Mille Lacs’ annual round of ‘input,’ slot-choosing, and gill-netting

Editor’s note:

This article first appeared in the February 4, 2005 issue of Outdoor News.

Hammerhandle pike and Leech Lake cormorants made the 2005 Minnesota Fisheries Roundtable agenda last month. But Mille Lacs, with its spawning-time walleye and pike gill-net fishery (and “adjustment” to it by DNR resource managers and the sport fishing community) failed to make the list.

Of course, time constraints keep many worthy Minnesota fishing issues from Roundtable consideration. So choices are made. The Mille Lacs absence marked a change from the previous dozen years or so. Typically the Roundtable’s Mille Lacs treatment was less full-bore discussion than DNR update, usually presented by Jack Wingate, DNR fisheries research biologist in St. Paul and point man on the treaty management subject.

Roundtable prominence or not, the Mille Lacs thing — featuring separate and unequal fisheries plus the annual expenditure of millions of federal and state tax dollars on state/tribal “co-management” — still rolls along. The other economic and social costs also continue, while everything from “culture” to trumped-up conservation themes run cover for the monster.

The whole thing remains pretty much shielded from the usual media scrutiny and political hardball it deserves. Angling and conservation organizations dodge it. And high-profile outdoor writers affiliated with major newspapers have generally passed on it.

‘Dedicated funding’

I’m surprised that activists seeking dedicated funding for Minnesota conservation programs via constitutional amendments and sales tax bucks don’t study the flow of funds earmarked for the Mille Lacs madness. Oh, I know. It’s like comparing apples to oranges, or smallmouths to walleyes. But millions of federal dollars — automatic, dedicated, kept beyond public awareness, and with no questions asked — flow to tribal DNRs and their umbrella bureaucracy, the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC). As of mid-February (and probably for months to come), the cost of the state’s 1837 Treaty management activities and related expenses had yet to be posted for public scrutiny, despite citizen demands, official promises, and requests from legislators in recent years.

Another example of “dedicated funding” — also free from public scrutiny and discussion — is the automatic flow of state millions to Leech Lake and other Chippewa bands as part of 1970s and 1980s ransom agreements whereby certain tribal governments get paid for not exercising various treaty harvest rights. Apparently these annual payments, based on percents of state fishing, hunting, trapping, and various commercial license sales, are eternal! Forever!

Why, this dedicated and guaranteed stream of cash, now totaling far beyond $100 million and forever-growing, trumps anything the conservation lobby has so far come up with in new dedicated funds for state conservation programs. No citizen oversight committees here. No hearings in the Legislature. No Star Tribune editorials. No governor’s budget axe in sight. Health care advocates, stadium boosters, educators, and wetlands activists might also learn from these no-hassle tribal funding mechanisms!

Input, and pike

While Mille Lacs missed the Roundtable spotlight, it’ll still make news following DNR’s Feb. 1 meeting with its Mille Lacs Fisheries Input Group. That’s a so-called “citizen advisory panel,” a pretty good cross-section of resorters, guides, local officials, area legislators, tourism folks, etc. Each year, following the state/tribal 1837 Treaty Fisheries Technical Committee’s announcement of the year’s Mille Lacs walleye “safe harvest level” (505,000 pounds for the lake in ’05, 405,000 pounds for anglers), DNR managers propose regulation options aimed at keeping anglers within the state’s allocation. Input Group members then opine about which medicine might taste best. DNR ultimately decides on Mille Lacs bag limits and slot limits.

Watch Outdoor News and other sources to find out if the 2005 Mille Lacs walleye slot stays the same as ’04 rules – a 20- to 28-inch protected slot, with one over 28 inches in a limit of four, with a liberalization (22-28 protected) in mid-July as happened last season.

One sure topic for the Input Group discussion: observations last year by lake residents and DNR personnel of the “release” of northern pike from gill nets, on the lake and from public access parking lots. It was often abusive, and nearly always wasteful. Apparently GLIFWC managers had urged get-rid-of-pike efforts to avoid the tribal pike quota. Reaching the pike allocation would require the walleye gill-net harvest to cease.

Now, I’ve netted tullibee in cold November Mille Lacs waters since 1970 (until the season was discontinued three years ago for non-natives) with the same mesh size as frequently used by tribal walleye and pike netters. Other experienced netters agree that toothy pike, which twist and writhe in a gill net, generally get so snarled up that they’re either drowned, weakened, or require lots of time out of the water for untangling. In other words, as resorter and veteran tullibee fan Eddy Lyback put it, in most cases “a gill-netted northern is a dead northern.”

As I watched tribal netters attempt to “release” pike, and heard similar stories, I figured this was no coincidence. Management had to be pushing this, because the average tribal enrollee from Wisconsin would generally keep pike caught in a subsistence fishery, if not for her own family, then for relatives, friends, neighbors, and elders.

The Technical Committee upped the ’05 Mille Lacs pike quota, affording more wiggle room. And a new pike study (yes, another study!) will likely show an expanded pike population so the quota can go higher, and so the walleye netting can stretch to the max. Incidentally, anglers are assessed pike “hooking mortality,” amounting to about 40 percent of their pike harvest number. But Chippewa gill-netters, who fish right after ice-out, face no gill-net “release mortality” assessment when water temps are below 50 degrees—despite last spring’s “release” fiasco.

Meanwhile, the spawning-time 21st century gillnetting of concentrated and vulnerable game fish on Minnesota’s so-called “crown jewel” and “walleye factory” continues. It remains fortified behind make-believe stone-age “culture” and “subsistence” trappings; and well-shielded by a willing press, a timid political establishment, and a naïve public who sees all this in simplistic terms of being for or against “the Indians.”