FdL band to harvest Vermilion walleyes
Cloquet, Minn. — In an effort to broaden fish harvest for its band members – and perhaps to fish water somewhat more productive than Lake Mille Lacs – the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has announced members will be allowed to spear and/or net walleyes from northern Minnesota’s Lake Vermilion this spring.
That’s also the lake that will play host to the Governor’s Fishing Opener this year. Officials say that if band members do set nets in Vermilion, they’ll be removed by May 7, two days before the state fishing opener arrives.
Announced on the band’s website, the walleye take could be up to 2,500 pounds of fish. Fond du Lac members are allowed off-reservation harvest based on an 1854 treaty agreement. It’s the first time Fond du Lac members have sought walleye harvest from Vermilion, though fall whitefish netting has taken place.
Band officials said Fond du Lac “is planning on initiating treaty harvest on lakes within the 1854 Ceded Territory. … Lakes were chosen after consultation with the Minnesota DNR,” the media release says.
Besides Vermilion’s east basin, other lakes where harvest could take place include Cook County’s Four Mile, Caribou, Pike, and Tait lakes, and St. Louis County’s Cadotte Lake.
Brian Borkholder, fisheries biologist for the FdL band, said just the east basin was chosen for tribal walleye harvest following discussions with Don Pereira, DNR Fisheries chief, and Melissa Treml, Fisheries researcher. A recent DNR survey showed a stronger walleye population than that of the lake’s west side, he said. The basins are separated by an area known as Oak Narrows
Because of that, the DNR requested band members harvest in just the east basin; future harvest could occur in the west basin, based on future study results. As a general rule, Borkholder said, the band likes to spread out harvest, whether it occurs on Vermilion or other lakes, so that notable harvest only takes place every few years.
Borkholder said Lake Mille Lacs, where Fond du Lac members, as well as Mille Lacs band members and those of six bands in Wisconsin have in previous years harvested walleyes and other fish, is about the same distance from the Fond du Lac Reservation, which is based in Cloquet. While further reductions in the tribal quota for Mille Lacs may have served as disincentive to travel to that 132,000-acre lake, “expanding the harvest opportunity was one of the goals” of harvesting fish from the 40,000-acre Vermilion, he said.
Since 2012, the tribal allowable harvest of walleyes from Mille Lacs has shrunk from about 80,000 pounds that year to 11,400 this year.
Charlie Rasmussen, spokesman for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, said he hadn’t been made aware if the Fond du Lac band would exercise its option to harvest Mille Lacs walleyes. If it doesn’t, it could transfer its allotment to another band.
“Time will tell if they choose to go (to Mille Lacs),” Rasmussen said.
On Vermilion, Fond du Lac members would share harvest with just one other tribe – the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, whose members long have taken on-reservation fish from the lake, according to Duane Williams, the Minnesota DNR’s large lake specialist for Vermilion.
Williams called the Fond du Lac declaration of walleyes ”not real significant” in terms of overall walleye harvest from the lake, which sees most of its angling activity during the open-water season, he said. On average, based on DNR creel surveys, hook-and-line anglers harvest about 65,000 pounds of walleyes from the lake; last year, that numbers was about 45,000 pounds.
The lake also is surveyed on a regular basis, Williams said. Two years ago, the walleye gill-net catch rate in the department’s survey was a robust 18 fish per net. A year ago, it had declined to a still-impressive 11 per net, he said.
As for monitoring the tribal take by Fond du Lac members, Borkholder said each fish will be measured, weighed, and an otolith bone will be removed from each fish’s head, so that the specimen might be aged.
It will be Fond du Lac officials who perform those functions, though state DNR conservation officers are welcome to observe, Borkholder said. Permits band members must obtain are good for one day, and designate the lake access that must be used.
Given the nature of gill nets, there likely will be “by-catch” of other species, he added. That could include muskies, but only walleyes will be allowed to be harvested for personal use by band members. Muskies that can be will be released; those that cannot must be turned over to tribal officials, who will use them for an elderly nutrition program, Borkholder said.
At season’s end, the by-catch will be reviewed and analyzed, and changes will be made if needed.
Borkholder also said that band members won’t be required to use any certain mesh size with gill nets, allowing for the possibility that fish of many sizes will be harvested, rather than putting harvest pressure on a particular group of walleyes.
Walleye-fishing regulations for state anglers currently come with an 18- to 26-inch protected slot, with a four-fish limit and one allowed in possession over 26 inches. That will remain in place.
“We’ve never dealt with this type of harvest (on Vermilion; the Bois Forte take is comparatively small), but I know it’s monitored closely,” Williams said. “We’re not going to adjust the regulations for 2,500 pounds, but if (the declaration) is ramped up in the future, that might be a possibility.”