Anglers fishing Minnesota waters without a fishing license are violating the law and face possible citations, state officials said Wednesday.
It doesn't matter that resident and nonresident anglers can't buy licenses because of the state government shutdown.
"It's black and white -- you must have a license to fish," said Tom Landwehr, Department of Natural Resources commissioner.
Some resort owners -- desperate to retain customers -- have been collecting license money from their nonresident guests and giving them receipts to carry in lieu of a fishing license, saying they will buy licenses for them after the shutdown ends.
That's no good, Landwehr said. "You can't have an IOU or say 'I intended to get a license,'" he said. "You must have a fishing license in your possession while you are fishing."
Violators risk a fine and court costs of about $150.
The DNR explained its position Wednesday after seeing the reports of resort owners issuing temporary fishing licenses, and after the Crow Wing County Board passed a resolution Tuesday seeking clarification.
Commissioners in that north- central Minnesota county expressed concern that resorts would suffer financially if customers can't buy fishing licenses. County Board Chairman Paul Thiede wanted the DNR to temporarily allow nonresidents to fish the Brainerd Lakes area without a license, if they agreed to buy one after the shutdown ended.
But Landwehr said not enforcing the law isn't an option.
"The bottom line is state law says you must have a license," he said.
The state's conservation officers still have discretion whether to issue citations or warnings, said Jim Konrad, DNR enforcement chief. But Konrad said Wednesday that the shutdown is no excuse to fish without a license.
"We certainly are writing some citations for fishing without licenses," he said. "And we're telling people they can't fish if they don't have one."
The state's 180 conservation officers have been pressed to do other tasks during the shutdown, and they are spending far less time enforcing game and fish laws. But they still are enforcing those laws, Konrad said.
Landwehr agreed his officers have discretion but said in this case the issue seems clear-cut.
"I expect when an officer finds a flagrant violation that they will issue a citation," he said. "This is a very simple thing: If you fish without a license, you're blatantly violating the law."
Meanwhile, fishing guide Tom Neustrom of Grand Rapids, a retired deputy sheriff, said the inability of anglers to buy licenses is hurting guides, resorts and other businesses. He's been guiding unlicensed clients and will continue to do so.
"We're telling them to come," he said. "This is our livelihood. What are we supposed to do?"
He tells his clients to bring enough cash to pay for a license and plans to explain that to conservation officers. He hasn't encountered any officers yet.
"It's a bad mess," Neustrom said.