15 years later: Red Lake works at walleye recovery
As Al Pemberton recalls, it was about three years after the Red Lake Band of Chippewa and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources signed an agreement to restore walleye populations in Upper and Lower Red lakes that he saw the true potential for the big lakes’ recovery.
The agreement, which state and tribal officials had signed on a perfect afternoon in April 1999, resulted from the collapse of the walleye population in Minnesota’s largest inland lake, a once-unthinkable outcome caused by years of overfishing.
Two sides united by adversity, people that historically had very little to do with each other, now were working together to reverse the damage — and the pain — on the lake they shared.
“When it first started, it was kind of pointing fingers at everybody,” said Pemberton, director of the Red Lake tribal DNR and a member of the Red Lake Tribal Council. “They were doing their thing, and we were doing our thing.”
That spring day in the early 2000s, Pemberton and tribal biologist Pat Brown had stopped at a site near the mouth of the Blackduck River where fisheries crews set trap nets every year to sample spawning walleyes.
The Blackduck River flows into Lower Red Lake, and in 1998, Brown’s first year on the job, the trap nets had captured only two male walleyes during two weeks of sampling.
“I told Pat — this was like the third spring — we’re going to start lifting up the nets, and he said we should probably have a few walleyes in there but didn’t think we’d have that many,” Pemberton said. “We lifted the net up, and there were like 3,000 in there. I’d never seen walleyes that big in Red Lake — they were 17, 18, 19 inches already. They just grew like crazy.
“I think God was with us when all that happened.”
Wednesday4/9 marks 15 years since the band and the state signed that historic agreement, and players on both sides of the lake say it would have been difficult to envision the recovery that ensued.
Today, Red Lake sports several age-classes of walleyes, the resort industry in Minnesota waters is thriving, a state park on Upper Red Lake draws visitors to camp, fish and explore the Red Lake Bog, and Akina Red Lake Fishery, the tribal fish-packing plant in Redby, Minn., again is a major employer on the reservation.
Gone are the days of widespread netting — tribal members are limited to hook-and-line fishing except for a small crew the fishery hires to supplement the catch in the slow months of July and August — and state and band fisheries experts meet twice a year to share information on population surveys and harvest rates.
“We’re taking care of it now,” Pemberton said. “We’re watching it.
“It’s been good. All of the partners seem to work together.”
Henry Drewes, regional fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, said “there were certainly unknowns” in the recovery plan, developed by the Red Lake Technical Committee, a team of state and tribal fisheries officials and other experts assembled in the wake of the collapse.
Not until Red Lake, Drewes said, had Minnesota ever used the word “collapse” to describe a walleye population.
“The construct of the committee was very focused on fixing the problem, not fixing blame,” Drewes said. “There was plenty of blame to go around. We were looking forward, not backward.”
Confident, but uncertain of the timeline, is how Drewes describes the mindset when the recovery plan was signed that day 15 years ago. Highlights included three stocking efforts of mosquito-size walleye fry, stepped-up enforcement in state and tribal waters and a moratorium on walleye fishing until stocks recovered.
“We had determined three (stocking) efforts, and if they were not successful, we weren’t going to continue,” Drewes said.
Coupled with the harvest moratoriums, the stocking campaigns — about 30 million walleye fry each in 1999, 2001 and again in 2003 — provided the necessary jumpstart. By 2006, Red Lake’s walleye populations had recovered to the point where fishing resumed in state and tribal waters — albeit with tight harvest quotas the committee had developed.
“We thought it would be eight to 10 years before we could reopen the fishery,” Drewes said. “And it ended up being quicker and more successful than we possibly could have imagined, and that’s why we were able to open after seven years.”
Kelly Petrowske of Waskish, Minn., was there in the late ’90s when the small community on the east side of Upper Red Lake was all but a ghost town. His family had once owned a resort on Upper Red, trapping minnows, renting boats in the summer and plowing ice roads and renting fish houses in the winter.
