A joint investigation by three state wildlife agencies has uncovered more than a dozen poachers accused of illegally harvesting hundreds of vulnerable lake whitefish.
The violations, which occurred on whitefish spawning grounds in the Menominee River between Menominee, Michigan, and Marinette, Wis., were uncovered during a three-year investigation involving DNR officers from Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois.
Eleven of the offenders are from neighboring Illinois, while one poacher is from Michigan and the other a resident of Wisconsin. The breaches occurred about an hour north of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Jeff Lautenslager, marine warden with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, led the investigation.
“It started in 2019, basically following some complaints I got from another manager in Michigan and some observations that we were both dealing with,” Lautenslager told MeatEater. “We were noticing that a lot more people were fishing. We were seeing significantly more excessive limit violations on whitefish and this was consistent with citizen complaints about all of the above activities. »
Lautenslager said most fish poachers traveled to the Menominee River — where lake whitefish are known to spawn in impressive numbers — from the Chicago metro area where they live.
“We started a joint survey with Michigan and Illinois, just because a lot of anglers were from Illinois,” he said. “That’s how it started. From there, we sort of identified the key elements of who specifically these people were, and that’s where we focused our efforts.
According to Lautenslager, he and other agents intervened on the poachers in a coordinated operation. As officers made contact, whitefish poachers began fleeing the scene.
“The fisherman really knew what he was doing,” he said. “We had people hiding fish in the woods. People were burying fish on the banks. We had people putting fish in false floors in their vehicles. »
Lautenslager said the poachers were “organized, strategic and intentional” in their efforts to target fish that spawned in plain sight from the shore, and that they fished primarily from a bridge that connects the towns of Menominee. and Marinette.
“The Menominee River is kind of a one-of-a-kind river,” he said. “These fish are vulnerable. It is very shallow water with large concentrations of fish. That they legally catch them in the mouth – you can have very good results doing it this way – but also, with the number of fish there are, it’s quite easy to catch them.
Lautenslager said the accused poachers used a combination of both techniques.
“Some of the fish were caught legally, like in the mouth, but some of the fish weren’t,” he said. “They were hung in the back, on the side; they were fierce. They had no respect for the limit. They were just going to go home when they were done fishing or when their coolers were full of fish.
In total, the Criminal Angling Syndicate received 29 citations for charges including exceeding the daily whitefish catch limit, intentionally snagging fish and failing to release improperly snagged fish.
Although disheartened by the damage done to spawning lake whitefish populations in the Menominee River, Constable Lautenslager hopes that his efforts and those of all cooperating officers will ultimately help further the conservation of this important species.
“MNR custodians and investigators in this case are hoping that removing these many offenders will make room for legal and ethical people who enjoy watching and fishing lake whitefish legally. The laws we have are specifically designed to protect this valuable and vulnerable species of fish,” he said in a statement. Press release. “People who fish and enjoy viewing wildlife should know that their state conservation officers often work together to protect our resources and the people who benefit from them. We hope this case deters flagrant and flagrant violations of wildlife laws. sin.