Fishing float owner believes the DNR is harassing him

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Bill Hubbard owns Hubbard’s Fishing Float in Harper’s Ferry, Iowa. He feels he’s not being respected by the Wisconsin DNR as an authorized activity on the Mississippi. (Photo by Correne Martin)

This smartphone photo was taken by Bill Hubbard to show the proximity of the DNR warden to his customers trying to fish on his commercial float.

By Correne Martin

A Harper’s Ferry, Iowa, small businessman believes he’s being harassed by the Wisconsin DNR and is speaking out after an April 26 encounter that resulted in his arrest for interfering with fishing. 

Bill Hubbard Jr., 53, of Harper’s Ferry, is the owner of Hubbard’s Fishing Float, located at Lock and Dam No. 9, on the Iowa side of the river, yet accessible near Gordon’s Bay boat landing on Wisconsin Highway 35. Hubbard has run the floating dock and café for 16 years, following in his father’s footsteps. For more than 70 years, the float business itself has provided a good place for anglers—both experienced and amateur—to enjoy fishing the Mississippi River.

For $19, fishermen can typically enjoy an entertaining day and take home some fish for supper and their freezer. Many customers come from three to four hours away and spend additional money at motels, restaurants and sporting goods stores in not only Prairie du Chien, but also Ferryville, Lynxville, Harper’s Ferry, Lansing, McGregor and Marquette.

“I’m just a second-generation out here trying to make a living. I’m sick and tired of the harassment and them not recognizing me as a business owner or authorized activity. It makes it pretty difficult to portray my business appropriately,” Hubbard said. 

The recent incident occurred in the morning, when an on-duty Wisconsin conservation warden, Ed McCann, was fishing in plain clothes from a boat in the Mississippi River, downstream from Hubbard’s Fishing Float, according to the criminal complaint filed in Crawford County Court. Hubbard approached and confronted McCann telling him to leave the area. 

Hubbard had six customers on his float at the time, three had stayed overnight and three were there for the day.  Hubbard believes McCann was interfering with their ability to fish from the dock as they desired and asked him to give them some room to fish as he was only inches from the dock, with his motor running. When the man wouldn’t leave, Hubbard took cell phone pictures of the boat’s proximity to his property and then contacted the Iowa DNR warden to report the incident. His phone call was never returned. 

McCann moved his boat 10 yards away from the fisherman on his dock, according to the criminal complaint, submitted by DNR Warden Cody Adams. McCann reported that Hubbard was “threatening and aggressive,” using profanity toward him when telling him to leave, and that Hubbard’s actions were done with the intent to interfere with his lawful fishing.

For many fishermen, the unwritten fishing rule is to be at least casting distance away so you don’t interfere with one another. “If I have issues with boaters, 99 percent of the time, they just say ‘excuse me’ and leave, and there’s no more trouble,” he said. 

Later that morning, McCann was “legally fishing from the shore line above the fishing float where nobody else was fishing at the time,” the complaint reads. He reported that Hubbard “intentionally” cast his fishing lure over the top of his line and “did hook his fishing line, pulled his bait out of the water and left it on the rail of the [fishing float] dock. Hubbard intentionally walked over to the area to confront McCann and interfere.”

Hubbard’s story differs though. He said the catching of the two lines was an accident that happens often when fishermen are near each other. He also felt McCann was trespassing his property when he was on the shore line right next to his float and that the warden was interfering with his customers’ fishing, not the other way around. 

“The DNR says the river is public water, but there’s a federal law that says you cannot interfere with authorized activities,” Hubbard stated. “These occurrences with the DNR have happened to me multiple times. I think they don’t want me or my customers here.”

Warden Adams was reached regarding the April 26 incident. He did not address the question of Hubbard’s Fishing Float being an authorized activity. He instead introduced suspicions of “whether or not [Hubbard’s] is a permitted float with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” 

However, Hubbard is confident his operation doesn’t need a permit. “I’ve been in good standing with the Fish and Wildlife Service.” Hubbard added that he has a fire number, an address and is recognized by the federal government and the state of Iowa as an LLC. He said his business has maintained the property to which the float is affixed since 1938.

