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Minnesota DNR conservation officers educate anglers about fish virus

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer Randy Hanzal, left, explains to Shane Doesken of Duluth procedures for draining his live well and transporting minnows after fishing at Fish Lake May 27. Sam Cook/Forum Communications

DULUTH -- On a peaceful Thursday evening, Shane Doesken of Duluth and a fishing partner are ready to launch Doesken's boat at the Fish Lake dam.

That's when they're approached by two uniformed conservation officers with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources -- Mike Scott and Randy Hanzal.

Doesken has done nothing wrong.

The COs simply want to inspect Doesken's live well to make sure it's been drained and to ask the anglers what they plan to do with any minnows they use after leaving the lake.

The visit is part of a stepped-up effort by DNR conservation officers to help prevent the spread of VHS (viral hemorrhagic septicemia) and other invasive species on Minnesota's waters. Concerns over VHS, which can kill fish, were heightened in January when the virus was detected on Lake Superior.

So far, most anglers are coming on board with the effort to drain their boats and drain live wells upon leaving lakes and rivers. Compliance is improving, officers say.

"On opening weekend, at first it was marginal or patchy," Scott said. "They were doing it, but they weren't as keen about it. Last weekend, before we even talked to people, about three-fourths of them were doing exactly what we asked."

Not as clear to most anglers is what they must do with minnows and minnow water upon leaving waters designated as "infested." In that case, Scott and Hanzal explain the requirements in a friendly and straightforward way.

Doesken found that helpful, he said after the visit.

"I didn't know all that," he said. "I knew you weren't supposed to transfer (the water) from lake to lake, but I didn't know you were supposed to drain it before you left the lake."

That's exactly what Scott and Hanzal are explaining to anglers. Minnows can't be moved from infested waters to another lake in water taken from the infested lake. That water must be drained and replaced with tap water. Or it must be drained and the minnows deposited in a trash receptacle.

Many anglers seem to know about VHS and the rules that can help prevent its spread.

"If they're from Duluth, about 75 percent are aware of the rules, because of all the media exposure. But those from out of the area, coming up here from the Cities, aren't as aware," Scott said.

Although anglers often are unsure why conservation officers are approaching them at landings this spring, most understand the visits.

"My experience has been extremely favorable," Hanzal said. "People know there are pretty high stakes involved. For the most part, they like to see our presence down there (at landings). There are a lot of questions being asked. I think most anglers want to do the right thing."

But if anglers blatantly ignore the requirements, they might get a more serious visit with a conservation officer. Scott and Hanzal chased down one boater who left Fish Lake without pulling the drain plug on his boat. He was given a warning ticket. Scott had encountered the individual at another landing earlier and explained proper procedures to him at that time, he said.

After making primarily educational contacts with boaters during the first two weeks of the season, conservation officers probably will change their approach, Scott said.

"I'm not afraid to say we'll be out there in plain clothes, observing," Scott said. "If they're not complying when they leave the access, they may be surprised down the road."