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Anglers grapple with lockdown on Minnesota fishing license sales

First mate Ted Glass (right) uses a rope to pull the boat to the dock as Barry LeBlanc (top), owner of White Water Charter in Duluth, carefully backs into his slip across from the William A. Irvin. LeBlanc was returning with a fishing party after a morning out on Lake Superior on Friday. (Bob King /

Bob Rogers sees them every day. They're would-be anglers from other states, passing through Duluth, trying to buy a Minnesota fishing license.

Rogers, an employee of Marine General Sports in Duluth, can't sell them a license. The state has shut down its licensing system during the state government shutdown, now more than a week old.

"They're not very happy," Rogers said. "Not at all."

For many, their trip to Minnesota is a once-a-year vacation, and fishing is often a big part of it. Those would-be anglers are left in a quandary: Do they fish without a license and risk a ticket, or do they give up something they've waited all year to do?

State Department of Natural Resources conservation officers, deemed "essential" employees, remain on duty during the shutdown. Local and regional officers have been told not to speak to the media on the record, but they say they are approached regularly by frustrated anglers who have tried to buy licenses and could not. Jim Konrad, chief of the DNR's division of enforcement, could not be reached for comment.

The state's fish and game laws remain in place despite the shutdown. It is illegal to fish without a license.

When Rogers tells would-be anglers he can't sell them a fishing license, he usually gets a question in return.

"Their question is, 'What do we do?' " he said. "And I can't tell them to go fish."

Many resorts and outfitters in Northeastern Minnesota notified their customers with upcoming reservations about the possible shutdown several days before it began on July 1. Most of those customers quickly ordered fishing licenses online in advance of their visits, say lodge owners and outfitters.

Still, those in the tourism business aren't pleased with state leaders in St. Paul whose deadlock over budget issues caused the shutdown.

"It's a political temper tantrum," said Shari Baker, who owns Gunflint Pines Resort on the Gunflint Trail with her husband, Bob Baker.

She wonders why the state couldn't have improvised to let resorts and outfitters write paper licenses during the shutdown. In the past few years, nearly all licenses have been issued through the DNR's Electronic Licensing System, a computer-based process.

"One gentleman drove up here and would have stayed for the night," Shari Baker said. "But he said, 'I can't imagine not fishing,' so he didn't stay. So, it's costing not just us but the state, too."

If out-of-state guests show up without Minnesota licenses, some resort owners are quietly suggesting the people go fishing anyway, figuring that conservation officers won't ticket an angler who couldn't have anticipated the shutdown and wasn't able to purchase a license.

Not everyone will make that recommendation, however.

"What do you tell them?" asked Marcy Gotchnik, co-owner of Wilderness Outfitters in Ely. "I can't say, 'Go fishing.' What if they get stopped by a game warden and they say, 'Wilderness Outfitters said it was OK?'"

Gotchnik thinks the DNR should have kept its Electronic Licensing System functioning during the shutdown.

"It's all electronic. It runs through Tennessee," she said.

At Silver Rapids Lodge near Ely, Alyssa Roberts said the license issue isn't hurting business.

"Most of our Minnesota guests have theirs," Roberts said. "We have gotten a lot of calls from out of state. We tell them they (enforcement officers) are really relaxed as far as out-of-state people. Business has been really good."

Lake Superior charter fishing captains are in a slightly different situation. They always have been permitted by the DNR to issue single-day paper licenses to their customers.

"We have the one-days we can sell, but we're going to run out," said Barry LeBlanc of White Water Charter in Duluth. "We'll run out in about a week."

LeBlanc said he got a call from anglers from Iowa planning to come up to fish with him at the end of July. They were wondering whether they would be able to get licenses and were ready to cancel their trip, LeBlanc said. He told them he had paper licenses, and the party didn't cancel.

Rumors abound about whether conservation officers will issue tickets to those who couldn't buy licenses and who decide to fish anyway, or whether the officers will simply issue warnings.

"It's all gray areas and personal discretion," LeBlanc said. "And that's scary. It's not going to help tourism."