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Mille Lacs Fishing Guides Frustrated Over Federal Regulations

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(credit: CBS) Bill Hudson
Bill Hudson has been with WCCO-TV since 1989. The native of Elk Rive...
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GARRISON, Minn. (WCCO) – With its walleye chop and whitecaps, Lake Mille Lacs is more playground than place for commercial navigation.

But in March 2010, the U.S. Coast Guard issued an administrative ruling, claiming the lake was a federally navigable body of water and subject to limited federal authority.

The decision was based on historic circumstances dating back to the French fur trade, when Mille Lacs was reachable by canoes traveling up the Mississippi and Rum rivers.

Critics point out that Mille Lacs is not navigable, because the Rum River is dammed at Anoka, preventing any commercial navigation.

But that hasn’t stopped the Coast Guard from laying claim on the lake and the fishing guides who use it.

“Technically, I guess it’s the law right now,” said Phil Erickson, owner of Myr Mar Marina on the north shore of Lake Mille Lacs.

Erickson’s talking about a federal boating license called the “six pack,” a reference to the Coast Guard required license for fishing guides who take on six or fewer customers on their boats.

Guides and resort owners like Erickson said the Coast Guard was threatening to enforce the requirement in 2010, but then never followed through. But recent rumblings in Washington D.C. could indicate that enforcement isn’t far off.

“We have licenses for our launch captains, but it’s not the Coast Guard license,” Erickson said. “It’s through the state.”

While the launches that many resorts operate on Mille Lacs are inspected annually by the state of Minnesota, smaller boats and their guides are allowed to operate freely, just as long as they follow the state’s public fishing and boating laws.

“It’s an overkill, as far as I’m concerned,” said long-time guide, Bob Carlson, about the Coast Guard’s regulations on Mille Lacs.

Carlson grew up on Mille Lacs and has guided on the lake for the past 22 years. He said if more safety oversight is needed, it should be the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources that does it, not the U.S. Coast Guard.

“I see the Coast Guard on Lake of the Woods and on larger bodies of water like that,” Carlson said. “But in Mille Lacs Lake here? I don’t see the need.”

On May 17, Eighth District U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaak (R-Minn.), introduced the “Freedom to Fish Act,” legislation to stop the Coast Guard’s actions. Cravaak calls the Coast Guard ruling on Mille Lacs an intrusion and redundant of state enforcement.

Guide Tony Roach has seven others working for him. Just getting the Coast Guard’s license could cost each of them between $1,200 and $2,000, pricing many of these part-timers out of a job.

“It’s going to be a huge expense for them, considering the summer window is pretty short,” Roach said. “There’s really no commercial shipping, no navigation whatsoever out on this body of water, so other than public safety, I don’t see any need for it.”

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