Following the morning matters between Hubbard and McCann April 26, at 3 p.m. Hubbard received a call from a fisherman wanting to be picked up at the boat landing. As Hubbard approached the landing, he noticed no fishing poles or tackle box, and no one there to be picked up. As he began to turn his boat around to leave, a man in plain clothes appeared out of a truck that had been parked at the landing. Hubbard thought the situation seemed strange, so he lingered on the water 20 yards from shore to observe. Feeling something was not right, he proceeded back to the fishing float to pick up his customers and bring them back to shore.

According to the criminal complaint, when Hubbard returned to the boat landing, he was handcuffed and placed in Crawford County custody and charged with interfering with fishing (second offense) and eluding an officer. He later posted bond. 

“Through all of this, my customers and the public were watching. Talk about defamation of character,” Hubbard countered. “I feel I provide a very good public service. It’s something for people who don’t have means to get this kind of fishing opportunity. Yet, [the Wisconsin DNR is] making it difficult for me to continue on like this.” 

Hubbard said he was told, if he had problems with other fishermen interfering with his customers, to call the Iowa DNR. He’s done so numerous times, and has had no response.

Paul Juleson, a 59-year fisherman who’s spent 45 years in Iowa County (Wis.) law enforcement, has patronized Hubbard’s Fishing Float many times. He said the Wisconsin DNR has the authority over this section of the Mississippi, from bank to bank. 

“The DNR can go anywhere they want to go,” Juleson pointed out, “but, as a fisherman on a float, I also have the right to make a complaint.” He agreed harassment from some Wisconsin DNR wardens has been blatant the last couple years. “You can’t treat everybody as a criminal until you look at the entirety of the situation,” he said.

Juleson was also quick to express his opinion about this and previous encounters between Hubbard and the DNR. “To me, they’re out to get him. They’re watching him like a hawk,” he stated. “I know Bill, and he can get hot. But he’s there for his people; he wants them to catch fish. I think [the DNR is] instigating him.” 

One of the two fishermen who were repeat customers of Hubbard’s on April 26, who only wished to be identified as a south central Wisconsin sportsman, shared a bit of what he saw that day. 

“When we got there, [the warden] was anchored and we wanted to fish. He was motoring within an inch of the float at one time. He was interfering with our fishing,” he emphasized. “I can’t recall all of what he said, but it was something about it being a first come first serve basis. But Bill’s trying to run a business and they were getting in the way of that. It’s like they were prodding him to fight from the very beginning.”

The part of the day that bothered the fisherman most was when the officers made their arrest. “My buddy’s got a heart condition and I’m a diabetic,” he ranted. “They wanted him to just leave us stranded there and, then (later), they were piling over us to tackle him on his boat. They wanted him to be courteous, but that was exactly the opposite of their actions.”

Overall, the man felt the DNR could’ve handled the situation much better.

Both Adams and Brandon Jones, refuge manager for the McGregor District and Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge, were asked to clarify the regulations about fishing alongside other fishermen and authorized businesses on the river. Jones referred to the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge Compatibility Determinations for Commercial Fishing Floats and said he had no further comments.

From Adams’ perspective, the DNR admits there’s a lot of “gray area” when it comes to regulating river activity, but he maintained that fishing the water is open to the public. 

“Everybody has the right to fish where they want as long as they do so lawfully,” he said. “Could I pull my boat right up next to somebody and fish. Legally, yes, I could. Is that the ethical thing to do? No. All fishermen need to be respectable on the river and get along.”

Hubbard agrees that everyone has the right to fish on the water lawfully. But, since Hubbard’s Fishing Float is a dock that doesn’t move, his customers are limited to fishing only as far as the docks will allow them. “My customers are paying for the best fishing experience they can have, and people who drive their boats up next to them are unlawfully interfering and impeding in their fishing activities,” Hubbard says. “And that is illegal.”

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