Most anglers understand that there are size requirements that must be met to keep certain fish. We understand that there are daily bag limits and season dates to follow. Regardless of how many years you’ve been fishing, it’s likely that you quickly check all those rules online or in your state’s compendium every year.
The truth, however, is there are a lot more fishing laws on the books than many people realize. That’s not to say anglers are maliciously choosing to ignore them, but rather that they simply don’t even consider that what they’re doing is against the rules. Ultimately, the burden of compliance falls on us because “I didn’t know I couldn’t do that” is not an acceptable answer when explaining yourself to a game warden.
Here are some of the most overlooked rules in the sport. If you’re new to fishing, being aware of them will keep a fun day on the water from ending in a costly ticket.
Fishing with Too Many Rods
Sometimes more is better. It could be easy to assume, then, that more baits in the water are better if you’re trying to catch fish. There’s no doubt that with each worm or piece of cut shad you send out into the lake or river you’re increasing your odds of success. There’s just one problem—every state in the union has its own rules governing how many rods an angler can fish at the same time.
In most states, the maximum per fisherman is two rods, meaning two lines in the water simultaneously. However, there are exceptions. In Indiana, for example, there is no limit on the number of rods an individual angler can cast out. In Alaska, you can deploy three rods on the ice, but only one on open water. In Mississippi you can fish five rods at a time. These restrictions get even more nuanced in some states, such as Oregon where you’re allowed to fish two rods at the same time but only with a two-rod validation permit. Certain bodies of water may also have different rod restrictions than those placed on the state. Where rod rules can get really sticky is when trolling. If you live in a two-rod-per-angler state but head out trolling for walleyes or stripers, it’s common to pull up to six lines at once. Technically, though, if there are only two guys on the boat, you’re breaking the law. You can check your state’s rod limits here.
Using Gamefish as Bait
I recently spent a week on a small lake in Northeast Pennsylvania. It was my second visit to this location, and the year prior I laid an absolute smackdown on big smallmouths throwing jerkbaits and tubes. This year, after two days of fishing, I was perplexed. I hit all the spots where I’d done well before and couldn’t score a bite. My young son was fishing a worm and bobber and happened to land a tiny yellow perch. As an experiment, I rigged that perch on a bigger hook and sent it out under a bobber. Within two minutes, it got clobbered by a 3-pound smallie. For the rest of the trip, I fished small live perch and hammered the bass. The thing is, in Pennsylvania it’s perfectly legal to use a gamefish as bait. In many other states it’s not.
States like Minnesota, as an example, do not allow any fish classified as a gamefish to be used as bait whether alive or dead. You are allowed to keep 20 yellow perch per person per day in Minnesota, you can take them home and fry them up, but you can’t send one back out on a steel leader for pike. The bottom line is that you can’t assume just because a fish has a daily bag limit you can do whatever you want with that limit of fish. Some of you may have caught a tiny bluegill and cast it back out for bass or cut one up for catfish without giving it much thought, but you need to consult your state’s rule book before turning gamefish into bait.
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Collecting Live Bait
Rounding up bait can be as fun as using it to catch fish. When I was little, my grandfather and I spent hours digging worms in his garden. Fast forward and now I do this with my kids. They also love netting crayfish in a local river, which I’m happy to recast under a slip float for smallmouths. Gathering your own live bait is also cost effective if you fish a lot, but while many people understand that there are size limits and daily bag limits placed on the fish we target, many don’t consider whether that’s the case for the bait species we collect.
Rules will vary state by state, but some require separate permits on top of your fishing license to do things like set minnow and crayfish traps. Frogs make terrific baits for a variety of fish, largemouth bass especially, but rules and permits governing the collection and possession of reptiles and amphibians also vary greatly by state. Likewise, legal bait collection methods are different around the country. As an example, where I live, you are not allowed to use a cast net to gather baitfish in non-tidal freshwater. So, before you snag a frog and pin it on a hook, or fill a bucket to the brim with crayfish, make sure you’re allowed to do so where you live, that you don’t need a permit to collect the bait, and that you’re not taking more than you’re allowed.
