By BRIAN MULHERIN

Daily News Staff Writer

On Monday, Conservation Officer Jim Espinoza got the kind of question he loves to hear.

A man, shaking like a leaf as he handed over his fishing license, asked Espinoza what was considered a legally caught salmon.

“(Hooked) Anywhere on the head is legal, right?” the man asked.

The answer, the man found out the hard way, is no.

Under the definition of hook and line fishing in the 2003 Michigan Fishing Guide are the following two sentences: “Fish so taken must be hooked in the mouth. Fish not hooked in the mouth must be returned to the water immediately.”

Since the man had taken the fish to a cooler in his truck instead of the water, he was ticketed for possession of a fish not legally caught. The fine for possession of illegally caught fish is the greater of $250 or $10 per pound. In this case the fish was about 16 pounds.

Two Ohio men found out about the per-pound fine the hard way Monday as they nearly got a trip to jail when their estimated fine came out to about $800. Since they didn’t have enough money to post bond, they were taken into custody by the Mason County Sheriff’s Office. They eventually posted bond before having to spend the night in jail. They will have to appear before the magistrate within 10 days.

The men were allegedly snagging fish near the Hamlin Lake dam on the Sable River. They did not have fishing licenses.

Espinoza observed the men using what he believed were illegal methods and other fishermen approached him to say they had seen it as well. As the men were escorted away from the river, one fisherman pointed out that a net and stringer belonging to the men was still across the river. When Park Officer Matt Dotson retrieved the stringer of five fish, several fishermen pointed out another fish that was lying dead on the bottom the river. The fishermen said the two men were dropping the fish on the rocks or in shallow water to intentionally stun them, then slipping them onto their stringer. Many anglers use the excuse “it was going to die anyway” when taking home illegal fish.

None of the day’s events were new to Espinoza, who has seen it and heard it all when it comes to snagging salmon.

The practice was legal for almost 25 years until being outlawed in 1992.

Since then, the laws have been rewritten to outlaw the implements used to snag fish. First, the treble hooks with permanently attached weight were outlawed, then fishing with a treble hook with any weight below it was outlawed. Then fishing with a lure weighing more than one ounce on rivers was outlawed.

Still, the practice endures.

“On any day , I can go into the state park when the fish are there and upon seeing an officer, they’ll cut their lines or quit fishing,” Espinoza said.

Espinoza said plainclothes officers have observed that most snaggers will stop when a conservation officer is in sight, but resume quickly when the CO leaves.

One question Espinoza is often asked is “How many jerks can I do?” referring to the hook-setting motion used by many violators when the fish are in the river. Espinoza said he observes people closely and makes notes on how often they “set the hook.” He once watched a man make 70 hooksets in a 20-minute period. A person drifting a lure or spawn sac through a pool of fish and setting the hook at the exact same point on every drift is suspicious, Espinoza said.

Another practice that Espinoza receives questions about is called tight-lining. Fish swim into a line that is taut because it is anchored to the bottom with an ounce or more of lead weight. As the fish hits the line, it swims along the line, following it to a hook. The fisherman feels the fish and sets the hook. The practice is frowned upon by fly anglers, but it can be difficult to categorize as illegal. With bait on the hook the practice is not illegal, but with a bare hook, it is illegal. In cases where illegal methods are suspected, Espinoza said he practices careful observation and takes plentiful notes.

Espinoza and new partner Brian Brosky will coordinate a Riverwatch program from now until the end of October, in order to reduce illegal snagging of fish on area rivers.

Espinoza said volunteers in the program last year were approached with compliments from fishermen on almost every shift. Legal fishermen were happy to see the snaggers scared off by the observers.

Volunteers simply show up at a river in their orange vest and hat and observe the anglers there. If they observe snagging, they call in conservation officers, who ticket and if necessary arrest the offenders.

“The high visibility helped areas such as Indian Bridge, Maple Leaf (a.k.a. the Taylor Road access site) and around Scottville with the reduction of snagger complaints,” Espinoza said.

The only requirement for volunteers is that they work when they say they will, Espinoza said. Riverwatch patrols will be posted at the Sable River, the Pere Marquette River and the Big Manistee River.

For more information on legal fishing methods, visit www.michigan.gov/dnr. To volunteer for the Riverwatch program, contact the Cadillac district office of the Department of Natural Resources at (231) 775-9727 and ask for the law-enforcement secretary.

bmulherin@ludingtondailynews.com

845-5181, ext. 348