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 evening's last light is just whiling away when the truck, towing a 16-foot camouflage-colored duck boat, pulls into the Cedar Creek Public Access, a small launch on the southeast corner of Lake Mille Lacs. The occupants of the vehicle, George Morrison, a lanky, 40-year-old tribal attorney sporting a blue bandanna, and Brad Bearheart, a stout, round-faced tribal game warden, are running late. They made the drive to Minnesota's renowned and much-haggled-over walleye lake from their homes on the St. Croix Indian Reservation in northern Wisconsin, about two hours away. "It looks like it's gonna be good," says 31-year-old Bearheart, who smiles as he surveys the horizon.

It's mid-April, and the last of the ice went out just a few days ago. A light breeze, hailing from the west, blows cool air toward shore, and the chill of the evening, which will grow brisker yet, has already set in. A crescent moon hangs in the deep blue sky, and the first hints of the Milky Way are just beginning to show. It is an altogether tranquil, very Les Kuba sort of scene, though that late, locally famous artist, whose romantic wildlife prints hang in bait shops and cafés throughout Minnesota resort country, probably wouldn't have bothered to include the two conservation officers from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission who've met up with the night's fishing party.

The officers, Kenny Pardun and Randy Koljow, are on hand to ensure that native fishermen like Morrison and Bearheart comply with the various codes and protocols of this spring's walleye harvest. They have been working nine days straight, fueled mostly by coffee and cigarettes. Put in 137 hours already this week, Koljow figures with a shrug. Often, he says, they keep watch at the launches all night long, though on many nights, like this one, only a handful of spearers and netters turn out.

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

While Bearheart and Koljow tend to some preliminary paperwork, Morrison dips his head into the back of the truck, where the mixed aromas of White Castle hamburgers and rotting fish slime waft about to peculiar effect. "Whew. Pretty ripe," Morrison complains as he unloads gear: two gill nets, each measuring 100 feet by 4 feet, with one and three-quarter-inch mesh woven from 14-pound test fishing line; a laundry tub, to hold fish; two plastic coolers, to hold more fish; and a recycling bin, to hold yet more fish.

Before they head onto the lake, the two men pause for a spell by the shore. Morrison hands Bearheart a cigarette, and both extract a pinch of tobacco to cast over the water. The ceremony is performed casually, with little comment. "It's just tradition," Morrison explains before hopping nimbly into the little boat, with its old 25-horsepower Johnson and temperamental carburetor. As they troll out across the bay, Bearheart gestures toward a small island a half mile or so from the landing. "That's a good spot. Lots of rocks," he says. As a rule, walleyes--the main game fish on Mille Lacs--prefer rocky shoals. In the early spring, just after ice-out, the walleye move into the shallows, where clusters of males and females gather to spawn.

The conversation in the boat turns briefly to the politics of tribal fishing. In Wisconsin, where Indian treaty rights were reaffirmed in the late 1980s, the spearing of walleye produced ugly confrontations between natives and white locals at the landings. Bearheart recalls it all too well: The rock throwing. The racial epithets. Once, Bearheart says, someone fired shots over a Wisconsin lake while he was out spearing. No one ever figured out who.

This is the second year of legally sanctioned spearing and netting on Mille Lacs and, so far, outright conflict at the landings has been scarce. Bearheart grumbles some about "harassment" from state game wardens, but all in all the mood is good. "I love this more than anything but my family," Bearheart says. "I think I'd die if I couldn't do it."

Last month a complicated and acrimonious nine-year court battle between eight Chippewa bands from Wisconsin and Minnesota and a group of non-Indian landowners, the state of Minnesota, and the federal government came to an end when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court's decision that the bands retained hunting and fishing privileges under the terms of an 1837 treaty. In his capacity as tribal lawyer, Morrison was present for oral arguments in the nation's capital last December. At the time, he says, it seemed that the court was unsympathetic to the bands' position. As he walked from the courthouse, upset about the tone of the justices' questioning, Morrison spotted two American flags fluttering in the breeze. One of the flags was upside down--a "bizarre" omen, he says. As it turned out, the court ruled 5-4 in favor of the bands, which as a result are entitled to take some 55,000 pounds of fish from Mille Lacs this year; non-Indian anglers are expected to take about half a million pounds.

After setting two gill nets--20 minutes' work--Morrison and Bearheart turn back to the landing to pick up more gear. They are ready for the second act of the harvest: the spearing. Bearheart's spears look like pitchforks, except the tines have sharpened barbs. They are affixed, with radiator clamps, to 12-foot poles fashioned from the stripped trunks of tamarack trees. Tamaracks--light, durable, and, best of all, free--are ideal wood for the job, says Bearheart. Morrison steers the boat across a shallows, just a stone's throw from the modest cabins dotting the shoreline. He shuts off the outboard. The only sound left is the humming of an electronic trolling motor and the splashing of walleyes. Bearheart stands at the prow of the boat. He wears a construction cap fitted with a high power spotlight. Spearing, Bearheart explains, is more akin to hunting than angling; the pleasure lies in the stalking.

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.

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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