Once More to the Lake

Last month the U.S. Supreme Court upheld eight Chippewa bands' right to spear and net on tribal waters. Now it's time to fish.

The wind has died down and the waters are now glassy and still. Perfect conditions. "They're starting to run," Bearheart says, the edge of excitement audible in his voice. Before long his spotlight reveals vast schools of walleye scattered about the rocks, their eyes shining eerily in the darkness. A layer of pigment in the walleye's retina--called the tapetum lucidum--enables the fish to see well in low light, giving them an advantage as they feed on their night-blind cousin, the yellow perch. The reflective quality of the eyes, however, also makes them easy to spot with lights, much like deer on a country highway. Bearheart, who has a reputation as the most active fisherman and hunter from the St. Croix Band, says spearing is trickier than it looks. The key, he explains, is getting the spear as close as possible before thrusting.

"Hey, George, look at this hog!" he exclaims as he sticks a 27-incher, swinging it into the back of the boat with a smooth, arcing motion. Morrison whaps the fish with an oak ax-handle, and it flops off the spear and into a bucket. The men erupt with laughter. Bearheart passes over a few lunkers in search of smaller quarry. According to tribal regulations, just two of the fish the men bring in tonight can measure more than 20 inches--a rule designed to guard egg-laden females, which tend to be larger than males, against overharvesting. In short order, they have taken ten fish, mostly smaller males. "Easier to clean, anyways," Bearheart reasons.

With their permit quota filled, Morrison pilots the boat back to the landing. He lugs the tub of walleye over to Ofcr. Koljow's truck. "Every fish that an Indian takes from this lake gets accounted for," Morrison notes. Under the light of a Coleman lantern, Koljow methodically records data on the sex, size, and number of fish. He picks up a fish and presses firmly on its belly. "Recognize that?" he asks wryly, as a stream of creamy white liquid, called milt, squirts out. It is, obviously, a male. During the spawn, this is the easiest way to determine the gender of a fish.

Rather be fishing: George Morrison hauls in the morning catch
Mike Mosedale
Rather be fishing: George Morrison hauls in the morning catch

Because no other spearers from the St. Croix Band choose to work Mille Lacs this night, Morrison and Bearheart make three more outings, each time returning with one permit's worth of fish. By 11:30, they have harvested 40 walleye, totaling 105 pounds. Six are females. The largest weighs eight-and-a-half pounds--a trophy catch by most estimates. Bearheart is impressed by the bounty. "This is the most fish I've ever seen," he says. On lesser lakes, he adds, spearers can spend an entire night on the waters for just a handful of fish. The long drive to Mille Lacs, he adds, is worth the trouble.

After the wardens complete the paperwork, Bearheart and Morrison pack up their gear. They pull the boat from the water and drive a third of the way around the perimeter of the lake to Grand Casino, the booming casino-hotel complex operated by the Mille Lacs Band. They sleep until 6:30 in the morning. On the way back to the Cedar Creek landing, they stop for long johns, doughnuts, and coffee at a bakery in the village of Isle, where a giant statue of a walleye sits prominently off the main drag under a sign that reads, "Walleye Capital of the World." Given the success of the previous night's spearing, both Bearheart and Morrison are confident that their nets will be full. "Bet we'll get two, three hundred pounds," says Bearheart.

That confidence, it turns out, is well placed. Out on the waters, Morrison hoists up the first net, and it is teeming with fish--mostly walleyes, though there are a few other species as well: an eelpout, the only freshwater member of the cod family, and three northern pike, including one real beauty, a 16-pounder. The second net, set in deeper waters, doesn't hold quite as many, but its contents are enough to set the heart of any frustrated walleye angler fluttering.

The most time-consuming part of the operation, by far, is the emptying of the nets. Morrison and Bearheart wear rubber gloves, to protect against cuts from the walleyes' razor sharp teeth and fins, as they work the fish free with specially designed net picks. All totaled, it takes about two hours to free the 58 walleyes in one net and 78 in the other. Bearheart says some of the 257-pound haul will be donated to tribal elders for a fish fry. He'll keep the rest in a freezer chest in his garage, to feed his family.

As the two men climb into the truck for the long ride back to Wisconsin, Bearheart turns back, gives a wave to Ofcr. Pardun, and calls out: "See you tonight, Randy. We'll be coming back."

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