The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) defines snagging in its 2011 Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations handbook as “hooking or attempting to hook fish other than inside the mouth.”
The ODFW regulation book also states, under general restriction 19, that it is unlawful to “Snag or attempt to snag gamefish.”
According to ODFW Biologist Todd Confer, snagging is a problem statewide and not just on the Chetco River.
“It’s illegal to snag, it’s unlawful to gain fish hooked other than in the mouth,” Confer said. “There is no question that snagging is occurring, especially when there is a greater number of fish congregating in specific places on the river.”
Not only do the regulations state that it is illegal to snag, it also states that it is “unlawful to take game fish hooked other than hooked inside the mouth.”
The distinction is important to Confer because there are multiple ways to snag and it forces anglers who are obeying the law to fish legally.
One way to snag is to use an oversized hook and run it through a fishing hole teeming with salmon until it comes into contact with a fish and then try to set the hook in the body of the fish.
A method that is easily observed and reported, snagging can cause damage to fish that are ripped open by the hook but not caught, and damage to the sustainability of the fishery by forcing fish to expend energy that would normally be used to reach spawning beds.
Another method that is more prevalent and less noticeable, refered to as lining or line snagging, entails using a long leader, according to Confer.
“Fishermen use a long leader, wait for line rubs and then try to set the line,” Confer said. “It has been more prevalent up and down the coast.”
Leader line is a lighter line that is typically clear to cut down on visibility in the water.
Local fisherman and Brookings-Harbor High School teacher Ted Burdett explained that lining is possible because the fish are starving for oxygen.
“All it takes is clear line and neutral buoyancy, and an oxygen starved salmon breathes in the line,” he said. “They’re not eating, only striking on impulse.”
“A couple of years ago, line snagging became a more popular method,” Confer said. “They implemented a regulation on the Rogue to limit leader length to no more than 6 feet, but people find a way to get around it.”
Oregon fishing regulations are constantly being updated, but people who want to break them will always find ways to do so, Confer said.
“Rules are written for the 95 to 98 percent of the people who are trying to obey the rules,” he said. “The small percentage who don’t follow the rules are tough to deal with.”
Long-time fisherman and author Larry Ellis agreed.
“A small percentage,” he said when asked about the number of people who take fish illegally. “I’d say less than one percent.”
“It’s a few bad apples that give everybody else a bad name,” he added.
“Depending on conditions, you can have as many as 50 percent,” he said. “But, when the fish are on the move it’s maybe five percent.”
While Confer states that it is illegal, he also admits that it can be a tough law to enforce.
“It is very difficult to regulate ethical behavior,” Confer said. “Trying to regulate a sport fishery is a social issue, but snagging is not considered an ethical way to harvest fish.”
The ODFW doesn’t have law enforcement officers and, according to Confer, they contract with the Oregon State Police (OSP) to enforce the laws that are created.
OSP has two troopers that are assigned to Curry County and according to Confer they are stretched thin with the amount of area that they have to cover.
There is a phone number, 1-800-452-7888, for fishermen to report snagging, but according to Confer it is difficult to prosecute snaggers.
“The problem we have is that people are willing to tip, but they’re not willing to go to court,” he said. “The case doesn’t go anywhere and it’s hard to move forward with a lot of those.”
The penalties for violating the fishing regulations is considered a class A misdemeanor and is punishable by a maximum of $5,000 and one year in jail, according to the ODFW handbook.
While the penalty is steep, violators are not punished as often as they could be, due to the lack of law-enforcement coverage.
Ellis feels that the ODFW does what they can with the manpower they have, but that it is tough.
“They do the best they can,” Ellis said. “They’ve handled the problem adequately, but the whole thing is manpower and having the people to observe.”
When law enforcement is limited by budget and manpower, changes to the regulations can be another solution to the problem.
“There are certain regulations that could be put in place during certain times of the year, in certain locations,” Ellis said when asked what a solution to the problem might be. “Having a bobber-fishing-only fishery during sensitive parts of the year is a possible part of the solution.”
According to Confer, it becomes more difficult to snag when the water level comes up and the fish are moving freely up the river.
“Snagging is an opportunistic thing,” he said. “If we can eliminate snagging behavior, we get rid of the law breakers.”
One way that has been suggested to limit the ability of fishermen to snag is closing the river to fishing when flow levels drop to a certain point and limiting angler’s access to fish that are waiting in pools to go upriver.
Confer doesn’t see variable flow closures a perfect solution, or a viable option and the department already tries to predict when the flow will be high enough to allow free movement of the fish.
“We hate to start limiting opportunities for the vast majority in response to a small number of anglers who are breaking the law,” he said. “We don’t want to punish legitimate anglers to try and address what is a highly visible, but not a high biological impact problem.”
Many fishermen disagree that snagging is not a high biological impact problem and want to see laws made that protect more fish but still give everyone opportunities to fish.
“You don’t make wildlife laws for the convenience of the consumer, you make them to protect the species,” Burdett said. “I think ODFW opening the Chetco when they did was wrong – the flow was way to low and it was a slaughter.”
According to Confer, other states have snagging fisheries but he doesn’t see allowing it to happen as a solution.
“If we allow snagging then we’re likely to run into a conservation issue,” he said. “We want to try and keep the harvest rate to where we are not going to have a conservation issue.”
While snagging is a legal problem, it is also considered by some anglers to be a moral problem.
Burdett believes that all anglers have a responsibility to study their quarry and respect it.
“A true angler has to study the habits of their quarry and make the proper presentation,” he said. “We have the technology to make almost any species extinct if we want to. We need to feel the spirit of fishing and respect the quarry.”
“The fisherman has to be more tenacious than the fish when they are not biting to get them to bite,” he said. “Some days you might not get them to bite at all; you have to put in your dues.”
The ODFW is constantly exploring ways to improve the game fisheries in Oregon, according to Confer, and he encourages citizens to observe and report those who break the law to the tip-line or to the OSP and ODFW offices in Gold Beach.
Confer also explained that ODFW will be seeking public input on fishing regulations for the 2013 fishing season during upcoming meetings, and encouraged interested citizens to participate.