Why would anyone fish in Illinois without a license?

I mentioned it recently, but it doesn’t hurt to say it again — the 2024 Illinois fishing licenses went into effect on April 1. I’d love to know the reason why a person who fishes doesn’t purchase a new license. It’s absolutely beyond me.

I can’t come up with a valid reason for not buying a license. It can’t be because of the expense. Illinois fishing licenses are priced exceptionally reasonably. They cost much less than any of our neighboring states. Getting caught fishing without a license can be a very expensive proposition. I believe the fine can max out at $2,500 or a year in jail, and the state has the right to impound an angler’s boat, motor and equipment. I’d bet that nobody has ever been slapped with such a severe penalty, but I wouldn’t even think about tempting fate.

I was recently on a podcast talking about how to get more people into the sport of fishing. Once people try fishing for the first time, there is a major push to figure out how to keep those new fishermen coming back to the sport. The number of new fishermen who join our sport every year is tremendous. That figure can be tracked by following the number of people who have bought a fishing license for the first time in a year. The number, for almost every state is huge.

The problem arises in the fact that a massive percentage of the new anglers don’t buy a new license the following year. What is the deal with that? Did all those people give the sport a try and buy a license, but then decide the next year that fishing is not for them? I don’t believe that to be true.

I can’t prove this, but I have a theory about it. I think there are a lot of people who don’t purchase fishing licenses because they have never been checked to see if they own a license.

I can’t tell you that this is fact. When was the last time you were checked by an officer of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to see if you possessed a license? It’s been about 10 years since the last time a gendarme asked to see my license.

I’m not blaming the dedicated employees of the Illinois DNR for the lack of vigilance. These good folks don’t have the funds to maintain a staff of law enforcement folks large enough to be checking for licenses. A few years back, on the Fox Chain O’ Lakes, there wasn’t enough money to keep the patrol boats gassed up and running to inspect boats, check limits and look for licenses.

I think that there are enough people out there who have larceny in their hearts and will not buy a fishing license because they have no fear of getting checked or getting caught. If my assumption is correct, it’s a sad thing to realize.

Another possibility to me is the language barrier between fishermen who do not speak English and the IDNR officers. I did a ride-along with some DNR officers a few years back. A couple of times we stopped to check licenses and the folks we stopped didn’t speak a word of English.

They had no idea what they were being asked by the officers. After trying to make their point and getting nowhere, the officers just shook their heads and walked away. Interesting.

I don’t know the bottom-line answer as to why people don’t buy licenses after they’ve done it their first year. What I do know is that license sales are the lifeblood of conservation programs, and everyone needs to have one. Help get the word out, my friends.

• Daily Herald Outdoors columnist Steve Sarley can be reached at

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