From a hidden spot overlooking the Arkansas River in Tulsa, two Oklahoma game wardens watched as three men performed a very organized assembly line of snagging and cleaning a dozen long-billed paddlefish.
The wardens moved in, arrested the trio and confiscated the massive paddlefish, an ancient species with a sporting challenge likened to “a freshwater marlin.” Poachers also prize them for their eggs, called “roe,” to peddle as black market caviar.
But paddlefish, also called “spoonbills,” are so protected by Oklahoma’s wildlife laws that an angler may catch only two a year, but not on the same day and not on Mondays and Fridays; on those days, it is “catch and release” or pay a fine.
The Tulsa suspects faced multiple fines, plus restitution expected to exceed $3,500.
“Once paddlefish are over-exploited, it’s hard to get them back,” a state biologist told KOTV-DT Channel 6 soon after the arrests. “So, we try to stay ahead of the game and make sure we’re fishing them responsibly.”
But many breaches of the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Code aren’t as deliberate as this Tulsa incident from 2015.
“Wardens ticket a lot of people for just forgetting to bring their fishing licenses,” said Robert Robles, an independent program attorney for U.S. Law Shield. “There’s plenty of room for mistakes because fishing is huge across the state, from the western plains down to the foothills of the Ozarks, with more than 200 lakes and lots of rivers and streams.”
“There’s bass, crappie, catfish, walleye, alligator gar and, yes, paddlefish. But you have to pay attention to the bag and size limits of a particular body of water. What’s legal in one lake may not be in another. That’s because fisheries management plans can have different bag limits.”
”Violations of the Code carry fines from $10-$1,000 or jail time up to a year. Penalties grow, depending on the severity of the offense,” Robles said.
“You could face suspension or even revocation of your license for up to 10 years if you are convicted of a second or subsequent offense. You could forfeit the fishing tackle used to commit the violation,” he added. “And don’t forget the restitution; now you’re looking at paying thousands of dollars.”
“You can avoid big fines by learning about where you’re fishing—and the place to start is the latest Fishing Information Guide from the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC). Also be sure you’re reading the most recent edition to catch regulation changes from previous editions.”
FISHING WITHOUT A LICENSE
Stretching a line with no fishing license can fetch fines of $25-$200 for residents or $50 to $200 for non-residents.
“But game wardens are not in the business of generating revenue for state coffers,” Robles said. “Their job is to protect fish and wildlife resources by ensuring the public complies with the Code. To that end, they are authorized to work with people.
“If you do not have your license, a warden can sell you a substitute temporary 30-day license in lieu of posting bond,” Robles said. “But if you can show a judge that you had a current license in force when you got the ticket—as in, you forgot it at home—your ticket might be dismissed with only having to pay court costs. And if you do that within 72 hours of getting the ticket, the charge can be dismissed with no court costs.”
Is everyone required to have a license, regardless of age? No, sir and no, ma’am.
ODWC waives this obligation for anyone under 16 years old, a nice incentive to get kids fishing early. Also, “non-residents” age 65 or older who are residents of Texas are exempt. Similar provisions extend to people who are blind, Job Corps trainees, and veterans who are more than 60 percent disabled, just to name a few.
“The Code has 14 exemptions,” Robles said. “For example, exemption number four says resident owners or tenants, their spouses, parents, grandparents, children and their spouses, and grandchildren and their spouses who fish in private ponds on land owned or leased by such owner or tenant are not required to have licenses.” So read the Code carefully to see if any exemptions apply to you.”
Twice a year, there is a “Free Fishing Day” for everyone in Oklahoma. This year, they were June 3-4.
“Also, if you’re going after spoonbills, you must have, along with your license, the special paddlefish permit,” Robles said. “It’s free and valid for a whole year. ”
LEGAL MEANS AND METHODS
Humanity has mastered all sorts of fishing techniques, with a head start made by primitive cultures struggling to feed the tribe. Nets are prevalent in the Bible, but there’s also proof of fishing rods in ancient China, Greece, Egypt, and Rome.
“Of course, the rod and reel and trotlines are legal today, but in Oklahoma there are restrictions,” Robles said. “Method-of-Take regulations are described on pages 8 and 9 of the Fishing Information Guide. For example, you can have as many as seven rods in the water, but with trotlines, only three per angler are allowed and with no more than 100 hooks.
“The guide also addresses nets, juglines, spears, spear guns, bowfishing, paddlefish snagging, and noodling for catfish.”
Specials rules for public waters are listed in the Guide, starting on page 28. For example on Lake Elmer in Kingfisher County, fishing is limited to only two rods per person. Bowfishing is the only other method allowed.
“With so many pages of regs, there is a lot to know,” Robles said. “There are even rules for bullfrogs and turtles. So, as you can see, reading the entire guide is time well spent.”
BAG LIMITS/LEGAL SIZES
Here’s where a lot of people make mistakes. Bag limits vary among species, and Oklahoma has a lot of them—different types of bass, panfish, catfish, even trout—and their regulations are described on pages 10-15, with two pages (14 and 15) devoted entirely to paddlefish.
But let’s take bass, for an example. There is no daily bag limit on spotted bass, but don’t assume the same goes for largemouth bass, the holy grail of tournament anglers. The rules say your daily limit is six largemouth and smallmouth bass (combined), and each must be 14 inches long if taken from public waters.
Many fishing spots have exceptions to state-wide freshwater harvest regulations, also beginning on page 28 of the Guide. So, the normal state-wide bag limit for channel and/or blue catfish is 15. But using our earlier example of Lake Elmer, we see that a special rule says you may take no more than six catfish, which can be a combination of channel or blue cats.
“Also,” Robles said, “in public waters shared by Texas, specifically Lake Texoma, you must have either a Texas license to fish on the Texas side, or you can buy a Texoma fishing license for $12, and then you can fish on both sides of the lake.”
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE
Shifting back to the ODWC, there is great concern over Aquatic Nuisance Species (ANS) such as zebra mussels, hydrilla, golden algae, and various types of carp. Anglers are urged to help guard against these damaging species by draining and pressure washing their boats or letting them thoroughly dry for five days before launching in a different body of water. See more tips starting on page 24 of the Guide.
Finally, we can’t say enough about restitution because that’s what really adds a financial bite in addition to fines.
Simply stated, restitution “is what a judge orders you to repay the state of Oklahoma for the wildlife resource you took illegally,” Robles said.
In the Tulsa case, the state had set restitution at $20 a pound for paddlefish. This catch, without entrails, was about 178 pounds. That came out to about $3,540, but that was expected to grow after biologists calculated how much the guts weighed.
“Oklahoma is blessed with abundant fishing opportunities,” Robles said. “Don’t limit your access to them with costly legal issues.”
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Make the decision today to become a more educated and responsible angler by adding Hunter Shield to your U.S. Law Shield membership.
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