Netting walleye on Mille Lacs

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 14, 2010 - 5:07 PM

Chippewa tribal members have pulled in most of their 2010 quota at Minnesota's premier walleye fishery.

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The ice is out at Lake Mille Lacs in central Minnesota, and the annual tribal harvest of walleye is underway. Paul Vitato, left, removed a walleye from a net at Isle. So far more than 100,000 pounds of fish have been netted by tribal members. Behind Vitato was Anthony Plucinski of Bad River, Wis.

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Eleven years after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed hunting, fishing and gathering rights in east-central Minnesota for eight Chippewa bands, Paul Vitato of Wisconsin's Bad River Band on Tuesday pulled walleyes, northern pike and a lone muskie from nets set on Mille Lacs -- arguably the state's best fishing lake.

Vitato, Sandy Corbine and Sue Brull were among six Bad River band members who drove to Mille Lacs on Monday, setting 17 nets overnight.

"But we didn't do very well," Corbine said, waving a hand in the direction of a bucket full of fish gathered near her feet.

Buffeted by a chilly east wind, the three joined about 20 other Chippewa on Tuesday morning at the Department of Natural Resources' Liberty Beach public access on the east side of Mille Lacs.

Spring netting on Mille Lacs by the Chippewa, or Ojibwe, began last week. Band members so far have taken about 110,000 pounds of walleyes out of a quota of 132,500 pounds, the highest allocation since modern netting began about a decade ago.

By contrast, Mille Lacs sport anglers this year will be allowed up to 411,500 pounds of walleyes, but generally will be restricted to keeping fish less than 18 inches long, which weigh about 1.5 pounds.

Chippewa netting occurs in spring on Mille Lacs and certain other lakes in a 12-county region of east-central Minnesota because fish travel then to shallow areas to spawn, and can be easily targeted. The bands exercise similar rights across a broad swath of northern Wisconsin, and in some cases they are allowed more than half the "safe allowable harvest" of walleyes.

"We set our nets in 3 to 5 feet of water today," George Wolfe, of Wisconsin's Lac du Flambeau band, said Tuesday. "We try to find a rock hump, and set them there."

With most of their 100-foot-long nets flush with plump walleyes, some weighing up to 4 pounds, band members used small hook-like tools to separate the nets from the fish, a time-consuming process.

Nearby was Joe Dan Rose, a Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) fisheries biologist, and a few of his assistants.

"We count and weigh every fish caught by band members," Rose said. "And from a sub-sample of those fish, we collect length, sex and age information."

DNR treaty biologist Patrick Schmalz and assistant DNR treaty biologist Keith Reeves were also at the site. On a clipboard, Reeves kept an independent count of netted fish.

"We try to cross-check 20 to 25 percent of the Mille Lacs walleye catch by band members," Schmalz said.

GLIFWIC officials notify the DNR which boat accesses will be used each day by band members, so DNR officials can monitor the catches, if they choose.

Most enforcement during the netting season is done by tribal wardens, including Mike Soulier, 36, a Red Cliff (Wis.) band member who is one of two GLIFWC wardens assigned to Mille Lacs.

"There aren't many netting violations," said Soulier, who was at Liberty Beach on Tuesday morning. "Most tickets I write are for spearing violations -- some for too many fish, others for too many big fish."

Mille Lacs has been speared this spring only by a few band members, Soulier said. "It's something they seem to do to pass the time, not really as a way to harvest fish."

Few, if any, public protests against netting by non-band members have occurred at Mille Lacs -- a far cry from the near-riotous scenes in Wisconsin in the 1990s when Chippewa treaty rights there were similarly affirmed.

Discontent over netting nevertheless brews not far beneath the surface in the area, said Steve Fellegy, 56, a local fishing guide.

"The netting always seems to override the positive news that could be coming from the lake," Fellegy said. "People here hate to look out the windows of their cabins or retirement homes and watch these inequities take place. It's not a good situation. Some people are in denial of that. But on the street, it's what you hear."

The 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming the bands' rights turned on whether the bands' hunting, fishing and gathering privileges were revoked by an 1850 executive order by President Zachary Taylor, an 1855 treaty, Minnesota's statehood in 1858 and other events. All of which seemed far removed from Liberty Beach.

Vitato, Corbine and Brull had traveled from the Bad River Reservation not to fish for themselves or their families, like most Chippewa at Mille Lacs, but to gather fish for the band's elders food program.

"We try to provide a traditional meal of walleye and wild rice for each elder once a month," Corbine said. "Last year was a good year, and we gave them two meals a month. The fishing will have to get better for us to do that this year."

Dennis Anderson • 612-673-4424.

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