In the industry's heyday, commercial fishing was done with gill nets. Fishermen would use huge nets to scoop walleye out of Red Lake, hundreds of pounds at a time. The fish processing plant in Redby was supplied mostly by gill-netters who made their living at fishing.
That's all changed now. Tribal members are restricted to catching fish one at a time, by hook and line only.
The newly reopened processing plant relies more on people like Wayne Lussier, Sr. For Lussier, fishing is more of a hobby.
"I'm a self-employed plumber and fishing is my free time," said Lussier. "Me and my sons go out quite a bit, just about every day, every evening."
Lussier says a lot more people are ice fishing now that they can make a few extra dollars. The tribe pays $1.75 per pound of fish. On this day, Lussier has brought in 18 walleye and a few perch.
"The ones I brought in is 22 pounds, and three perch," he said. "So we got $38.50 for the walleye and $5.25 for the perch. Totals $43.75, which ain't bad for three hours of fishing."
Tribal members who fish just to feed their family are allowed to catch 10 walleyes a day. If they fish commercially, they can take 50 a day, as long as they're registered with the fishery.
Some 400 people are signed up, and the tribe hopes a lot more will participate during the peak summer fishing season.
The Red Lake Band spent the past two years refurbishing its fish processing plant. The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, which operates the lucrative Mystic Lake Casino, gave Red Lake $2 million in grants for the upgrades.
Plant manager Sean Rock says as more fish comes in, the plant could eventually employ 30 people. Red Lake is negotiating to do custom fish processing for a Canadian tribe, which could bring the average production to nearly two million pounds a year.
"Right now, most of our sales have just been over the counter," said Rock. "We have a couple of distributors that want to take the major amount of fish, and we're kind of building our inventory for them. But we certainly think that at this pace, that the local markets will probably consume everything that we process."
The tribe is working on a marketing plan to get its walleye into grocery stores and restaurants, first regionally, then across the country.
Rock says customers will soon be able to purchase walleye fillets on the Internet. The tribe's distribution company, Red Lake Nation Foods, Inc., already sells wild rice, jams and jellies, and traditional crafts through its Web site.
Red Lake officials believe the tribe's fishing industry is the only hook-and-line commercial fishery in the country. Red Lake Nation Foods manager Joel Rohde says success will depend on the willingness of tribal members to consistently deliver fish.
"We're doing basically a grand experiment by going just hook and line, trying to give everybody the opportunity to bring in fish," said Rohde. "Everybody can fish without having a huge investment in equipment and supplies."
Rohde says those who want to should be able to make a living from fishing. He says it will help put a dent in an unemployment rate on the reservation that's nearly 70 percent.
There's some question as to how many band members will be able to fish commercially once the ice goes out. When the walleye population crashed in the mid-'90s, many people sold off their boats, trailers and fishing gear.
Tribal Chairman Buck Jourdain says tribal leaders want to do what they can to get people involved in the industry. The tribal council is considering a loan program that would help people purchase the equipment they need.
Jourdain says it will take awhile for the Red Lake walleye fishery to reach its full potential. He says the tribe has decided to be very cautious with the resource.
"We're going to take our time with something that took many, many years for the resource to reach an all-time low, and it took several more years to bring it back," Jourdain said. "We're going to take one step at a time, just a little at a time, and build back up to an industry that will really benefit our community and our people."
Biologists with Red Lake's natural resources department have set the annual sustainable harvest level at 800,000 pounds of walleye. Jourdain says for now, the tribe has no intention of broadly reintroducing gill nets for commercial fishing.
However, he says nets could be used if the tribe falls short of its annual allowable harvest. If that happens, Jourdain says nets might be used by a select few contracted fishermen and it would be strictly controlled.
The tribe is in the process of building 40 fish houses that will be available for tribal members to use on the lake. The commercial catch is expected to increase as spring approaches. After so many years without walleye fishing, anglers are just now rediscovering the fishing hot spots.