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Transporting Bait from One Body of Water to Another
Speaking of gathering your own live bait, it’s also critical that you check your state’s rules regarding transportation. This step is not only highly overlooked, but in some cases has led to ugly environmental impacts.
Let’s say you know a creek is loaded with crayfish. It’s easy to gather a few dozen with little effort, and the plan is to take them to a bigger river nearby where you target bass and trout. What you might not consider, though, is whether those same crayfish exist in that river. You might assume they do, but are you 100% certain? Even if they do, there could be aquatic plant life, disease, or contamination in the creek that the state would rather not have introduced to the big river. In 1975, the first rusty crayfish was discovered in the lower Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. These crustaceans were native to the Ohio River basin, but between anglers collecting them and bait shops selling them, they can be found in at least a dozen states where they don’t belong these days. Because they’re more aggressive than other crayfish and grow much larger much faster, they have overtaken some systems, as they push out native crayfish species and quickly get too big for gamefish predation to keep them in check.
States like South Dakota take the introduction of invasive bait species so seriously that they don’t allow shops to import non-native species of shiners commonly found in the rest of the country. Though you should always check regulations before moving live bait—whether bought or caught—over state lines, in most places you needn’t be concerned about using a legal bait species in the same body of water where it was captured.
Using an Illegal Hook Type
Walk into any tackle shop and you’ll find quite the selection of hooks on the pegboard. While most of them are completely fair game to use in every state when paired with an artificial lure, people are often surprised to learn that this is not always the case when fishing with live or natural dead bait.
To the best of my knowledge, there are no states that mandate a certain type of hook be used in all waters for all species all the time. It is fairly common, however, for hook rules to apply to certain fish, on certain bodies of water, or during certain times of year. One of the best examples is the recent rule change that mandated circle hooks be used whenever fishing with live or natural bait for striped bass in saltwater throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. As circle hooks are designed to prevent gut hooking and seat cleanly in the corner of a fish’s mouth, this rule is a protective measure aimed at more fish being released in good health. However, shops still sell J hooks for other species, and if you weren’t aware of the rule, you could easily make the mistake of fishing for stripers without a circle hook and get in some trouble.
In the trout scene, hook rules are even more common. Stretches of rivers designated as conservation areas where trout cannot be kept often require the use of barbless hooks. Likewise, in many conservation stretches you’re only allowed to use artificial lures and flies. Signage in these locations does a pretty good job of putting “artificial only” in big, bold letters, but people miss the fine print. Quite often, the rules state you can’t have more than three hooks on any lure or fly. So, a spinner with a single treble hook is fine, but under those rules, a small Rapala plug with two treble hooks isn’t allowed even though it’s an artificial. Always check the rules in conservation trout water and be prepared to mash barbs or swap your treble hooks with single hooks to stay compliant.
Cleaning Fish on the Water
I once read a thread on an online forum that really stuck with me. It’s questionable whether it was fact or more of an urban legend, but it still made a great point. According to the post, a group of anglers hooked a giant wahoo offshore. It was the biggest the boat had ever connected with, but while the crew was reeling it in a big shark grabbed the wahoo and severed the entire body right behind the gills. All the anglers landed was the massive wahoo head, which they decided to toss in the cooler just to prove the size of the fish to people back at the dock. But one of the people at the dock happened to be a game warden, and despite the size of the head proving it was a giant fish, the head alone fell well under the legal length requirement of wahoo and a citation was issued. Fact? Fiction? It really doesn’t matter, because the takeaway is that you are supposed to be able to prove the fish you possess are of a legal size.
With that in mind, cleaning or filleting your catch while still at sea or on the lake is largely frowned upon. It may seem like an efficient move—the boat’s already dirty, it’ll save space in the cooler, and it’ll create less work for later—but it can easily land you in hot water. Some states don’t allow cleaning at sea at all, but even in those that do, you’d be smart to keep the racks and carcasses in case an official asks to verify the length. On the off chance you catch a fish so big you need to remove the tail to fit it in the cooler, do not throw that tail overboard. While the wahoo story may have been embellished, I’ve heard many similar tales from wardens over the years where they’re presented with a bag of big walleye fillets that are clearly too long to have been cut off an undersized fish. Still, without the intact head and tail to measure, you’re getting a citation.