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No free pass during shutdown; anglers must be licensed

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Fishing on St. Croix
Since the government shutdown, sales of fishing licenses have ceased, leaving anglers high and dry. There is no free pass for anglers who thought they could fish through the government shutdown without a fishing license, said Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Pictured is the St. Croix River, one of Minnesota's most popular fishing spots.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Minnesota's government shutdown has sparked confusion among anglers in some northern Minnesota counties dependent on summer tourism business.

The Department of Natural Resources, which has been unable to process fishing licenses during the shutdown, had warned that people who fish without one would be breaking the law and that they would be cited by conservation officers.

But Crow Wing County officials say their local DNR conservation officer told them people could fish without a license, as long as they bought one later when the government shutdown ends.

County leaders said so publicly earlier this week, and that created confusion as other counties and chambers of commerce picked up the information.

But Wednesday afternoon the department issued a statement that said that wasn't true. Anglers without a license are breaking the law and could be cited for it, department officials said.

Resorts in the Brainerd Lakes area have been getting lots of calls from confused guests, wondering if they'll still be able to fish on their upcoming vacation, even though fishing licenses aren't for sale because of the shutdown.

County attorney Don Ryan, however, said a conservation enforcement supervisor informed him the department would not strictly enforce fishing license laws. Instead, the supervisor told him department would largely be on the water checking for life jackets and ensuring public safety, he said.

"There's just a high level of frustration ... there's really no direction for the people that are trying to do the right thing."

"They're not going to be checking for fishing licenses since people who are coming to town can't get one," Ryan said.

He said the supervisor told him the department would let people without a license fish, but when state resumes its operations they should obtain a fishing license for the time they went fishing.

In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, however, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said nothing has changed with DNR enforcement policy.

Landwehr said he'd received reports that a few license agents and resorts had started issuing temporary fishing licenses with a promise to purchase a legal license when the state is back up and running. But he said the practice is in violation of state law.

What remains unclear, however, is just how hard local DNR conservation officers are working to enforce state fishing laws. In Crow Wing County, the attorney's office has not received a single fishing citation since the shutdown began.

Crow Wing County Board Chairman Paul Thiede said he wants the department to ease up on violators and he thinks that's what they're doing at the local level.

"We're told that they're not going to make a public statement, because they don't want to encourage law violators," Thiede said. "On the other hand, they are not seeming to be interested in arresting people if they come up here on vacation and fish without that license."

Some resort owners in northern Minnesota say the mixed signals are confusing. Shannon Graupmann, owner of Little Winnie Resort in Itasca County, said her summer guests have been frustrated they can't buy a license, but she's told them there's not much they can do.

"Unless I was told face to face by a conservation officer that that was their way of running things nowadays, I would still not be able to tell somebody, 'Yeah, go fishing, you can get a fishing license later,' " Graupmann said. "It's not worth losing that customer over if they get a huge fine for fishing without a license."

Other counties in northern Minnesota say they're hearing mixed signals from the DNR. Lake of the Woods County Commissioner Tom Hanson said fishing and tourism are his region's economic lifeblood. He'd rather people be allowed to fish now and get a license later.

 "There's really no direction for the people that are trying to do the right thing," Hanson said. "It would just be nice if there was something that the DNR could [do to] let these people know that until this is over, go fishing ... and make sure they come back and get a fishing license once the state reconvenes."

The Department of Natural Resources typically sells about 200,000 fishing licenses during the month of July. The shutdown means the agency has already lost millions of dollars in revenue, with no end in sight.