A joint investigation by three state wildlife agencies netted more than a dozen fish poachers accused of illegally harvesting hundreds of vulnerable lake whitefish.
The violations, which took place on whitefish spawning grounds in the Menominee River between Menominee, Michigan, and Marinette, Wisconsin, were unearthed during a three-year investigation involving DNR agents from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
Eleven of the violators are from nearby Illinois, while one poacher is from Michigan and the other a Wisconsin resident. The violations occurred about an hour north of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Jeff Lautenslager, a marine warden with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, headed up the investigation.
“This started in 2019, basically following up on some complaints that I received form another warden in Michigan and just some observations that we were both dealing with,” Lautenslager told MeatEater. “We were noticing a lot more people fishing. We were noticing a lot more violations of the overlimits on whitefish and corresponding that with citizen complaints of all of the above activities.”
Lautenslager said that most of the fish poachers traveled to the Menominee River—where lake whitefish are known to spawn in impressive numbers—from the Chicago metropolitan area where they live.
“We started up a joint investigation with Michigan and Illinois, just because a lot of the fishermen were from Illinois,” he said. “That’s how it got started. From there we kind of identified the key components of who specifically these individuals were, and that’s where we concentrated our efforts.”
According to Lautenslager, he and other agents moved in on the fish poachers during a coordinated operation. While the agents were making contact, the whitefish poachers began to flee the scene.
“The fisherman definitely knew what they were doing,” he said. “We had people hiding fish in the woods. We had people burying fish on the shorelines. We had people putting fish in false floorboards in their vehicles.”
Lautenslager said the poachers were “organized, strategic, and intentional” in their efforts to target fish that were spawning in plain sight from the shoreline, and 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’s very shallow water with large concentrations of fish. Whether they’re catching them in the mouth legally-you can have really good success doing it that way-but also, just with how many fish there are, it’s pretty easy to snag them.”
Lautenslager said that the accused poachers employed a combination of both techniques.
“Some of the fish were caught in a legal manner, like in the mouth, but another portion of the fish were not,” he said. “They were hooked in the back, in the side; they were foul hooked. They didn’t have any regard for the limit. They were just gonna go home when they were done fishing or when their coolers were full of fish.”
All told, the criminal angling syndicate received 29 citations for charges that include exceeding the daily bag limit of whitefish, intentionally snagging fish, and failing to release foul-hooked fish.
While disheartened by the damage done to spawning populations of the lake whitefish in the Menominee River, Officer Lautenslager hopes that his efforts and those of all cooperating agents will ultimately further the conservation of this important species.
“The DNR wardens and investigators in this case remain hopeful the removal of these numerous violators will make room for the legal and ethical individuals who enjoy viewing and legally fishing for lake whitefish. The laws we have are specifically designed to protect this valued and vulnerable fish species,” he said in a press release. “People who fish and enjoy observing wildlife should know that their state conservation officers often work together to protect our resources and the people who enjoy them. We hope this case deters egregious and blatant violating of fishing laws.”