Red Lake: Back to the Future
For the past seven years, nobody has been allowed to take walleye out of this famed fishery—until the 2006 walleye opener.
By Erika R.L. Rivers
When Minnesota anglers celebrate the walleye fishing opener on May 13, one of the biggest attractions will be 48,000 acres of bog-stained waters on the east side of Upper Red Lake.
In fact, both Upper and Lower Red Lakes now promise fine walleye fishing. The lakes consist of two shallow basins joined by a mile-wide channel. Of the lakes' 285,000 total acres, 237,000 acres lie within the Red Lake Indian Reservation, governed by the Red Lake Tribal Council.
The story of walleye in Red Lake is a boom and bust story of legendary proportion. In 1989 this fishery yielded almost a million pounds of walleye to commercial fishing by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa and another 180,000 pounds to sport anglers. But this harvest, along with unreported poaching, was too much for these big waters to bear. By 1996, the band harvested less than 15,000 pounds of walleye for commercial sale to restaurants and grocery stores.
The Red Lake Fisheries Association voluntarily closed commercial fishing on tribal waters in 1997, and the Red Lake Tribal Council suspended subsistence fishing in 1998. In 1999 the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources closed the walleye harvest in state waters, and the state and tribe formed the Red Lakes Fisheries Technical Committee to devise a 10-year recovery plan. (See "A Tale of Two Lakes," March-April 2000.) Now, just seven years later, the plan has largely succeeded, and sport anglers are being welcomed back to state-managed waters.
While closing the fishery enabled walleyes to repopulate, reopening it may be the key to full recovery of a self-sustaining walleye population—that is, one with multiple year-classes of mature fish that naturally reproduce. The return of the fishing harvest will be a combination of new regulations, revived traditions, and renewed respect for the amazing ability of a fishery to recover from ruin.
Two Lakes, One Fishery
The walleye population within Upper and Lower Red Lakes lives as one population that swims between basins. All waters and land within the Red Lake Reservation are held in common by the approximately 10,000 members of the Red Lake Nation. Unlike most U.S. Indian reservations, this one was never broken up into private ownership under the 1887 Dawes Land Allotment Act. Tribal waters, about 83 percent of the lakes, are off-limits to nonmembers. The other 17 percent, all within the eastern portion of the upper basin, are waters of the state of Minnesota.
The tribe and the state share management of the fisheries. By mutual agreement, the tribe and nonband anglers will share the walleye harvest—with 83 percent of the harvest allocated to band members and 17 percent to Minnesota sport anglers.
To manage the delicate fishery conservatively until it is fully recovered, the state DNR has set special fishing regulations for state-administered waters. The regulations for 2006-07 call for release of all walleye from 17 to 26 inches and a possession limit of two walleyes, only one of which may be more than 26 inches. If sport anglers' summer harvest reaches 108,000 pounds, state waters will be closed until Dec. 1. A winter harvest level will be set later this year.
On the western three-fifths of Upper Red Lake and all of Lower Red Lake, the Red Lake DNR is developing interim regulations and slot limits for band members fishing for subsistence, according to tribal DNR fisheries director Pat Brown.
"We've been working with the tribal council and meeting with band members on the reservation and in the Twin Cities," said Brown. "The message we keep hearing over and over is that the band wants rules and regulations that are based on good science and will protect the fishery. They don't want history to repeat itself."
For the time being, that means the band will not open commercial fishing operations as soon as subsistence and sport fishing resume this spring. Later this year, the band will decide how to structure a commercial fishery.
According to Brown, the return of some form of commercial fishery is a possibility. Subsistence fishing alone is not likely to reach the sustainable tribal summer harvest target of 413,000 pounds. The tribal and state DNRs together determined the harvest target for the season ending Dec. 1.
This year thousands of anglers are likely to come to Waskish, a tiny town on the eastern shore of Upper Red Lake, to launch their boats from a handful of private and public water accesses. There they can expect to see remnants of businesses that collapsed along with the fishery: The old Sunset Lodge and a few other bankrupt businesses stand empty and in disrepair. But along Minnesota Highway 72, they will also find an improved campground, a new gas station and convenience store, and a new full-service resort—complete with lakeside cabins, a bait and tackle shop, fish cleaning facilities, and a bar and grill.
"We're going to have a big celebration with the walleye reopening and old fishing friends coming back to the lake after so many years," said Barb Woltjer, co-owner of West Wind Resort. "We think the new regulations will keep some of the meat hogs away, which is OK with us. When you build a business on a fish, you're taking a big gamble. So we feel like we have to take some responsibility for helping maintain [the fishery] too. We want to encourage the kind of fishing that supports keeping our lake healthy."
Gary Barnard, Bemidji area fisheries supervisor for the state DNR, anticipates that anglers will be most successful trolling or drifting along the gradual break lines within eyesight of the Tamarac River light beacon. He is encouraging anglers to enjoy the fishing, but do so responsibly.
"It's taken seven years and a lot of work to restore this fishery," said Barnard. "I just hope that anglers realize their role in maintaining it. We need to stay within the safe harvest level to ensure a full recovery during the next few years. Everybody needs to do their part by observing the new regulations and handling fish that need to be released carefully."
On reservation waters, band members will be reacquainting themselves with a walleye heritage that has been painfully absent in recent years. Harvesting walleye from the lake has been an essential part of the Red Lake tribal practices of reliance on nature's bounty.
While its commercial walleye fishery was closed, the band developed Red Lake Nation Foods Inc. to market other traditional tribal products such as wild rice, jellies, and syrups. The online commercial venture helped the tribe diversify its economic base in the wake of the walleye collapse. Now the tribe is carefully calculating how to fold walleye into its food business.
"It's a different world today than it was when we closed the fishery," said Dave Conner, Red Lake DNR administrative officer. "When the commercial fishery reopens, it will be carefully structured to protect the resources and keep most of the profits, benefits, and jobs on the reservation."
Red Lake DNR director Al Pemberton says band members have been hungry for Red Lake walleye for a long time, and they intend to have some traditional celebrations before the tribal fishing opener in early May.
"We will have a blessing of the lake and other community celebrations like we did before the fishery was closed," said Pemberton, describing a traditional-style gathering with local churches and community organizations hosting meals of fresh walleye from the lake. "After the problems we've seen up here over the past year, the return of walleye fishing is one very positive thing on peoples' minds, even if they aren't fishermen," he said.
"People are dreaming about taking their kids and grandkids out fishing again." That's true on both sides of the lake.
Erika R.L. Rivers is a DNR information officer for the northwest region. She'll be celebrating this year's walleye fishing opener on Red Lake.