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Traditional spearfishing to include Lake County waters

Members of the Fond du Lac reservation head out in their boat at dusk seeking a shallow area along the shore of Green Lake for spear fishing. Bob King / 1998 archive

The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has announced its members will spear walleyes in three Lake County lakes this spring. 

Lake County officials expressed concern about the proposed fishing, but Sheriff Carey Johnson said he wasn’t worried after conversations with tribal officials and representatives of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“Once I heard the numbers, it wasn’t such a big issue for me,” Johnson told the county board at Tuesday’s meeting.

Each lake has a quota of around 100 fish, he said. The band plans to fish on 13 lakes total, including eight in Cook County and two in St. Louis County.

“A lot of our members use fish to supplement their diets,” said Ferdinand Martineau, secretary-treasurer of the Fond du Lac Band. “They’re doing it not just for themselves or their direct families. They have extended families they provide for, too.”

This marks the first time the Fond du Lac Band — or any band — has formally speared walleyes on lakes in Northeastern Minnesota under treaty rights. The lakes are part of the 1854 ceded territory, where the Fond du Lac, Bois Forte and Grand Portage bands’ rights to hunt, fish and gather are guaranteed under an 1854 treaty. Those rights have been affirmed in federal court.

The Bois Forte and Grand Portage bands will not spear walleyes in the 1854 treaty area.

In some recent years, the Fond du Lac Band has netted walleyes on Mille Lacs and other lakes under their rights affirmed in an 1837 treaty.

About 70 of the Fond du Lac Band’s 4,200 members have signed up to spear walleyes in the 1854 ceded territory this spring, said Brian Borkholder, fisheries biologist for the Fond du Lac Band. The lakes and quotas were declared after meetings with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The DNR does not have a formal agreement with the band, but the two parties regularly discuss plans for managing fish and wildlife in the 1854 ceded territory.

“Their biologists wanted to identify lakes away from Duluth and off the beaten path,” said Don Pereira, DNR chief of fisheries. “They want to keep it low-key, which is good.”

The DNR did not object to any of the lakes in which the band wanted to spear, Pereira said.

Spearing will take place on just two lakes per night, Borkholder said.

The Fond du Lac Band’s natural resources department has been studying and monitoring walleye populations on many lakes across the 1854 ceded territory for nearly 20 years. The DNR and the band annually coordinate assessment activities on lakes within the ceded territory to gain a better picture of the walleye populations. They share this information annually.

In most cases, the spearing quotas on lakes the Fond du Lac Band has declared represent about 0.2 walleyes per acre, the DNR’s Pereira said.

“So, on a 100-acre lake, it would be 20 fish,” he said.

On other lakes, where more recent survey data is available, allocations are somewhat higher and based on actual population estimates.

When band members begin spearing depends on the progress of spring.

“First, the ice has to leave the lake,” Martineau said.

In most years, the window of spearing opportunity would be from about the third week of April to the first week of May, he said. The band has agreed not to be spearing during opening weekend of the Minnesota fishing season, May 10-11, Martineau said.

The band will have a biologist monitoring spearing on the lakes, Martineau said, and accounting for each fish taken.

“We figure out a quota. Let’s say it’s 100 fish on a lake,” Martineau said. “If there are 25 people spearing, they’ll each get four fish.”

The DNR also will monitor the harvest on the lakes and will adjust limits for state anglers if that’s deemed necessary, Pereira said.

“I think that’s unlikely,” he said. “It would also depend on how quickly they’d want to go back in there and harvest again. We’ll have to wait and see.”

If band members harvest 90 percent or more of their quota on any lake this spring, the band would not spear again on that lake for two years, Martineau said.

“We’re not going to push any of the populations,” he said. “We’re not trying to ruin that population. We’re just trying to use it like every other sportsman does.”

Law enforcement officials from the Fond du Lac Band, the DNR and county sheriffs offices will be present at landings where spearing is conducted this spring, said Tom Provost, DNR regional wildlife supervisor at Grand Rapids.

“This is the first year of this going on, and we need to do what we can to help them pull it off without any issues,” Provost said.