But the tourism dried up when the walleyes collapsed. Today, both are back, and Petrowske again plows roads and rents fish houses in the winter and farms wild rice in summer.
It’s not an easy life, he says, but at least he can call Waskish home.
“I think we have to be extremely happy everything worked,” Petrowski said. “We’ve got fantastic fishing. Hopefully, the band and the state can keep working together.”
Strict wetland laws likely will limit opportunities for new resorts and other businesses on Upper Red, Petrowske said, and employment remains a challenge for recruiting young people.
“The one good thing I’ve seen is the sons of the people my age that started the rice business are moving back home and taking over,” Petrowske said. “Almost every farmer in town has young kids coming back — plus they can work on the lake in the winter.”
Jerry Stensing, who operates a tree nursery near Waskish, was among the area residents to explore other options for tourism after the walleyes collapsed. One of his ideas was a bog walk that would allow visitors to hike into the heart of the Red Lake Bog, a harsh environment that supports a vast array of plant species.
The bog walk, completed in 2005, is a centerpiece of Big Bog State Recreation Area, a DNR-managed facility that offers camping, fishing, hiking and birding, along with a new visitor center and interpretive displays highlighting the area.
“In the entire area, after the walleyes collapsed, it was pretty sad around here, and we’ve had some very significant changes to the area,” Stensing said.
Those changes also have presented challenges, he says, such as managing ATVs and the increased hunting and fishing pressure that has occurred.
“The flipside of that coin is there are tremendous opportunities here, and sportsmen, both fishermen and hunters and just recreation users of the woodlands, enjoy tremendous opportunities, and there are a lot of things to see and do,” Stensing said.
For several years in the early 2000s, Upper Red Lake also became a premier destination for crappies, a secondary species that filled the void left by the walleye collapse.
Anglers came by the thousands. So heavy was the traffic, the DNR’s Drewes recalls, that the Minnesota State Highway Patrol deployed additional officers to work the area during busy weekends.
Only in the past couple of years, Drewes says, has the DNR finally stopped hearing Red Lake should have been managed for crappies instead of walleyes. Less desirable species such as freshwater drum or bullheads could have filled the void, Drewes said, but instead, it was crappies from a massive 1995 hatch that carried the population for the next 10 years.
“It’s not a subjective position, it’s just a fact — that was a rare, way more infrequent than once-in-a-blue moon” occurrence, Drewes said. “The bottom line is we couldn’t have done that if we tried.”
Crappie numbers dwindled in the mid-2000s and again are a secondary species, but the boom was really something while it lasted.
“It was a highly desirable species that flourished,” Drewes said. “It’s a memory that you have, I have and thousands of other Minnesota anglers will have.
“It was a perfect scenario not to be repeated.”
Looking toward the future, Drewes said the state and the band are in the process of drafting another walleye agreement, which will be similar in scope to the pact signed in 1999 and renewed in 2010. Both sides are committed, he said, to staying within the annual walleye harvest range of 1.75 pounds to 3.5 pounds per acre, a maximum of 168,000 pounds annually in state waters and 829,000 pounds annually in tribal waters.
Despite bumping close to the harvest quotas, Drewes said the lake today holds a diverse population of spawning walleyes from multiple age-classes, with especially strong numbers of 15- to 17-inch walleyes from the 2009 hatch and 12- to 13-inch fish from 2011, which Drewes calls “one of the biggest year-classes we’ve ever seen.”
Larger, older walleyes measuring 25 to 29 inches also are showing up more regularly, something that rarely occurred before the recovery agreement.
For a total state investment of about $500,000, Drewes said Upper Red Lake has provided 7 million hours of fishing opportunity and a walleye harvest of slightly more than 900,000 pounds — just in Minnesota waters — since fishing resumed in 2006.
The recovery, Drewes says, is one of the finer stories in Minnesota.
“If someone would have said to me in 1999, ‘Where would you like to be in 2014?’ I would describe right where we’re at right now,” Drewes said. “If they’d asked the likelihood of that happening, I would have said ‘remote.’
“We’re in a really good place.”