On a sunny morning near the mouth of the Blackduck River, a spawning trap has captured thousands of fish as they swim upstream from Lower Red Lake. The Red Lake tribe has been doing this for years to monitor fish populations. The large nets are teeming with suckers and trophy-sized northern pike. But there are also a healthy number of good-sized walleyes in the catch. Red Lake fisheries biologist Pat Brown says that's a far cry from the way things were a few years ago.
"In 1998, we ran the trap for 21 days and caught two walleyes," Brown said. "And so far this year we've caught almost 700, so things are looking really good."
Crews use a winch to hoist nets full of fish from the trap. They count the walleyes while Pat Brown records information on their size and sex.
Brown and other biologists figured it would take a decade for the walleye population to recover. But it happened two years ahead of schedule. Brown credits the collaboration between the tribe, the state of Minnesota and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That effort included massive stocking campaigns in 1999, 2001 and 2003.
"It's pretty remarkable," Brown said. "It went better than expected. And I'm glad it happened. We had real good success."
The Red Lake Nation controls 83 percent of the upper and lower Red lakes. Only tribal members are allowed to fish in that portion. The northeast corner of Upper Red Lake is within state jurisdiction. Anyone can fish those waters. In 1930, the tribe began commercially harvesting walleyes with gill nets. Hundreds of band members earned their living on the lake. Commercial fishermen pulled in nearly a million pounds of walleye a year in the late 1980s. But by 1997, the catch dropped to just 15,000 pounds.
Part of the problem was that people were taking more walleyes than they were supposed to and selling them illegally.
Corey Nelson is a tribal forestry worker. But on this day he's helping out the fisheries crew at the spawn trap. Nelson says it was greed and blackmarket fishing that killed the industry. Nelson says he was too young to be a part of the fishing tradition.
"I came in on the tail end of fishing where there wasn't really a whole lot left," said Nelson. "Like, the last generation before me took too much and stuff, and didn't leave me with a whole lot, anyway."
Gill nets on Red Lake are no longer an option. The tribe's new regulations allow for only hook and line fishing. For the first time in the tribe's history, members will have limits to the number of fish they can take. They'll be allowed a daily bag limit of 10 walleyes. Anglers will be allowed to sell those fish to other band members within the boundaries of the reservation.
On the state-controlled section of the lake, the daily bag limit is two walleyes. Tribal officials say the higher bag limits on the reservation will be sustainable because there will be fewer people fishing those waters.
Red Lake Chairman Buck Jourdain says the tribe hasn't ruled out the possibility of commercial fishing in the future. He says Red Lake walleyes are famous. Restaurants are already asking when the fish will be available.
"There is a great anticipation," said Jourdain. "It's a gourmet and it's a premium walleye. And we anticipate a great demand for the fish when they become available."
Jourdain says it will never be like the old days. But he says it's likely Red Lake will someday market its fish beyond the reservation borders.
"The regulation is the number one concern," said Jourdain. "If the tribe can't regulate a full scale commercial fishing operation, then we're not going to go there until we are equipped to do that."
Red Lake natural resources officials acknowledge that enforcement is a problem. The tribe has only five enforcement officers. They're responsible for the lake's 236,000 acres, plus a land base that's about the size of Rhode Island. Officials say the tribe can't afford to hire more officers. They're asking the Bureau of Indian Affairs for more enforcement money.
Jourdain says he expects the public will be more involved in protecting the resource and turning in poachers. He says tribal members don't want to see their walleye resource destroyed again. But Jourdain worries some people will try to exploit the fish for profit.
"It will be a continuing problem," he said. "There's no denying that. If there's a way to blackmarket, people will find it. The netting was the main contributor on our side of the lake to depletion over the course of many, many years. And black marketing will continue to be a problem and we intend to address it."
Jourdain says another walleye-related issue has surfaced over the years. Some people have suggested the economically depressed tribe could develop a tourism industry by licensing sports fishing for non-tribal members. Off-reservation studies on the state-controlled upper Red Lake show anglers would be interested in fishing tribal waters.
Jourdain says he's against that. And he says surveys show the majority of tribal members are, too.
"People elected people to the tribal council who were going to stand firm on keeping our lakes exclusive to our tribal members," said Jourdain. "When people ran with a platform in the past of including sport fishing, you know, their political careers ended pretty quickly."
When walleye fishing reopens on Red Lake's tribal waters this weekend, there aren't likely to be a lot of boats on the water. Most tribal members don't own a boat and motor. When the fishery collapsed, many who had boats sold them. Still, tribal officials expect the banks of rivers flowing into Red Lake will be packed with anglers. The rivers have long been considered hot spots for walleye.
Dave Conners is administrative officer for the Red Lake Natural Resources Department. He says the tribe's spiritual connection with Red Lake and their hunger for walleye have many people excited about the opener.
"It's been a long period of time that people on both sides of the lake have sacrificed and given up the ability to take walleye," said Conners. "And now the fruits of that sacrifice are going to now be harvestable. And everybody is excited about it. People want fish. They want to eat walleye. And we're looking at some exciting times going forward."
Tribal officials say they plan to hold an advisory referendum sometime this summer. Band members will be asked their opinions about current walleye regulations and whether the tribe should pursue commercial fishing.
Meanwhile, resorts and businesses on the state-regulated section of Upper Red Lake are preparing for a huge influx of anglers next week. The statewide walleye opener is May 13.
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