Northern Wis. walleye fishing could be limited by tribal spearing plans

The six bands of Chippewa in northern Wisconsin have declared intentions to spear a near-record number of walleyes during the annual spring harvest. While the total number of lakes declared is similar to past years, the number where the spearing ...

The six bands of Chippewa in northern Wisconsin have declared intentions to spear a near-record number of walleyes during the annual spring harvest.

While the total number of lakes declared is similar to past years, the number where the spearing harvest would trigger significantly tighter limits for recreational anglers is much higher than usual. Between 1997 and 2012, no more than 10 lakes a year had been declared at spearing levels that would result in a one-walleye bag limit for recreational anglers. This year the number is 197.

The high declaration by the Lac du Flambeau band will terminate an agreement it has had with the state since 1997.

The tribes earlier this month submitted their declaration to spear 59,399 walleyes in off-reservation lakes. The declarations by band were Bad River, 5,609 walleyes; Lac Courte Oreilles, 5,879; Lac du Flambeau, 24,283; Mole Lake, 15,060; Red Cliff, 2,194; and St. Croix, 6,374.

After calculating the potential impact to the lakes' walleye populations, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources last week announced that the sport bag limits would be reduced to one fish on 197 lakes, two fish on 331 lakes and three fish on seven lakes.


The standard daily sport bag limit on Wisconsin waters is five walleyes.

A DNR statement Monday acknowledged the Chippewa tribes are acting lawfully within their treaty rights.

However this year's "drastic increase in lakes named at a one-walleye bag limit is significant, unprecedented and a challenge to long-standing partnerships," DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said.

The high walleye declarations were anticipated by many after a year in which the relationship between the state and tribes has become increasingly strained. The tribes strongly opposed the state's wolf hunting and trapping season, held for the first time in 2012, as well as recent legislation paving the way for an iron mine upstream from the Bad River reservation in northern Wisconsin.

Tom Maulson, chairman of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Chippewa, said higher spearing quotas were set by the tribe this year to allow tribal members to put more fish in their freezers because of the poor economy.

But Maulson didn't completely discount growing anger among the bands at the state for what the tribes see as the state's failure to adequately consult with the Chippewa on issues such as the wolf hunt and mining laws.

"They never even considered the tribes," Maulson said.

The 59,399 walleyes declared this year is second only to 2010, when the tribes declared 59,659, according to DNR records.


The tribes and DNR have used a system of declarations and adjusted bag limits since the late 1980s. The DNR makes preliminary adjustments based on the declarations. After the actual spearing harvest is recorded, bag limits may be adjusted again, typically in May.

The reductions are designed to keep the total annual catch to less than 35 percent of the adult walleye population.

Last year the tribes declared 54,057 walleyes but actually speared 32,321, according to DNR records.

The Chippewa spear walleyes on lakes throughout northern Wisconsin every spring under rights they reserved in treaties in the 1800s. Those treaties allow tribal members to hunt, fish and gather off their reservations on land they ceded in the agreements -- about the northern third of the state. The treaties were upheld in federal court after violent and racially tinged confrontations on northern boat landings in the 1980s and 1990s as the Chippewa began spearing off-reservation lakes to reestablish their rights.

Spearing has occurred in relative peace during the past 15 years.

The annual harvest by the tribes is a fraction of the total harvest from lakes in the ceded territory. According to DNR estimates, 260,000 to 300,000 walleye were harvested annually from 2008-12 by sport anglers from lakes declared in the ceded territory.

But because it results in reduced bag limits for sport anglers, tribal spearing has upset many fishermen, business owners and others over the years.

The Lac du Flambeau band has declared and speared the most walleyes over the years, including 48 percent of the total in 2012.


In 1997 the band agreed to limit its take of walleyes in exchange for the ability to sell fishing, ATV and snowmobile licenses. The agreement called on the tribe to allow at least a three-walleyes-per-day bag limit on lakes it speared.

As part of this year's declarations, the Lac du Flambeau named 232 of their 233 lakes at a two-fish daily bag limit. The tribe's "unprecedented change in declarations effectively terminated the 16-year agreement," according to the DNR.

The tribe will lose an $84,500 payment from the state and revenue from licenses sales as a result of withdrawing from the agreement, the Wisconsin DNR reported.

State and local officials are concerned about the impact reduced sport bag limits have on tourism.

As part of its statement, the DNR said over the coming weeks it "aims to work with the tribes in an effort to negotiate a reduction in their declarations."

Maulson said the Lac du Flambeau band is willing to sit down with the state and discuss spearing levels.

"We're keeping in touch," Maulson said. "I don't think we have a bad relationship."

With most waters in the ceded territory covered with ice, open-water spearing will be limited for at least the next several weeks.


The Wisconsin State Journal contributed to this report.

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