See more of the story

It is a quaint idiom, the honest mistake.

Yet honest mistakes — errors made unwittingly and without malice — are common in outdoor recreation. It is no surprise. The Minnesota hunting and trapping regulations booklet runs more than 100 pages. The fishing regulations booklet is nearly 100 pages. Separate regulation books exist for all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), waterfowl hunting and more. It is not difficult to trip into trouble while having fun.

"We know complexity exists," said Greg Salo, assistant director of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources enforcement division. "In fact, our enforcement philosophy reflects that. Minnesota has invested heavily in public hunting lands, creating quality fishing, developing snowmobile trails and more. We don't want our enforcement actions to be the cold water that turns good people away from enjoying the outdoors."

Enforcement statistics for 2019 have yet to be finalized, but the state's 160 field conservation officers are on track to issue about 16,000 verbal warnings and roughly 8,000 citations. This two-to-one ratio is similar to previous years. Anglers, boaters and ATV riders received the most warnings in 2019, respectively. Anglers, big game hunters and snowmobilers received the most citations, respectively.

"We issue far more warnings than citations because an overarching goal is to correct behaviors without negatively affecting participation," said Salo. "Still, anyone who intentionally tries to skirt the law has no reason to expect a warning. People who intentionally commit a crime — baiting deer, for example — deserve what they get."

Regulating all

Natural resource law enforcement is quite the kettle of fish. Angling. Boating. Camping. Deer hunting. Early goose hunting. The alphabetical list of outdoor recreation goes on and on, as do the rules that regulate each activity. State and national studies have consistently found that regulation complexity is not a significant detriment to outdoor recreation participation — work obligations, family obligations and lack of interest are the big drivers — yet regulations can be daunting, especially to new or infrequent participants.

"Regulation books are filled with things you don't need to know," said Salo. "If you're hunting grouse you don't need to know deer laws. If you're fishing walleye Up North you don't need to know trout regulations down south. Still, you do need to know the basics of the activity you're doing. If you're hunting ducks, for example, you better know how to identify what you've shot."

Conservation officers have broad discretion on how to handle each violation. Typically, an officer sizes up the situation then chooses an option based on multiple factors. Honesty is one of them.

"It's always best to be honest," said Tim Collette, a DNR conservation officer who patrols the Brainerd lakes area. "If I catch someone in a lie it becomes a very different conversation."

Jim Guida, a colleague who also patrols the Brainerd area, agreed.

"A lot of times I already know the answers to the questions I am asking," Guida said. "From the registration number on a boat, for example, I can likely tell who is operating it, if they have a current fishing license and if they have any past violations. If a person's answers don't align with what I already know to be true, it changes the way I handle the conversation."

While some violators don't lie, they do choose to be mum. Chad Sherack, a DNR area enforcement supervisor, recalled such an encounter.

"I was checking an ice fisherman who was nervous for no apparent reason," said Sherack. "We were just wrapping up when I heard a bell ring. What was that, I wondered? Well, I peeked into these nearby five-gallon pails only to discover he had cut the bottoms out of them, placed them over his tip-up rigs and fitted the rigs with bells that rang when a fish was on. It was a sneaky way to fish with extra lines in the open."

Fishing with extra lines is a common ice fishing violation. So is fishing with unattended lines. Citations for unattended lines typically involve anglers who drop baited lures down a hole, head to shore and return later to see what they've caught.

"I have a tool for catching anglers who fish with unattended lines," said Collette. "And, boy, does it surprise them."

The contraption Collette use consists of a pair of long wooden boards that are hinged together. A stiff spring is attached to the end of one board. Before Collette puts his tool to use he first checks to make sure the ice shelter is unoccupied. If so, he drills a hole outside the shelter adjacent to where a hole inside the shelter is likely located. Next, he threads his gizmo down the hole. The board with the spring will eventually come to a horizontal position. Finally, Collette twists the vertical board sticking out of the hole so that horizontal board is swept in an arc. If there's a fishing line beneath the shelter, the spring will catch it.

"When I catch a line I clip off the lure and bait and bag them as evidence," said Collette. "Then I replace the lure and bait with a laminated business card that says 'Call me" on the back. I drop the card back down the hole with a weight attached to it. When the violator comes back he figures he is reeling-up a small fish, but he sure isn't."

Ironically, Collette said a fair number of violators want to keep his card. "I'd prefer to get my cards back so I don't have to laminate new ones, but many want them as a souvenir," he said. Collette began using this technique after a 2003 search-and-seizure court case in Minnesota that, among other things, ended the practice of conservation officers entering ice fishing shelters without permission or a warrant.

Another fairly common winter violation is an over-limit of fish. Brice Vollbrecht, who often patrols Upper Red Lake, said conservation officers made "quite a few" walleye over-the-limit cases immediately after Red's ice was safe to travel on foot, ATV or snowmobile. "We'd watch people come to shore to drop off fish at trucks or coolers and then head back out to catch more," he said. Over the years, he added, officers have found fish under shelters, in shallow augered holes camouflaged with snow and even a modified propane tank. Those who intentionally break the law can expect fines starting in the $140 range.

Salo, the assistant director, said training on whether to warn or cite a violator starts at the DNR's 17-week conservation officer academy for new cadets. Scenario-based training is used extensively at the academy with current and even retired officers offering counsel on how best to handle unintentional and intentional violations. Counseling continues during a cadet's field training experience with a veteran officer.

"Our goal is to get 100-percent voluntary compliance, but the reality is we are far from it," said Salo. "That's why we appreciate those who help us by calling Turn In Poachers at 1-800-652-9093."

C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Baxter, Minn.