ISLE, Minn. – In the bait shops and bars, fishing docks and resorts that make up the world of Mille Lacs fishing, the collapse of the lake’s walleye fishery has inflamed age-old tensions between white sport anglers and local Indian bands who share the lake.
One resort owner said some “loose cannons” have suggested taking up arms, while a commentator on a popular fishing forum said “chuckleheads” would cut American Indian nets if Indians netted walleye during the open water fishing season.
“Sooner or later someone would end up dead over a damned fish,” wrote “Bandersnatch” on the Lake State Fishing forum.
The leaders of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe declined this week to comment for fear it would only exacerbate racial tensions, but a spokeswoman for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission said such frictions have been “long term.”
“Nobody will ever be able to convince some of these folks that [Indian band] netting isn’t the villain in this circumstance,” said Sue Erickson, the spokeswoman.
Eight Indian bands have treaty rights stemming from 1837 to net walleye in Mille Lacs, and this year they netted 10,140 pounds of their 11,400 limit, according to the Department of Natural Resources. State scientists say the netting cannot be blamed for the lake’s vanishing walleye population. Still, Erickson said, she follows online fishing forums and sees the comments.
“I can tell the Mille Lacs boys are upset and the resort owners are upset,” she said.
A blue-ribbon panel convened by the DNR to study the Mille Lacs walleye crisis concluded in a January report that too many young walleye don’t survive, likely because of predation by adult walleye, pike and cormorants.
With walleye levels at a 30-year low, state anglers were limited to just 28,600 pounds this year, a fraction of what was allowed in years past. The limit was nearly hit last week, triggering a warning from the DNR that they were likely to shut down walleye fishing as soon as Monday for the remainder of the season.
The state says that would mean Indian band members could catch another 1,260 pounds before they reach their 11,400 pound limit.
The crisis playing out in what has long been considered the state’s premier walleye lake has hammered the local economy and left guides, fishing resorts, bait shops and boat owners struggling to survive.
“There are some people around this lake who are starting to grab arms and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do something about this,’ ” said resort owner John Odle. “I’m going, ‘Hey man, we don’t need that,’ ” he said.
Odle, who runs the Rocky Reef Resort on Lake Mille Lacs, said co-management of the walleye fishery isn’t working, but he’s reluctant to speak out. “You bring up the Indian government at all, and you are a racist,” he said.
Further straining the relationship, resort owners like Odle can only look on as the Indian band continues to gather more financial clout.
Down the road from his resort sits Grand Casino Mille Lacs, opened in 1991 and quickly followed by the band’s second casino, Grand Casino Hinckley, the next year. The casinos are considered two of the biggest among the 18 casino resorts run by 11 Minnesota tribes. Altogether, the Indian gambling and hospitality operations generate gross revenue of up to $15 billion a year, according to past estimates.
The band purchased several resorts on Mille Lacs over the years, shuttering some while operating Eddy’s and its iconic red launches. The band finally demolished the old Eddy’s resort and rebuilt it from the ground up, reopening it this spring after a $10 million redo.
And in a few weeks, in yet another sign of financial strength, the band will open downtown St. Paul’s largest hotel, the Intercontinental St. Paul-Riverfront, two years after acquiring the property and the nearby DoubleTree by Hilton for $35 million.
Odle said he feels like he and other white resort owners will eventually get kicked off the lake as the walleye disappear and tourists stop coming. He claims the band has already purchased 14 resorts in all.
Erickson, the commission spokeswoman, said she understands that the band’s growth makes some resort owners nervous.
“They will buy land back if they can, to restablish their land base. But they’re not trying to take over the lake,” she said. “It’s a tragic situation, and the bands want to see that walleye fishery growing. They don’t want to see it decline. It’s not in their interest at all.”