Some resort owners on the Ontario side of Rainy Lake claim to have recently seen Minnesota-licensed boats in Ontario waters, a clear violation of Canada’s border closure and subject to stiff fines, jail time and expulsion from Canada.

Both the U.S. and Canada closed their borders to all non-emergency personal travel in March to slow the spread of COVID-19. It’s unclear when the border may reopen.

But Frank Wepruk, owner of The Fisheries Resort outside Fort Frances, said he’s seen several Minnesota boats cross the border this summer and has heard reports of more.

“My friend and I encountered four U.S.-based boats’’ on a recent outing on the Ontario side of the lake, Wepruk told the News Tribune on Wednesday.

Wepruk was featured in a CBC report earlier this week on the issue.

“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,” Wepruk told the CBC.

But Wepruk later softened some of those allegations, noting he was mostly referring to legal, pre-COVID-19 border water crossings in past years.

“For the most part, the U.S.-based fishermen are law-abiding and would not purposefully break the law. And we haven’t seen much activity since the virus has changed border regulations,” Wepruk told the News Tribune. “But I have heard hearsay talk of it and witnessed it with my own eyes.”

U.S.-based fishing guides said claims they are crossing the border are false.

“I guided 80 days this summer. I’m on the water every day. I’m in a guide’s association with 21 members. I’m the past president of the group. … And I can guarantee you that not one of them crossed into Canada this year. I’d bet my life on it,’’ said Bruce Jean, who operates as part of the Rainy Lake Guides group through Rainy Lake Houseboats, just outside International Falls. “There’s no way any of us would risk that. It’s not worth it.”

According to Jacqueline Callin, a spokeswoman for Canada Border Services Agency, the agency strongly warns all boaters “that crossing the border for recreation or tourism is currently prohibited.”

“The government of Canada implemented travel restrictions in all modes of transportation — land, sea, air and rail. All travel of an optional or discretionary nature, such as tourism and recreation, is prohibited under these measures,’’ the agency notes. “Examples of optional or discretionary travel include, but are not limited to: hikes across the border; social events, such as birthday parties or weddings; boating across the border; camping; picking up a pet; visiting; or checking on a seasonal residence, etc.”

Failure to comply with the current Canadian border entry restrictions is an offense under the Quarantine Act and could lead to up to six months in prison and/or $750,000 in fines. Further, a person who causes a risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm to another person while willfully or recklessly contravening this act or the regulations could be liable for a fine of up to $1 million or imprisonment of up to three years, or both.

Callin noted that Royal Canadian Mounted Police are responsible for enforcing the border regulation on waterways such as Rainy Lake.

Jean said it’s possible some non-guide anglers, such as local residents or tourists, may have crossed the border this summer despite the risk of fines, or somehow ignorant of the closure, but that he personally doesn’t know of any.

Rainy Lake at dawn. The big lakes sprawls across the U.S./Canada border, and some Ontario resort owners claim Minnesota-based boats are violating COVID-19 border closures and crossing into Ontario waters.  (File / News Tribune)

Rainy Lake at dawn. The big lakes sprawls across the U.S./Canada border, and some Ontario resort owners claim Minnesota-based boats are violating COVID-19 border closures and crossing into Ontario waters. (File / News Tribune)

Some water crossings legal pre-COVID

Jean also noted that, in recent years, before COVID-19 restrictions, some U.S. boaters were using a relatively new option to cross into Canada by water without formally clearing customs, but not in 2020. A little-known rule change three years ago allows U.S.-based anglers to enter Canadian waters in remote areas, so long as they don’t go onto land. The rule eliminated the need for the Canadian Remote Area Border Crossing Permit, but only if the boater never sets foot on shore. Wepruk said that provision has hurt his business.

Jean said it’s not worth it for most of his customers to purchase an Ontario fishing license when the legal limit is only one walleye per day in Ontario, but four walleyes daily on the Minnesota side of Rainy Lake. Wepruk, the Ontario resort owner, had claimed that U.S.-based anglers in past years were taking too many walleyes out of Ontario waters.

“I understand why the Ontario resorts are upset. They were basically shut down all summer with the border closure,’’ Jean said. “But this idea of us breaking the laws to go up there, or somehow depleting their natural resources, is just a fabrication.”

Ontario resorts, most of which cater to U.S. anglers, have been essentially shut down due to the border closure while northern Minnesota fishing resorts enjoyed one of their busiest summers on record.

Mike Berg, owner of Seagull Creek Outfitters on Saganaga Lake, another water that straddles the Minnesota/Ontario border, said he doesn’t know of any U.S.-based boats that crossed into Canada this summer, or vice versa.

On Saganaga, where many U.S. residents own cabins on the Ontario side of the lake and would loved to have boated past their property, there’s “no one going over the line,’’ Berg said.

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