CLOQUET, Minn. – The Fond du Lac Band
of Lake Superior Chippewa has announced plans to spear walleye on 13
lakes in northeastern Minnesota this spring.
In what will be the first time that
tribal members spear outside reservation boundaries in the Arrowhead
region since a federal court affirmed their treaty rights were
affirmed in the 1996, about 60 band members are expected to fish.
Most will do so along the North Shore in Lake and Cook counties.
Many of the band’s 4,200 members still
depend on food they hunt and gather, said Jack Bassett, chair of the
Fond du Lac band’s ceded territory committee.
"We have many families that rely
on this every year," he said. "They get their poundage of
fish, it’s in the freezer, and they have a lot of meals out of it."
For band members, returning to the
lakes validates rights that they were long denied.
In 1854, four years before Minnesota
became a state, the Fond du Lac band, along with the Bois Forte and
Grand Portage Chippewa bands, signed a treaty with the U.S.
government. The band agreed to give up most of their territory across
the Arrowhead region. In exchange, they retained the right to hunt,
fish and gather on that land.
But those rights weren’t legally
recognized until the band reached an agreement with the state in
1988. Until then, band members could be arrested for hunting and
fishing on ceded territory.
"I remember my dad back in the
1960s, he went and shot a deer," recalled Ferdinand Martineau,
the Fond du Lac band’s secretary/treasurer. "We were having
dinner, and the game warden knocked on the door and came in and
arrested my dad, and took our dinner, and took the meat out of the
It’s been a tough few years for those
who rely on subsistence foods. The band canceled its moose hunt last
year, and the deer harvest has been down. The band also did not spear
walleye last year on Mille Lacs, which is in a separate treaty area,
because of a late ice out and declining fish numbers there.
After studying walleye populations in
the 1854 treaty area for nearly two decades, Ferdinand Martineau said
this was the year to start a limited spearing season.
"If we’re going to give our band
members the opportunity to do some subsistence fishing, we’ve got to
start doing it now," he said.
Spearing will be allowed on only two
lakes per night, and the band has set harvest limits at most lakes of
20 fish per 100 acres.
All together the band intends to
harvest just under 2,000 walleye. DNR Fisheries Chief Don Pereira
said he doesn’t anticipate any negative effects on walleye
"The fact that their harvests are
quite low indicates that the odds of a problem arising are pretty
small," he said.
Spearing has been contentious in
Wisconsin and on Lake Mille Lacs. When Ojibwe band members in
Wisconsin first began spearing in the late 1980s, they were met by
hundreds of protestors in clashes that turned violent.
Both the band and the Minnesota
Department of Natural Resources say this time will be different.
Pereira isn’t expecting a similar
response in Minnesota. Still, the DNR and Fond du Lac band plan to
have law enforcement officers on hand at the lakes when spearing
begins after ice-out.
But even if there are no protests,
non-Indian anglers are nevertheless concerned about the harvest, said
Scott VanValkenburg who owns Fisherman’s Corner in Pike Lake just
north of Duluth.
"It’s kind of a heated debate at
times," Van Valkenburg said. "Everybody’s worried about big
females getting speared."
Band members target spawning areas,
using bright lights to illuminate the shallow waters where walleye
gather at night. VanValkenburg worries that the loss of big females
— some over 20 years old — could decimate the walleye population.
"If they concentrate up in the
spawning grounds and they harvest the big fish, then that’s a big
problem," he said. "It takes a long time to recover."
But Pereira said removing some
spawning females won’t affect the overall population.
"It’s something that’s just so
counter-intuitive to the public," Pereira said. "We’ve
known forever in fisheries management it’s not how the fish are
taken, or even when, but it’s how many."
When the band reaches its harvest
limit, he said, its members will stop fishing.
To enforce the overall limit, the band
plans to have conservation officers at every boat landing. The DNR
isn’t that precise with its harvest management. It limits the number
of fish each angler can keep, but not the total number of anglers.
The band plans to begin as soon as ice
is out on the lakes, but officials say they will not spear over the
weekend of the state fishing opener on May 10.
If the ice doesn’t clear until after
the scheduled opener, it may be too late for the band to speak, Fond
du Lac fisheries biologist Brian Borkholder said.
By then, he said, there’s a good
chance walleye will have already spawned under the ice.
"To go much after the fishing
opener is probably just a waste of time and gasoline money,"
Minnesota Public Radio News can be
heard on MPR’s statewide radio network of online at