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25-year-old fears unfounded in Wisconsin

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By Robert Imrie -- Associated Press

WAUSAU, Wis. (AP) - Northern Wisconsin marks an anniversary this year, but not everyone is celebrating. It involves 19th century Indian treaties that brought walleyes, fork-like spears, rock-throwing protesters and claims of racism to the forefront.

Twenty-five years ago, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago affirmed that Chippewa Indian tribes retained off-reservation fishing and hunting rights in 1837 and 1842 treaties that ceded millions of acres of what is now the northern third of Wisconsin to the U.S. government.

It led to a revival of an ancient Chippewa practice - spearing spawning walleyes from lakes in the spring - and led to fears from hook-and-line anglers that the fisheries would be ruined by a fishing method they claimed wasn't sporting at all.

The 23rd spearfishing season started in late April, and the state Department of Natural Resources says the fears have proved unfounded.

''What we have seen over the last 20 years is that angler catch rates, the number of walleye caught per hour fishing, have been stable,'' said Joseph Hennessy, the DNR's treaty fishing coordinator. ''People have been as successful as they ever have been. Walleye populations remain strong in lakes with good natural reproduction.''

The court ruling - called the Voight decision - provided more than just a renewal of Indian spearfishing and political and social turmoil over it. Hennessy said so much monitoring of the walleyes has occurred that northern Wisconsin has ''the most studied fisheries in the world.''

Tom Maulson of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, a spearfishing pioneer, said enthusiasm for spearfishing has not waned on his reservation.

''We still have well over 200 fishermen that go out and harvest roughly 17,000 or 18,000 fish,'' he said. ''They used to call us the Yankees of the north when it came to fishing. ... We still see the touch of racism out there periodically in different communities as our spearers go out.''

But it's mostly peaceful now and that ''feels good,'' he said.

The Chippewa generally start spearfishing for walleye in mid-April when the ice melts off some 200 of the best fishing lakes in northern Wisconsin.

Spearfishing involves shining lights on the walleyes at night as boats travel along shorelines where the fish spawn. The tribe says using fork-like spears to stab fish continues an ancient Chippewa custom.

Under a formula for sharing the fishery with hook-and-line anglers and for making sure the fishery continues to reproduce itself, the tribe annually requests a total number of walleyes to spear and that figure is used to set daily bag limits for anglers of two or three on those lakes.

Before spearfishing, the daily limits were five walleyes.

The resumption of spearfishing prompted demonstrations by treaty-rights opponents at boat landings in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The protests sometimes escalated into incidents of racial taunts and rock-throwing. No one was seriously hurt but tensions forced dozens of law enforcement officers to guard the lakes.

The protests died down after the Lac du Flambeau Band filed lawsuits in federal courts against several protest leaders, alleging the demonstrations were racially motivated and violated the Indians' civil rights.

A federal judge ruled the protests were racially motivated.

A protest leader, Dean Crist, a 59-year-old pizza parlor owner in Minocqua, remains convinced that spearfishing has harmed the fishery and tourism in the north.

''Fishing season means nothing up here when it opens any more. Nothing,'' he said April 24 about the opening of the hook-and-line season in the first weekend of May. ''The resorts, the motels, nothing. And it used to be like the Fourth of July.''

There's still a strong undercurrent of disgust about spearfishing, said Crist, who headed the group called Stop Treaty Abuse-Wisconsin during the height of the protests. His activities cost him $100,000 in the civil rights lawsuit, he said.

''Is there resentment? Absolutely,'' Crist said. ''Are they resigned to it? They are not happy with it and they think it's wrong. They are annoyed with it. All those things are still in place. Every year people call me, 'Geez, can't we do something?'''

Maulson calls Crist ''the last of the martyrs'' in the protest ranks. ''The fishery is still healthy and alive and brings billions of dollars to northern Wisconsin,'' Maulson said.

Hennessy said tribal fishermen have speared 548,302 walleyes since 1985, nearly half of them taken by the Lac du Flambeau Band.

Based on DNR surveys, the agency estimates that hook-and-line anglers catch about 300,000 walleyes each year from lakes in the so-called ceded territory that are eligible to be spearfished, Hennessy said.

''Things like shoreline development and loss of spawning habitat on lakes are bigger threats to walleyes, much more so, than recreational fishing or spearfishing,'' he said.

Only two lakes - Kentuck Lake, which straddles Vilas and Forest counties, and Sand Lake in Sawyer County - have had fish populations drop so low that fishing had to be halted, Hennessy said.

''Neither one of those crashes could be attributed to fishing impacts, whether recreational or spearing,'' he said.

Sue Erickson, a spokesman for Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission in Ashland, which jointly manages the lakes in the ceded territory with the DNR and helps count every fish that is speared, said about 450 tribal members participate in spearfishing each year.

The treaty issue had other benefits to the tribes than just fish - by helping unify the tribes for the prolonged fight that occurred, she said.

''They believe that their ancestors had a lot of vision when they reserved those rights to hunt, fish and gather in the treaties,'' Erickson said. ''It is a very important thing for them to exercise their rights.''

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