Fish Fry[/b] A La Gestapo?
Capital Times :: Lifestyle :: 1D
Saturday, August 9, 1997
For sheer drama, it was like a scene from Fox 47's ``Cops'' show --and as chilling as any Tom Clancy novel.
While an estimated 125 people were taking part in the annual free fish fryat The Bridge tavern's picnic grounds on Beaver Dam Lake[/b] two weeks ago, a halfdozen cars suddenly pulled into the parking lot.As the predominantly blue-collar crowd looked on with mouths agape, sixgrim-faced state Department of Natural Resources wardens and a Dodge Countysheriff's deputy jumped out of the vehicles. (There was another plainclotheswarden mingling with the crowd; two additional sheriff's deputies later joinedthe scene.)
And before anyone could react, witnesses say, the wardens were barking outorders, interrogating certain individuals and checking out coolers filled witha variety of fish that Jerry Daley, the tavern's owner, says were donated forthe event by least 15 area fishermen.
``They came in here like a SWAT team,'' says Daley, 62, a former Janesvilleresident who bought The Bridge seven years ago. ``You would have thought itwas a drug raid. They had flak jackets on. They had their camcorders out. Theyhad their handcuffs ready in case anyone got out of control.''
Jerry Neis, 54, who lives down the road and has his own electronicsbusiness, says he could tell by the wardens' ``aggressive'' behavior that thiswas serious business.
``I said to one of 'em, `Hey, we're just having a fish fry[/b] here -- peoplegetting together on a Saturday afternoon. Why don't you just let us be?' '' hesays.
``And they come on with this, `Just shut up and go away or you'll be next.'At one table people were booing. But you had to stay in a crowd. If they sawwho it was, they came after you.''
Mike Spors, the warden who orchestrated the raid, says the wardensconfiscated about 6,000 fillets -- or about 3,000 fish.
And while no charges have yet been filed -- there was one arrest fordisorderly conduct -- he emphasizes that the focus of the DNR investigationhas little to do with the fact that Daley violated a state law by serving gamefish without a permit.
``The issue,'' he says, ``is a very small number of people possessing alarge number of fish. And our investigation leads us to believe that thosefish may have been taken illegally and were grossly over the possessionlimit.''
He also scoffs at the notion that the fish fry[/b] was free, pointing out thatthe wardens also seized a jar filled with almost $100 in donations.
Further, he says, patrons had to pay for their drinks.
``Do you know how much profit there is when you sell beer at $1.75 a can?''he asks. ``These are things people need to think about. There's a huge profitto be made from something like this.''
Asked if such a massive show of force by a government agency doesn't justfuel the paranoia of right-wing militia groups, Spors says he hopes that's notthe case ``because we only used the number of people we needed to shut downthat operation.
``There were many people there. We knew there was going to be a very largeamount of fish we'd have to take control of.''
So the strategy, Spors says, was ``to get in and out as quickly as possible-- and to leave as little room for confrontation as possible.''
Justifiable or not, the raid has infuriated many local residents, saysEditor James Kelsh of the Beaver Dam Daily Citizen. He says the paper hasreceived 10 letters -- five of them unsigned -- protesting the incident,several of which compared the DNR's tactics to Hitler's Gestapo.
``It's the dominant topic of conversation in coffee shops,'' he says.
Daley, for his part, says he's outraged by any suggestion that he was outto gouge people. He questions if the DNR realizes how much work was involved-- or how popular the event has become. (Last year an estimated 500 peopleshowed up.)
Yes, he makes money from the beer sales, he says. But he's also the guy whorents the tents and provides the use of his kitchen facilities.
And money raised from donations goes to the local three-piece band thatalways plays at the event, he says.
Moreover, he says wasn't aware that one needs a permit to serve a free fishfry -- and doubts other tavern owners are, either.
``I mean, we're not the only bar in Wisconsin that does this sort of thing,you know,'' he says.
Ed Lewandowski, 48, who helped organize the fish fry[/b] with his girlfriend,Dawn Tuel, 33, says it's no great mystery what the DNR was really after.
``Me,'' he says matter of factly.
How else does one explain that he was the only person hauled off to theBeaver Dam jail and grilled for almost an hour before being released?
The DNR wants him, he maintains, because he happens to be a very successfulfisherman. So successful, he says, that some area fishermen are jealous.
(``Unfortunately, he also tends to brag about how many fish he catches,''Tuel says.)
And so successful, Lewandowski says, that he's under constant surveillancefrom area wardens -- particularly John Christian of the DNR's Horicon office.
``This is nothing but a witch hunt,'' says Lewandowski, a 27-year employeeof CP Railroad in nearby Fox Lake. ``They've got a vendetta out for me.''
Spors acknowledges that Lewandowski is one of three individuals the DNR isinvestigating. But he denies that Christian or anyone else from the DNR is``out to get him.''
``We definitely want to get our side (of the story) out,'' Spors adds.``But this is a lengthy investigative process. We can't say everything we'dlike to say right now, to inform the public.
``But it'll all come out after the charges are filed and everyone has theirday in court.''
As for those who insist the DNR got carried away, absolutely not, Sporssays.
``OK, so we did use seven wardens,'' he says. ``But, frankly, if we'd hadmore, I would have used more.''