Now 90 years old, John Falk can still remember Red Lake Indians peddling fish to his family’s home when he was a kid.
“It wasn’t illegal back then,’’ said Falk, who with his wife, Tina, lives near Blackduck, Minn., not far from where he grew up. “The Indians have always been our friends, and off and on, we’ve bought a few fish from them.’’
For generations, Red Lake and Leech Lake tribal members have illegally sold walleyes to eager off-reservation buyers, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
And despite a bust last month that ensnared more than 40 people and was the biggest in 20 years, the bootlegging continues, according to three retired DNR conservation officers who spent their careers in the region.
The illegal fish trade breaks tribal laws, as well as state and in some cases federal laws, and Red Lake and Leech Lake reservation officials condemn the long-running practice.
“But it’s a tradition up here,’’ said Greg Spaulding, a 27-year DNR conservation officer who retired in 2007. The recent takedown, he said, “just scratched the surface. And the walleyes aren’t just moving off Red Lake. They’re also coming off Winnie [Lake Winnibigoshish] and Leech Lake.’’
Most contraband walleyes from the two reservations are dealt secretively, house to house, to trusted nonband members, conservation officers say.
Occasionally, some of the fish are hawked to community groups planning big fish fries. Relatively rarely, the officers say, are fish sold to businesses such as restaurants.
Lured by easy money
For decades, DNR, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and tribal officers have targeted fish traffickers, some of whom are motivated by high poverty and unemployment on the Red Lake and Leech Lake reservations.
In 1993, for example, 45 people were charged with criminal conspiracy to illegally transport, take, sell and buy walleyes from the Red Lake and Leech Lake reservations. Now, 21 people face more than 40 state misdemeanor and/or gross misdemeanor charges, and 10 band members have been charged with felonies under the federal Lacey Act. Charges against others are expected in tribal courts.
“We do not condone the sale of game fish,’’ Leech Lake chief conservation officer Jamie Mitchell said April 15 in announcing the bust.
But the lure of easy money is tempting, as are the savings realized by off-reservation buyers: Illegal walleyes confiscated in the recent investigation traded for up to $3 a pound, far less than the $10 to $17 per pound walleyes fetch in grocery stores.
“The problem isn’t just tribal members,’’ Spaulding said. “It’s like drugs. There’s a market for fish because people off the reservation want them and can buy them cheaper illegally than they can in grocery stores.’’
The illicit catch and sale of Leech Lake Reservation and Red Lake walleyes have been massive at times, the officers say, perhaps totaling as much as 1 million pounds a year from Red Lake alone.
“In the early ’80s we found piles of fish carcasses 3 feet high and 20 feet across on the shores of Red Lake,’’ Spaulding said. That booty, combined at the time with walleye poaching by sport anglers, contributed to the collapse of Red Lake walleyes in the mid-1990s.
The lake’s walleyes have since been restored, thanks to a cooperative effort by the state and tribe. And fish selling and buying have been reduced, DNR northwest regional enforcement Capt. Stacey Sharp said.