Frank and Lynn Wepruk get frustrated when they hear the hum of a group of boats full of people going fishing, who will cross into Canada, fish, and then return south of the border.

The Wepruks own The Fisheries Resort, on Rainy Lake, near Fort Frances, Ont. Rainy Lake is mainly situated in Canada, but some of the lake adjoins Minnesota.

“You can tell when it’s a fleet of guide boats going by,” said Lynn, noting the boats that originate from Minnesota are grouped together, sometimes with as many as eight boats together.

There can be four or five people in each boat, she said, “so, when you start doing the arithmetic, on how many fish they could be potentially pulling out of our lake in one day, it could be 100 fish per boat.”

Wepruk said that figure is based on using catch-and-release methods of fishing, which, although the fish may not end up on a dinner plate, there’s a good chance it will die after being hauled up from a depth of 50 feet of water, she said.

Canadian outfitters near Fort Frances, Ont., are concerned over rules which allow Americans to fish in Canadian waters, without clearing customs. (Gord Ellis/CBC)

The pressure on the lake’s north arm is immense, Frank said, who noted the fishing on the Minnesota side of the lake is poor, hence why American-based guides are now driving 25 kilometres or more, to bring US clients to fishing spots.

“What we’re finding now, especially in the fall, when the crappies are biting, we’ll see eight to 10 U.S. guide boats in a row, going up, fishing, and then going home later in the day. Some of them do two trips a day,” he said.

U.S. citizens are normally allowed to go into Canadian waters, without clearing customs, if the boat they are in does not anchor, moor or make landfall in Canada. They can also return to the U.S. without informing customs on the way out.

Wepruk said her resort is especially quiet this year, as most of their clients cannot come into Canada because of COVID-19 restrictions. Instead, those same clients are staying in Minnesota, spending all of their money at US-based lodges, she said, but still fishing in Canadian waters.

The province collects just over $23 for a day license for a non-resident. 

Canada Border Services told CBC News no U.S. citizens should be entering Canada for discretionary purposes, which includes fishing and sightseeing. However, patrolling waterways, such as Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods in northwestern Ontario falls to the RCMP. 

The RCMP closed its Fort Frances detachment in 1998.

Fishing guides who work on the Canadian side of the lake are seeing their livelihoods evaporate, said Scott Hamilton, who operates Jackfish Hammy’s Guide Service.

“They’re running up into Canadian waters, and fishing Canadian waters.” he said, noting he would usually get 60 days of guiding work per season.

This year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, Hamilton has had no income.

“When people are leaving, and they’ve got guides that are taking them up into Canadian waters, making money on our resources.”

Hamilton said he has conservation concerns with Americans fishing extensively on the Canadian side. He said 25 years ago, there were few walleye, the prized species of Rainy Lake to be found. 

Low catch limits allowed the population to rebound in the North Arm and in a number of other bays, he said, but that has not been the case on the Minnesota side. Hamilton said he wants to see the population continue to flourish on the Ontario side.

Hamilton said while he hopes most of the COVID-19 travel restrictions will be over next summer, he does have concerns going forward.

His usual clients, many of whom come from the far southern states such as Texas and Florida, may not travel back to a Canadian resort, after being able to get a similar experience and never clearing customs.

“They travel a long, long way to come and have the Canadian experience on Rainy Lake. They stay up at a resort on the North Arm, they cross the border, they do everything they’re supposed to do, we get out fishing, and there’s 15 guide boats from Minnesota on the same bay.”

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