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.

“We’ll never stop it, we all understand that,’’ Sharp said. “But I think people will take notice that we are actively engaged with the problem and are doing the best we can.’’

DNR regional fisheries manager Henry Drewes of Bemidji also believes that since 2006, when Upper and Lower Red lakes (which combined are commonly known as Red Lake) were reopened to tribal fishermen and sport anglers, the illegal selling and buying of Red Lake fish have been curtailed.

“I won’t dispute there is some of that [illegal] activity still going on,’’ Drewes said. “But I know there is a major shift in how people look at the resource, and I’m confident that our success in sustaining the fisheries of these lakes will persist.’’

Retired DNR regional enforcement supervisor Butch Dyrland isn’t so sure.

“It’s definitely having an impact on the fish,’’ Dyrland said “The problem is ongoing.’’

A three-year investigation

The recently concluded undercover investigation lasted three years and documented illegal walleyes originating from Red, Leech and Winnibigoshish lakes, as well as Cass Lake.

Each lies within the Red Lake or Leech Lake reservation.

On Red Lake, where the tribe runs a commercial fish processing plant supplied by four netting crews, individual band members are restricted to fishing by hook and line, as part of the joint DNR-tribal agreement to restore the lake’s fishery after its collapse.

But on Leech, Cass and Winnibigoshish within the Leech Lake reservation, band members can net fish for personal use.

“Nets are the biggest problem,’’ said former DNR conservation officer Mike Hruza, who retired in 2010 after being stationed in Waskish, Blackduck and Bemidji. “Once you start allowing nets to be used, the harvest increases dramatically. It’s a slippery slope.’’

Said Spaulding: “The poaching problem is directly proportional to the number of fish that can be caught. And with nets, a lot of fish can be caught.’’

Nets also sometimes are abandoned with fish caught in them.

“We used to pull nets out of Red Lake that had a ton of dead fish in them,’’ Hruza said. “The fish that came off Red illegally had to add up to millions of pounds.’’

However reservation fish are caught, individual band members aren’t allowed to sell them. But the practice continues.

“It’s an accepted cultural norm up there that people buy and sell fish,’’ Jim Konrad, the DNR’s chief enforcement officer, said when announcing the recent takedown. “We hope to change this culture. [But] until people stop buying illegal fish, the suppliers will continue to catch and sell them.’’

‘Like a different country’

Enforcement efforts on Lower and Upper Red Lakes — which are 87 percent controlled by the tribe — are complicated by the reservation’s “closed’’ status, meaning state officers can’t patrol its about 850,000 acres, including holdings at Minnesota’s Northwest Angle, on Lake of the Woods.

“Red Lake is like a different country,’’ Hruza said.

On the Leech Lake Reservation, state and tribal officers are cross-deputized.

“Their [the Leech Lake Band’s] officers have done a good job,’’ Dyrland said. “They put in their time and take care of their equipment. People there should be proud of them.’’

Yet ending the North Country’s illegal fish trade will be slow, if it ever happens.

“There’s probably no way to stop it except for much stiffer penalties, and I’m not sure the Legislature will go for that,’’ Spaulding said.

Said John Falk, the lifelong northern Minnesota resident:

“Indians are good-hearted people. They sold fish for a little grocery money. No one got hurt. It wasn’t like murder or something. But you had to know your Indian. And they had to know you. You didn’t want any stool pigeons.’’