1999 a citizen watch group was started called River Patrol. This group uses fishermen to help alert wardens to potential poaching. Jerich says, "It essentially operates under the 'neighborhood watch' theory. Members of the River Patrol are provided hats and vehicle window stickers identifying themselves as participants. River Patrollers are instructed on what to look for and what type of information a warden needs to make a good case. As a result of this program, wardens work more efficiently as they investigate complaints with good information." Other partners of River Patrol include Salmon Unlimited, the Racine County Conservation League, and the Kenosha Sportfishing and Conservation Association. These organizations supply volunteers and equipment to the wardens, and have been very successful in uncovering poaching.

And what happens if you get caught poaching? The fines are pretty steep. For fishing by means other than hook and line, the fine is $397.60, snagging fish = $318, and failure to release a foul-hooked fish = $198.60. If this isn't enough to deter you, remember that the warden will confiscate all of your equipment. This includes your rod, reel, net, waders, hooks, etc. Now if you're only wearing underwear, this may not be an expensive seizure. Then again, you better hope the warden doesn't take your underpants or you'll have a whole new problem!

Author Judy Nugent
Judy Nugent
Judy Nugent has been writing for several years. Her work can be found in Wisconsin Outdoor News, Wisconsin Outdoor Journal, Wisconsin Sportsman, Midwest Outdoors, Fly Fisherman Magazine and Snowshoe Magazine among others. She is also on the TV show OUTDOOR WISCONSIN. Judy has experience in radio with the show Great American Outdoor Trails where she does a weekly segment called Women on the Trail.