U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents raided the Great Outdoors Bait Shop in Ely on Dec. 1, seizing more than 6,000 ciscoes along with the shop's computer files, tax records and banking records, said Jim Maki, the shop's owner.

Ciscoes, a baitfish popular with winter anglers, are typically netted each fall near Prairie Portage on Basswood Lake, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on the U.S.-Canadian border east of Ely.

Maki said that eight to 10 special agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service entered his shop that day, asking him repeated questions about whether the ciscoes he sells came from the U.S. or Canadian side of the international border. Maki said he told agents that Ely's Bob LaTourell, who nets the ciscoes for him, does so exclusively on the U.S. side of the border.

"It's a witch hunt, in my opinion," said Maki, who has operated the shop for 34 years.

The special agents seized all of the ciscoes that Maki had in the shop. Maki typically keeps some ciscoes for his own shop and sells others to bait shops in Duluth, Tofte and Grand Marais. The ciscoes are important for his local clientele, who use them to fish for lake trout and northern pike, he said. "That's the big-money thing for the winter," Maki said. "I'm shot now for the winter if I don't get the ciscoes back."

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He would have sold a dozen ciscoes for $9, he said.

Maki said if he doesn't get the ciscoes back, he might buy smelt, which also can be used as bait. Ciscoes certified as disease-free and of an appropriate size for bait can be difficult to find, some bait dealers say.

Kevin Downs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent from Bismarck, N.D., who led the raid, would not comment on its purpose. He said any comment on the investigation would have to come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's external affairs office in Minneapolis. A call to a representative in that office was not returned on Wednesday.

Maki said he has not heard anything from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials about the investigation.

Fisherman's Corner in Pike Lake currently has ciscoes that were taken in Minnesota, a store employee said Wednesday. Chalstrom's Bait and Tackle in Duluth will not carry ciscoes this winter.

"We haven't had ciscoes for several years," owner John Chalstrom said. "I haven't been able to find a legal source for them."

Uncertain future

Separate from the ongoing investigation of the Great Outdoors Bait Shop, it remains unclear whether cisco netting will be allowed to continue at all on Basswood Lake in coming years.

The U.S. portion of Basswood Lake lies within the BWCAW, administered by the U.S. Forest Service.

"The Wilderness Act (of 1964) says that commercial uses in the wilderness are permitted only to enhance recreation," said Gus Smith, Kawishiwi District ranger for the Forest Service at Ely.

The commercial cisco netting does not meet that requirement, he said.

The netting was brought to the attention of Superior National Forest officials last year, but netting was allowed to continue in 2015.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, had asked the Forest Service to allow cisco netting on Basswood Lake this fall, and the Forest Service agreed to do so.

But the Forest Service will not permit commercial cisco netting in the wilderness starting in 2017, Smith said.

"This will be the last year," he said.