Only about 100 people live in the tiny town of Waskish. When the walleye population crashed, many thought the town would, too. The local gas station shut down. The number of resorts in the area dwindled from more than a dozen to just two. There was nowhere to buy groceries. Joe Corcoran, a retired Twin Cities police officer, bought lakeshore property on Upper Red Lake a year before the walleye moratorium took effect. Corcoran says things looked pretty grim.
"It was devastating to watch how it impacted the community, and especially the business people who had, you know, relied on the tourism industry to help them and to stay afloat," said Corcoran. "It was not good up here."
Corcoran says despite the economic depression, there was a lingering hope the walleye would come back. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources joined with the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe on an unprecedented recovery plan. The joint effort was necessary because all of Lower Red Lake and most of the upper lake is on the reservation. Those waters are controlled by the tribe and are open only to Indian anglers. Seventeen percent of Upper Red Lake is open to non-Indian fishing. The recovery plan included massive walleye stocking campaigns on both lakes in 1999, 2001 and 2003.
Now, two years ahead of schedule, the walleyes are back.
Business is already picking up at North Country Food and Fuel. Jana Duresky and her husband built the convenience store a few years ago, partly in anticipation of a successful walleye recovery. Duresky says she expects thousands of people will flock to Waskish for the walleye opener this weekend.
"I guess just the fact that the town is going to be busy again and just all the people back, I think we all have that feeling coming back that Waskish is going to be alive again and be a booming town," Duresky said.
The past few years haven't been all bad for the town of Waskish. When the walleyes disappeared, something unexpected happened. The crappie population exploded. Over the past few years, thousands of ice anglers have come to Waskish to take advantage of the crappie boom.
DNR regional fisheries manager Henry Drewes says crappies probably saved the town of Waskish. He says the explosion began in 1995 with an extraordinarily large hatch of young crappies. The success of the species was partly a result of the absence of predatory walleye in the lake. But Drewes says it was mostly just plain luck.
"It was a gift," Drewes said. "It was a freak of nature to take a walleye, perch, pike lake and have a year class of crappies move from being a background species to a dominant species with a single year class. The moons, the planets, the stars were all aligned."
Drewes says the walleye recovery on Red Lake is perhaps the most successful inland fishery recovery in North American history. He says the walleye crash was the result of rampant abuses. On the tribally-controlled side of the lake, Red Lake band members used gill nets to pull in way more fish than they should have. On the state's portion of the lake, angler's caught walleyes by the boatload and routinely disregarded daily bag limits.
Drewes says people on both sides of the lake participated in a flourishing black market.
"It's always been illegal to buy and sell walleye on the streets of Bemidji and the local communities around here," he said. "But it was an accepted practice and it went on all over northern Minnesota and in other towns in further away places. And so we're really trying to put an effort on drying up that market, and increasing people's awareness that you can't buy walleye from somebody in a parking lot."
DNR enforcement officers will be out in full force on Upper Red Lake. There will also be DNR staff stationed at boat landings to keep track of how many fish are caught. Anglers on the state-regulated side of the lake will be limited to two walleyes each day. On tribally controlled waters, Red Lake band members are limited to a daily catch of 10 walleyes.
The DNR has capped the walleye harvest on Upper Red Lake this first summer season at 108,000 pounds. If that limit is reached, walleye fishing will be shut down for the remainder of the season.
Experts say the fishing pressure on Upper Red Lake is expected to be high. Pat Welle, professor of economics and environmental studies at Bemidji State University, did a study on Upper Red Lake to determine whether walleye anglers would come back to the lake after all these years. Welle says the interest was overwhelming.
"It's hard to overstate how much interest there is in fishing," said Welle. "That evidence is people saying they can't wait to get back on Red Lake and fish for walleyes while there's also this trophy crappie population available. It's really a unique opportunity. Just the perception in a lot of anglers' minds of saying 'here's a fishery that has been untouched, really, for almost a decade.'"
Welle says his study showed how important walleye fishing is to Waskish and other communities in the region. He says crappie anglers alone spent about $4 million in 2004. The study showed that when the walleye population crashed, lakeshore property values plummeted. But as the walleye recovery progressed, property values began to rise. Lakeshore values have tripled the past seven years.
The minnow tanks at West Wind Resort in Waskish are stocked with sucker minnows in preparation for this weekend's opener. Tim Waldo and some partners opened West Wind in 2000 at the height of the crappie boom. They've added campgrounds and cabins, and developed a harbor, all in preparation for the return of walleyes.
Waldo says walleye anglers won't be disappointed this weekend. He says crappie fishermen have been catching and releasing an amazing number of walleyes.
"There's three guys staying down here in our cabin, they went out yesterday," said Waldo. "They went out around noon and they came back in about 6:30 and they said they caught over 100 walleyes."
Waldo says he expects the town will be jam packed with people this weekend. He says the real factor for a successful opener will be the weather.
"If we can have a good weather forecast that opening weekend, Waskish is going to be the town where things are happening," he said. "I don't think there's any doubt about that. Now if it's blowing like today, I don't know, it may be a pretty packed bar. But see, either way I win, right?"
Waldo and other local residents say they hope the return of walleye fishing to Red Lake will put an end to the economic rollercoaster they've been on for the past decade.