A Chippewa tradition: spearing, netting walleyes on Mille Lacs Lake

It was midnight on Mille Lacs Lake when three Fond du Lac spear-fishermen discovered a massive ice floe creeping closer to their nine nets. After a call to conservation officers to seek permission to pull in the nets, since spearing and netting a...

It was midnight on Mille Lacs Lake when three Fond du Lac spear-fishermen discovered a massive ice floe creeping closer to their nine nets.

After a call to conservation officers to seek permission to pull in the nets, since spearing and netting are not to take place at the same time, the men made a few more attempts in the inky black night early Tuesday to find a walleye.

"We're like the Northwestern on the 'Deadliest Catch,' " said Bo Diver, referencing a boat on the popular Discovery Channel show about the Bering Sea crab fishery.

The members of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa were spearing in Garrison Bay on Mille Lacs Lake, taking part in the centuries-old Ojibwe, or Anishinaabe, tradition of spearing and netting, an 1837 treaty right affirmed for them in 1999 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It is part of the seasons; in the springtime, you gather fish," said Tom Foldesi, as he listened to instructions on where to direct the boat to avoid the marked nets lining the shore.


The men spent several hours taking turns poised on the bow of the boat, 10-foot spears raised, watchful eyes trained on the shallow water bathed in the submerged beam of a waterproofed motorcycle light. Spearfishing takes place at night because walleye are light-sensitive and stay in deeper water during the day. They gravitate toward shallower water to eat baitfish at night.

After a fruitful Sunday catch, the men were unlucky Tuesday morning; only one fish was speared out of the two seen, and 82 pounds of mostly walleye came in with the 100-foot nets because they were pulled before dawn. The night before -- with the nets in the water all night -- they had pulled up 300 pounds of fish. But full of friendship, witty banter and a late-night snack of McDonald's double cheeseburgers, the men didn't seem to mind the small catch.

"It's something we're learning again," Foldesi said. "If you don't do it, who knows, they might take it away."

Band members take much pride in practicing the old tradition, said Blake Evanson, a Fond du Lac conservation officer and band member.

"My generation wasn't allowed, but some of our elders would sneak," he said. "Spearing is a challenge, especially when trying to judge [the size of] a walleye. You're just chasing the fish around. Netting is more productive but spearing is funner."

Art Durfee, 71, said he has been spearing since he was 9. He learned because "I was hungry," he said. "There were 14 kids in the family."

Now Durfee fishes to help feed his own family.

"I got nine kids myself ... and half are registered Chippewa and half aren't because of the 1961 cut-off date [after which 1/4 blood quantum was needed for enrollment]. Seems like the ones that like to go fishing don't have enough Indian blood to do it."


The band has a 20,000-pound limit this year, and each member can spear two walleyes over 20 inches, and only one of those over 24 inches. Fond du Lac conservation officers and biologists weigh, measure and age each fish in a tent next to the lake at North Garrison Landing.

Almost 80 band members have participated so far this season, which goes until the quota is filled or participation drops off, said Brian Borkholder, inland fisheries biologist for the band. During the first season, in 1998, 34 band members participated. Because of the unseasonably late April start and 39-degree water, this year has been one of the poorest, he said, and the quota probably will go unfilled.

The right to net and spear is a cherished one for band member Jeff Durfee of Normanna Township, and Art Durfee's brother.

"Some people get a business left to them, some a large sum of money," he said. "My father left me this right. I want to keep exercising it."

The connection to the land and the spirituality of the fish are two reasons, he said with tears in his eyes.

"My father named my son Ogaa," he said, which means big-eyed fish, or walleye, in Ojibwe. "That was a touching time."

The band sets nets for the elder nutrition program on the reservation, and most band members share their catches with family and friends.

Veronica Smith and Briana Houle set nets Monday night and settled in with coffee to wait for dawn, when nets are pulled out of the water.


Smith said her father died last fall, and she wanted fish to present to her aunts and uncles in her father's name.

"We take what we need and give back to elders," she said.

Much of the controversy over spearing and netting has subsided, but it hasn't disappeared. Late-night heckles can sometimes still be heard from passing cars, band members say.

To the Anishinaabe, spearing and netting is a birthright, one they say some non-Indians still don't understand.

"Our forefathers made this treaty because they knew what was important to our people, and it wasn't money; it was food," said Pete Durfee, a Fond du Lac conservation officer and band member, and nephew of Art Durfee and Jeff Durfee. "None of this food is wasted."

JANA HOLLINGSWORTH covers American Indian issues. She can be reached at (218) 279-5501 or by e-mail at jhollingsworth@

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