In a world of high-tech, there’s something to be said for using the most basic of senses. Consider Bret Grundmeier, a Minnesota conservation officer who has access to an ATV and snowmobile, as well as a big diesel truck, as he goes about checking on people who are ice fishing. Often as not, however, he prefers to be on foot, which he was this past weekend on Grindstone Lake, north of Hinckley.
Grundmeier walked up to a fish house, knocked on the door and identified himself as a conservation officer. Then he listened intently and heard the soft “kerplunk” of something entering the water. Moments later, he was allowed into the fish house.
“That lake has very clear water and they were fishing for trout in about 6 feet,” he said. “I told them what I heard and they kind of denied it and lied to me. I said, ‘Well, let’s take a look down the holes.’ Each one had a [fishing rod] on the bottom of the lake.”
The anglers had been fishing with two rods apiece. Thinking they were on a designated trout lake — where it’s legal to use just one rod apiece — they each tossed a rod overboard, as it were. Then Grundmeier informed them Grindstone isn’t a designated trout lake, and that fishing two lines apiece is perfectly legal. But he reminded them he could give them a ticket for littering if they didn’t successfully fish their rods from the bottom of the lake.
When conservation officers knock on fish house doors, they’re uncertain what they’ll find. The most common ice fishing violations are angling with extra lines, unattended lines and not having a license in possession, said Patty Holt, a supervisor in the enforcement division of the Department of Natural Resources. Since last Nov. 1, conservation officers have issued 532 citations for fishing violations (which may also include some open-water violations, depending on the part of the state), and given 1,224 verbal warnings. Leaving behind litter can be a big problem, too. But more often than not, officers find anglers who are happy to see them.
“We get thanked all the time,” said Eric Benjamin, an officer based in far north Warroad who frequently patrols Lake of the Woods during the winter.
“Even when we hand out citations, people thank us for being out there and doing our jobs,” Benjamin said. “We run into people who have been coming up here for 40 or 50 years, and it’s the first time they’ve ever been checked. They’re always offering us food or pop and water.”
Of course, it isn’t always an easy connection. Last week, he and another officer responded to a call to the Turn in Poachers hot line about an individual suspected of stashing walleye fillets under his fish house with the intention of selling them. The caller also said the fish house was being used to make methamphetamine. The officers notified the local sheriff’s office, and then went to check the situation.
“There was some truth to the report,” Benjamin said. “There were fillets and some meth. But there was no evidence he was trying to sell the fillets or manufacturing meth.”
Last weekend on Upper Red Lake, a group of officers including Kyle Quittschreiber, who patrols the Blackduck station, checked a group of four anglers who were fishing with more than two lines apiece. They were cited for the violation. The next day, the officers checked the same group and found them doing the same thing. “They probably didn’t think they’d be checked two days in a row,” Quittschreiber said.
Sometimes, the violations that officers find have nothing to do with fishing.
“We’ll find people who have outstanding warrants, and very commonly I find people with illegal substances — mostly marijuana,” said Mitch Lawler, who patrols the Alexandria area. “That’s probably the most common nonfishing-related issue. I don’t know if being in a fish house makes them feel isolated, but they always have the same look on their face — they can’t believe someone is at their door.”
Far more common, however, is there aren’t any violations. This past weekend on White Earth Lake north of Detroit Lakes, officer Angela Warren pulled up her snowmobile to a fish house where the excitement in the air was palpable. She soon learned a woman inside the house for the past 40 minutes had been fighting a sturgeon. Warren, who patrols the Detroit Lakes area, stuck around to watch. After 10 minutes, the lucky angler brought in a 45-inch fish through the hole. After a few photographs, the fish was released to fight another day.
“It was really fun to interact with them, especially when they were so excited and just having a good time,” Warren said.
Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.