Six fishermen from Tennessee and Georgia face the loss of their three bass boats and other gear after being charged with 30 counts of taking over the daily creel limit of smallmouth bass on western Lake Erie.
"This is the worst case I have ever seen of bass overbagging," stated Gino Barna, Lake Erie law enforcement supervisor for the Ohio Division of Wildlife. The men are charged with illegally taking at least 141 smallmouth over the limit during a recent stay on South Bass Island.
Smallmouth bass are highly prized for their sporting challenge and most fishermen keep them only rarely if at all, favoring walleye and yellow perch for the table.
The six men charged include Freelan C. Leffew, 66, of Soddy Daisy, Tenn., his son, Michael Todd Leffew, 38, of Hixson, Tenn.; Freddie Warren, 63, of Wildwood, Ga.; Charles H. Burkhart, 67, of Ringgold, Ga.; Samuel J. Carroll, 65, of Ringgold, and Herbert Samuel Stephens, 58, of Soddy Daisy.
All six entered guilty pleas on the charges on Monday in Ottawa County Municipal Court before Magistrate Lou Wargo. They are set to be sentenced June 2.
Each charge is a fourth degree misdemeanor carrying as maximum penalty of 30 days jail and $250 fine. The state also is seeking state-prescribed restitution for the illegally taken bass at $50 a fish, for a total of $7,050, along with forfeiture of the boat rigs and freezers. The men also could lose fishing privileges in Ohio for three years.
Barna gave this account of the case: State wildlife officers on the lake were running a seasonal surveillance project, watching of over-limit angling and multiple trips, between April 25 and 30, on the eve of the May 1 closing of the bass season on Lake Erie for spawning.
The six out-of-state anglers arrived on the island by ferry with their trailered bass boats and two freezers. Wildlife lawmen observed three boats making multiple daily trips, as many as three a day.
"We watched them fish all morning," Barna said at one point of the surveillance. "We knew something was up."
The arrests were made last Friday. Barna said that lawmen can prove the six men took 141 bass over limit, "but they admitted to more than that."
The daily legal limit on Erie bass is five, except during the closed season, which is May 1 through June 25 this year. No bass may be kept and only catch-and-release angling is allowed for bass during closing.
The supervisor said in the arrests officers seized 155 bags of frozen, chunked fish and also seized 20 more bass that had not been frozen. The freezers were seized along with the three boat rigs.
Barna said a lot of out-of-staters bring along freezers to Lake Erie.
"There are not a lot of places you can catch so many fish like you can here," he said.
"The sad thing was in this case, half of their fish were females staging for the spawning season."
Since Ohio does not have possession limits on fish, it legally is possible to keep, say, seven limits of fish for seven days of fishing. But the six anglers are accused of going far beyond that.
Barna noted that Ohio law is written such that fish must be kept "in the round" or filleted with the skin attached when "on the water." That includes anyone bringing back fish on a ferry from the islands.
Cleaning and chunking fish is a method poachers can use to cover up the numbers and species of fish they have taken.
Overall on western Lake Erie, when conditions have allowed walleye fishing has continued to be exceptional, says the Ohio Division of Wildlife at Sandusky.
Even as the spawn begins to wind down, limits are still being caught by anglers jigging hair jigs, with and without shiners, or vibrating blade baits in Maumee Bay, nearshore around Turtle Creek, and on some of the Camp Perry reefs.
Trolling catches of post-spawn walleye have been best west of the Bass Islands from Green Island to the international border using both crankbaits and spinners. Trollers have also caught fish north of Kelleys Island. Good catches of yellow perch have been reported between Marblehead and Kelleys Island, east of Kelleys Island, and north of Lorain.
Note that since May 1 the daily creel limit for Lake Erie walleye is six per angler. The minimum size limit for walleye remains 15 inches. Also, the daily creel limit for yellow perch is 30 fish per angler on all Ohio waters of Lake Erie, the 25-limit having been lifted from the western basin.
In addition, the Lake Erie black bass seasons for both largemouth and smallmouth are closed to possession [catch-and-release only] from May 1 through June 25.
On June 26 the daily creel limit will return to five bass per angler with a minimum size limit of 14 inches.
The seasonal tackle and other restrictions on the Maumee and Sandusky rivers also have been lifted, and white bass action remains fair to good.
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