Six smallmouth bass poachers from Tennessee and Georgia have gone home from western Lake Erie minus three bass-boat rigs, two freezers, and more than $16,000 cash after a Port Clinton magistrate threw the book and the kitchen sink at them.
Overall their total loss for their fishing misdeeds - 30 counts of exceeding the daily creel limit of five bass per angler - cost them more than $48,000, given that two of the boat-motor-trailer rigs were valued at $8,000 each and one at $16,000, according to wildlife lawman Gino Barna.
"That's a pretty expensive fishing trip," added Barna, Lake Erie law enforcement supervisor for the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
The case has prompted Barna, newly installed at his post, to seek a change to state wildlife rules. He wants to require fishermen to keep fish "in the round," that is essentially whole, or filleted with the skin attached until the anglers reach their permanent residence.
"We want to be able to account for what was taken," the supervisor said about lawmen checking anglers freezers and coolers. It is common practice for out-of-state anglers in particular to bring freezers along on multiday fishing trips to stock up on Lake Erie's plenty.
Barna does not have a problem with that unless fishermen exceed the daily limit and then try to disguise their cheating by skinning and chunking fillets so they become nondescript. Among other things, undersized walleye, less than 15 inches and illegal to possess, could be hidden in frozen chunked fish.
"If you are on the water, the law says you have to have in-the-round fish," said Barna. But fishermen who take trailered rigs by ferry to the islands have been able to take home cleaned, skinless fillets or chunks, and there is no way to account for whether they have kept legal numbers.
"Mostly it's an island problem," said Barna. But he added that visiting anglers also take cottages on the lakefront during the spring jig-and-minnow walleye season then double-trip daily during their stay to stock up the same illegal way.
When announcing the arrests of the Georgia and Tennessee fishermen last month, Barna called theirs the worst case of overbagging he had ever seen. The men are charged with illegally taking at least 141 smallmouth over the limit during a recent stay on South Bass Island, which is what lawmen were able to prove. But they admitted to wildlife officers to taking more than that.
"They dumped fish on us when they knew we were looking," said Barna. Almost needless to say in these parts, smallies 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 poachers quit fishing the day before the possession season closed for spawning. No largemouth or smallmouth bass may be kept from Lake Erie or its tributaries between May 1 and June 25. Any bass caught during closure must be immediately released.
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 in Ottawa County Municipal Court before Magistrate Lou Wargo. Wargo on Wednesday collectively sentenced them to $7,500 in fines, $1,740 in court costs, and $7,050 under the state fish and wildlife restitution law, which sets a $50 a bass penalty for exceeding the limit.
Once the Erie bass season resumes the limit will be five bass a day with a minimum keeper length of 14 inches.
The six men also collectively were sentenced to the maximum penalty of 30 days jail on each charge, 900 days total, the time suspended pending good behavior for three years. They also lost Ohio fishing privileges for three years, and may lose similar privileges elsewhere for they are being reported to the 33-state Wildlife Violator Compact.
Barna said the confiscated, frozen fish from the case are to be donated to Victory Soup Kitchen in Sandusky.
In the case, state wildlife officers were running a seasonal surveillance project on South Bass Island, watching over-limit angling and multiple trips, between April 25 and 30.
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.
Arresting officers seized 155 bags of frozen, chunked fish and also 20 more bass that had not been frozen. The freezers were seized with the three boat rigs.
Some fishermen, on learning of the surveillance project, questioned why lawmen waited and did not swoop in sooner, thereby saving more bass from the poachers' coolers.
Barna explained he would have acted sooner, but it took some time to assemble a takedown team after surveillance confirmed the violations, and the poachers kept fishing while the team was collected, some officers being summoned from as far away as Allen County.
"We are very cognizant of not allowing waste of a resource," the supervisor said. It was not a matter of allowing the violations to continue merely to up the magnitude of the violations and potential subsequent fines and restitution.
"Money [from fines] is not the issue," Barna added. "I would have acted sooner if I could have. [The delay] was about manpower and logistics."
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