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How to React When boarded by the Coast Guard

Article and photos by Casey Allen for Humboldt Area Saltwater Anglers
Any time I get pulled over by law enforcement I get nervous. Even though I know I have done nothing wrong my pulse quickens and my voice quivers. It must be like having white coat syndrome, where your blood pressure goes up at the doctor’s office. It seemed everyone aboard the charter vessel Shellback was similarly affected as all six of us got really quiet when we realized we were about to be boarded by Department of Fish and Game wardens.

Captain Phil Glenn spotted the approaching patrol boat first and announced we were about to be boarded. Phil said he had only been boarded once before while fishing out of Bodega Bay. He was confident everything would be alright but he also believed they could find something wrong if they looked hard enough.

DFG Warden Brent Chase boards the charter vessel Shellback while at sea.
DFG Warden Brent Chase boards the charter vessel Shellback while at sea.

Officer Mathew Wells piloted the patrol boat alongside the Shellback while Officer Brent Chase stood on the bow ready to board the charter boat. Glenn did not stop the boat or pull any gear but kept trolling as Chase stepped across. He announced that he wanted to see everyone’s fishing license. Chase started laughing as he and Marlene looked for her license in the 25 feet of blue salmon, steelhead, and abalone report cards. The warden checked three of the six trolling rods for barbless hooks, checked Glenn’s log book, and counted our fish.

The inspection took about 10 minutes and was virtually painless. It helped that we were following all the rules which is really not that hard to do. Warden Matt Wells closed the distance between the two boats until the soft inflatable hull just kissed the wooden Shellback and Brent Chase stepped back onto the patrol boat smiling and waving goodbye.

Salmon fishing, Game Warden, Casey Allen,
The talk on deck after the wardens left was full of questions. I was surprised we did not have to stop trolling.

They did not ask us to stop. I wondered if there were other rules about what to do during a boarding at sea so I sent Matt Wells an email and asked.

Here is his reply:

“I received your question regarding what to expect during an at sea sport fishing check conducted by Department of Fish and Game Wardens. I would like to respond that the ocean is such a dynamic environment, sea state is highly variable, fishermen utilize many different techniques, and there are many different types of boats used by both law enforcement and fishermen. When considering all these factors it seems unlikely that any two at sea checks will be identical. However, there are a few simple things you as a fisherman can do to help the check go quickly and smoothly.

If you are approached by a DFG law enforcement vessel while fishing please maintain your course and speed and leave your fishing gear in the water if safe to do so. By maintaining course and speed you will greatly reduce the amount of maneuvering that the law enforcement vessel will have to do in order to approach your boat.

When the law enforcement vessel nears you listen for instructions from the officers. For example, if you are trolling for salmon the officer might ask you to keep trolling and request that you clear the fishing rods and/or downriggers from one side of the boat so that an officer may come aboard to conduct a check.

Leaving your fishing gear in the water and not manipulating it serves several purposes. It telegraphs the fact that you have nothing to hide to the officer. Quickly reeling in and stowing your tackle could be misinterpreted by an officer as an attempt to avoid a violation. Leaving your gear in the water also allows you to keep fishing during the contact.

Once aboard the officer may want to see your catch, what you are using to catch fish, and your fishing license among other things.

Safety is always our primary concern and with that in mind please don't hesitate to bring any potentially hazardous situation to the attention of your officer. For example, if you are headed toward a wash rock while the officer is busy counting fish in the box, please say something.”

[Editor's Note: Please share with our readers what you know that will enhance the experience of fishing or water recreation in Northern California or Southern Oregon. What have you learned while fishing or boating safety? Your expertise, no matter where you fish (fresh or saltwater) or what species you target, could be invaluable to other anglers. What not to do is just as important as what to do. Please send your strategies, ideas, tips, techniques and personal experiences to Please include your name and hometown.]

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Website Design Photo Credits: thanks the following individuals for contributing photographs for use on our Home and Section pages: Anders Tomlinson of, Casey Allen of Bayside, CA; Jason Haley of Medford, OR; Steve Breth of Burney, CA; Tracy McCormack of Eureka, CA; Grant Thompson of Grand Junction, CO; Richard Bott of Shingletown, CA; Ron Loftus of Yreka, CA; Scott Caldwell of Montague, CA; Lorissa Soriano of Alturas, CA and the late Dave Menke, formerly with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

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