Waterways Conservation Officers in Pennsylvania repeat this slogan on social media: “It’s not that unusual … for us, anyway.”
Case in point, two WCOs on night patrol last April noticed a white light shimmering beneath the surface of Raystown Lake in south central Pennsylvania. Soon, a man in full dive gear emerged from the water with a spear gun and a stringer of fish, officers said.
According to their report: “The violator was found with three large walleye, two of which were females full of eggs, and a 5-pound smallmouth bass.”
Where to start? Well first, officers said, walleye season had passed, so the suspect faced charges of “serious unlawful take,” illegal devices (spear gun), criminal trespass (the area was restricted), and “several other summary offenses.”
“All of his dive gear and the four fish were seized as evidence,” officers said.
“The WCOs are very busy people,” said Justin McShane, an independent program attorney for U.S. Law Shield. “I mean, just consider the state’s fish diversity and opportunities.
“On the Commonwealth’s west side you can go for muskellunge (musky) or tiger muskellunge from the shores of Lake Erie. In the east, there are opportunities in salty water, like the striped bass, northern pike, and blue crab in the Delaware River Estuary that empties into the Atlantic. And in between is the vast inventory of inland waters that hold all types of bass, trout, and salmon, even eels.
“Unfortunately, some people know the law but try to duck it.”
McShane related how several years ago, poaching was so bad that the General Assembly raised the maximum fine from $200 to $5000 for illegal fishing.
The legislators also added a section of the Fish and Boat Code called “serious unlawful take” (recall the alleged spear gun poacher) which “boosted the penalty of exceeding the legal daily limit of fish from a summary offense of the first degree to a misdemeanor of the second degree,” McShane said.
But many breaches of the Pennsylvania’s Fish and Boat Code aren’t as deliberate.
“Many regulations are quite uniform, like the license requirement,” McShane said. “But with a state so large, and with so many species to pursue, what’s O.K. in one part of the state may not be so in another. Fisheries management plans dictate the differences.”
Therefore, the Commonwealth’s 2017 Fishing Summary abounds with regulations for locations, species (including special trout rules), and laws regarding boundary waters, invasive species, boating, and pollution.
“Yes, it’s a lot, but it’s worth your time to read it all,” McShane said. “The information will help you avoid heavy fines.”
“But always make sure you’re reading the most recent edition and don’t assume there are no changes from last year,” McShane said.
Pennsylvania’s fishing licenses are as diverse as the species in its waters.
Pages 4-5 of the Summary cover all the various license types and applicable costs for residents, nonresidents, senior citizens, tourists fishing for one to seven days, multi-year licenses, and exemptions for certain active-duty military personnel, disabled veterans, and former prisoners of war, to name a few.
But is everyone required to have a license, regardless of age? No, the Commonwealth directs the Fish and Boat Commission to waive that obligation for anyone under 16 years old—a nice incentive to get kids fishing early.
Also, senior citizens age 65 and older aren’t exempt, but they get a discounted license for $11.90.
The trout/salmon permit, starting at $9.90 is required to fish those species in the Commonwealth’s inland or boundary waters. Exemptions are for kids under 16, people with disabilities, and holders of the one-day tourist license.
In many cases, according to the Summary (page 5), an angler may need “both a trout/salmon permit and a Lake Erie permit to fish in waters in the Erie area. Rather than purchasing these individually, a Combination Trout/Salmon/Lake Erie permit may be purchased.”
According to McShane, the penalty for fishing without the appropriate license is somewhat of a moving target. The Code says the guilty angler shall pay an additional penalty “equal to two times the cost of the annual license.”
So, for example, the resident who should have paid $22.90 for a regular license would pay an additional penalty of $45.80.
There are two annual “Fish-For-Free” Days (page 34); this year they were set for May 28 and July 4.
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. Proof of fishing rods exists in ancient China, Greece, Egypt, and Rome.
Of course, rods and fishnets are legal today, but in Pennsylvania, there are restrictions (page 8). You can fish with three rods at a time (five for ice fishing), and there is no limit on hooks. Nets can only be used to help land a fish, but cast nets or seines are banned; so are snagging hooks.
Spears, gigs and archery tackle are legal only for carp, suckers, and catfish. But, according to the Summary, spears and gigs may not be mechanically propelled. You also cannot use a spear, gig, bow, or crossbow “in waters stocked with trout during a closed season or in special regulation waters.”
Bag Limits/Legal Sizes
Here’s where a lot of people make mistakes. Bag limits vary among species and since Pennsylvania has a lot of them, and various season dates, the angler must pay close attention to what’s in the Summary (pages 10-17).
Let’s, for example, take a look at inland trout and salmon. There is a “regional” trout season April 1 through September 4, but only in 18 southeastern counties. The rest of the state’s “regular” season is April 15 through September 4.
Minimum size regulations are seven inches, and the creel limit is five for streams, lakes, and ponds; but that drops to three fish if taken from stocked trout waters during the extended season, which is January 1 through February 28, and September 5 through December 31.
And even more rules may apply for stream sections that are “both stocked trout waters and Class A wild trout waters,” according to the Summary (pages 20-29).
“See what we mean about the differences?” McShane said. “It’s worth your time to understand them.”
And There’s More
Fishing from a boat? Water safety requirements are numerous, but the most basic ones involve “personal flotation devices,” or PFDs. They aren’t “optional.” All boats in all waters must have a wearable life jacket for each occupant on board and they must be U.S. Coast Guard approved.
The regulation says children under 12 must wear a PFD at all times on boats 20 feet long or less and on all kayaks and canoes. Additionally, during the winter months—November 1 through April 30—all boaters in boats less than 16 feet in length, canoes, or kayaks, must wear a life jacket at all times.
There is also great concern over Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) such as rusty crayfish, quagga mussels, “snakehead” fish, and various types of carp.
Anglers are urged to help guard against these aquatic hitchhikers by draining and pressure washing their boats or letting them thoroughly dry for two days before launching in a different body of water. See more tips starting on page 18 of the Summary.
Finally, we want you to remember the bite of “civil restitution.”
“Simply stated, restitution is what a judge orders you to repay the Commonwealth for wildlife resources taken illegally,” McShane said.
We recall another case in April when a WCO in Berks County stopped two men who allegedly possessed 21 striped bass from Blue Marsh Lake, where the daily limit was two.
“In addition to grossly exceeding the creel limit, not a single fish met the minimum size of 20 inches,” officers said on social media. “The court will also be petitioned for replacement values of all 21 fish.”
The Code states that one striper, 15-27 inches long, is worth $78. As we do the math, the replacement cost is $1,638 for the entire catch. Now, if convicted, do the two suspects split the cost, or do both have to pay that amount? That will be decided in court.
Meanwhile, although the suspects didn’t have licenses, WCOs said they risk not having fishing privileges for “up to five years.”
“Pennsylvania is an awesome fishing destination,” McShane said. “Don’t ruin it for yourself with costly legal issues.”
We can help you get informed when you add Hunter Shield to your U.S. Law Shield membership. If you’re not a member of U.S. Law Shield, you can sign up today for a package that includes Hunter Shield! —Bill Miller, contributor, Texas & U.S. Law Shield blog