New live bait rule: ‘too much justice?’

Madison – Long-time Eagle River guide and sport shop owner
George Langley says the new rule requiring anglers to kill all
unused bait before leaving any water body statewide is a case of
hitting a nail with a sledgehammer rather than a hammer.

“The angling community really wants to cooperate with the DNR,
but they’ve been pretty harsh,” Langley said. “I haven’t heard a
lot of support for it. I have heard a lot of grumbling. I do think
these rules could have been a little more reasonable.”

Langley is referring to an emergency rules package that took
effect Nov. 2 that prohibits anglers from taking live fish –
leftover bait minnows, suckers, and other fish – away from any
water in Wisconsin.

The rules, approved by the state Natural Resources Board, are
aimed at preventing the spread of viral hemorrhagic septicemia, or
VHS. The rules do not apply to other kinds of bait, such as leeches
or nightcrawlers.

“Probably what’s going to happen – and this would be my guess –
is there’s going to be a fair amount of passive resistance (to the
rules),” Langley said. “We hope somebody takes another look at
these rules and comes up with something that’s a little more
enforceable and easier to comply with.”

Langley said he’s disappointed that the DNR and NRB would take
such a broad brush and paint the whole state with it rather than
concentrating on affected areas.

“This time of year, there aren’t many fishermen around,” Langley
said. “Wait until opening day (next May) and see what happens.”

Langley also is concerned that the rules might impact

“It won’t help,” he said.

DNR Bureau of Fisheries Management Director Mike Staggs said the
DNR’s original proposal would have enacted the rule only for waters
known to have VHS.

“However, the Natural Resources Board was rightly concerned that
we have sampled only 50 or so of Wisconsin’s 15,000 lakes and –
other than the lakes where we’ve found VHS – we can’t tell you for
sure whether a lake has VHS or not,” Staggs said.

By the time VHS was discovered and the rules were changed,
Staggs said anglers might have been spreading VHS from the affected
water for days, weeks, or even months. The NRB, he said, believed
it was too big of a risk to the state’s $3 billion sport fishery.
Staggs said the main concern with reusing minnows is not that the
minnows had VHS to begin with – it’s that they might pick up VHS
while they are being used on one lake and then transferred to

Most anglers, he said, change or add water to their minnows from
the lake they are fishing,  either running water through their
baitwells, putting the minnow bucket over the side on a string, or
simply scooping new water into the container.  

Staggs said an infected fish is the most likely vector for VHS
transmission, as opposed to contamination of ice augers, residual
amounts of water left in a boat after it is drained, or animals
moving from water to water.

“I know that this will be a nuisance and in some cases a
non-trivial additional cost for some anglers,” Staggs said. “I do
encourage people to keep discussing this issue – both to make sure
that people understand what is being done and why, and also to keep
generating ideas about better ways to manage the situation and not
spread VHS.”

Staggs said he’s sure the NRB would be happy to improve the
rules as new ideas and information come to light.

“We’ll probably know a lot more about where VHS is in the state,
and more about how it is spread and infects fish over the next
year,” he said. 

Staggs said there have been many suggestions about how to keep
reusing minnows without spreading VHS. Some examples include
allowing minnows to be reused on the same water, or if the angler
doesn’t add or change the water.  

“These are all great ideas and shows that most people want to do
the right thing,” Staggs said. “The biggest problem we’ve had is
finding something simple and enforceable for those few people that
are not going to do the right thing and potentially spread VHS.

“If some minnows are allowed to be taken away, how does anyone
distinguish those minnows from any others?,” he said. “How do you
distinguish the bait minnows from those that someone might have
actually seined from that water? These are all difficult questions
that don’t have easy answers, and the NRB felt the simplest,
cleanest, and more enforceable answer was simply to not allow live
minnows to leave the water.”

Warden enforcement

DNR Chief Warden Randy Stark said the ultimate goal is to
protect the fishery and the habitat that supports it from invasive
species and disease.

“As with any new rule, we start out with a heavy emphasis on
education and warnings, reserving enforcement for those who know
better and choose not to follow the law,” Stark said. “This is the
course we have taken with these new rules for the past several
months, and it has resulted in a high level of awareness about the
new rules.”

While continuing the education campaign, wardens will begin to
transition into a firmer enforcement stance as they go forward once
the level of awareness is higher.  

“Of course, as with the enforcement of any law, our wardens
apply their judgment and discretion based on the totality of
circumstances presented in each situation they encounter,” Stark

Given the challenges invasives species and diseases like VHS
pose to ecosystems, Stark said institutionalizing bio-security
practices into everyone’s fishing activities will be critical to
maintaining the recreational opportunities and economic benefits
Wisconsin anglers are accustomed to.

“We believe that making bio-security procedures as much a part
of the fishing experience as baiting the hook is a key element,”
Stark said. “In the end, our overall success as a community in
protecting the fishery that means so much to us turns on the
individual actions of many, including boaters, anglers, fish
farmers, and bait dealers.”     

Live minnows

on Big Green

For the first time in what fourth-generation guide Mike Norton
believes to be about 35 years, live minnows will be legal for
deep-water fishing on Big Green Lake this winter.

Pieces of Lake Michigan chubs are the preferred cut bait used to
attract the lake trout and ciscoes that fuel a solid winter ice
fishery on Big Green. However, because Lake Michigan is a
VHS-positive water, chubs won’t be allowed as bait.

That, in turn, prompted a change in the rules to allow live
minnows this winter.

“Whether people are going to flock in, I’m not sure,” Norton
said. “We have such a nice population, I’d hate to see them
overharvested. Trout are a lot more important to us in summer than
in winter.”

Big Green’s daily bag limit is two lakers longer than 17 inches.
Three brown trout, with a 14-inch minimum, may be kept daily.
Norton said 3- to 4-inch shiners – and more than one on a hook –
might become the bait of choice this winter.

Norton said live bait has been fairly expensive this year, but
he hasn’t seen any major hike in the prices due to VHS yet. With
the new rules on disposal of unused minnows, he thinks anglers will
be more conservative on how many they buy.

For the latest updates on VHS, visit

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