RED LAKE, Minn. — Pat Brown and Gary Barnard were working at opposite ends of Upper and Lower Red Lakes in 1997, but the fisheries biologists encountered scenarios that were as similar as they were gloomy.
The two connected basins in northwestern Minnesota were all but devoid of walleyes.
Fresh on the job as a tribal fisheries biologist for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, Brown said a population assessment in reservation waters produced a mere four walleyes in 48 sampling nets.
“I was just sitting there shaking my head thinking, ‘Is this really a walleye fishery?’” said Brown, 46. “I was like, ‘How the hell are we going to restore this thing? How can you fish something like that out?’”
Barnard recalled a similar story in the Tamarac River, a tributary of Upper Red Lake that should have been full of spawning walleyes in the spring of ’97.
Instead, he said, a spring electrofishing assessment in the river to sample spawning fish by temporarily stunning them with electricity produced only four male walleyes in a “significant amount” of effort.
Walleye populations in Minnesota’s largest inland lake essentially had collapsed.
“We couldn’t even sample a female walleye,” said Barnard, area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji. “It was to the point where there wasn’t enough fish to reproduce. That’s what caused it.”
The fall and rise of the Red Lakes is well-documented as one of the greatest success stories in the history of fisheries management not only in Minnesota but across North America. Driven by a shared concern for the resource, the state and the Red Lake Band of Chippewa signed off on a recovery agreement in April 1999 that included closing the walleye season — the band had quit commercial fishing in 1997 — and three massive stocking efforts of about 40 million fry each in 1999, 2001 and 2003.
Overfishing caused the collapse, but no one knew how well the recovery plan would work. Under a best-case scenario, Brown said, fisheries managers were thinking 10 years.
Instead, stocks of naturally producing walleyes recovered to the point where walleye fishing in state and tribal waters could be resumed in 2006.
Last weekend’s Minnesota walleye opener marked the 10th anniversary of that milestone. Walleye populations are thriving.
“They’re looking great,” Brown said. “The lake has continued to amaze us, I guess. It’s just going really well, and we’re having good management between both the band and the state waters.”
In January 2015, the state, the tribe and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs signed a five-year memorandum of understanding to continue working together on managing the lake. A technical committee consisting of state and tribal biologists and other interests meets twice a year to share and exchange information.
“We’re in this together, and it’s just remarkable how things are progressing,” Brown said.
Computer models based on test-netting results put the walleye population in Upper and Lower Red Lakes at an estimated 13 million with at least 10 different age classes of spawning-size fish, Brown said.
On an average year, those same 48 sampling nets that caught four fish in 1997 catch 1,800 to 2,000 walleyes, Brown said. In the Tamarac River, spring electrofishing assessments produce walleyes about as fast as fisheries crews can scoop them up, Barnard said.
“We’re talking about thousands of fish per hour,” he said. “That’s the transition that’s occurred here.
“It speaks to the productivity of that lake. It can really produce and grow walleyes.”
All 152,000 acres of Lower Red Lake and all but 48,000 acres of 108,000-acre Upper Red Lake lie within the Red Lake Indian Reservation and are closed to nontribal members.
Resort owners and others say the past decade has brought many changes to the Waskish area on the eastern shore of Upper Red Lake, some that couldn’t have been anticipated when walleye fishing reopened in 2006.
“We’ve definitely had an influx of people, but I don’t think we had the economic boom for the area we expected,” said Jonny Petrowske, 41, a fourth-generation Waskish resident who traps minnows, rents fish houses and guides anglers and bear hunters to make ends meet.
“We never really capitalized on the market because we don’t have other things to do here,” he said. “We don’t have golf courses. We don’t have restaurants.”
Wetland laws that Petrowske said stifle development have prevented those amenities from being built. Still, he conceded, fishing is “100 times better” than it was.
Tim Waldo, a co-owner of West Wind Resort in Waskish, said the collaboration between the state and the tribe to manage and sustain Red Lake’s walleye fishery has been excellent. This year, for example, the state and the band have agreed to increase their annual harvest quotas because science shows the population can support a larger take.
The annual quota now is about 1 million pounds in tribal waters, up from 829,000 pounds since the last recovery agreement was signed in the previous management plan, and 240,000 pounds in Minnesota’s share of the lake, up from 168,000 pounds.
“Red Lake is kind of a strange thing — it’s one of the success stories the DNR does have,” said Waldo, 62. “It’s nice to see that with all of the fighting they’re having with Mille Lacs and these other lakes around.”
This spring’s three-fish walleye limit in Minnesota’s 48,000-acre share of the Upper Red also allows anglers to keep one walleye longer than 17 inches. Barnard said the abundance of spawning fish may be suppressing the recruitment of walleyes to the population. Barring a ridiculously high harvest early in the season, the DNR anticipates increasing the daily limit to four in June.
“Talk about a turnaround,” Barnard said. “We’ve got a surplus of spawners now.”
Waldo and Petrowske both said the biggest change on the Upper Red in the past 10 years has occurred in the winter with the exploding popularity of wheelhouses, deluxe ice fishing shelters that allow anglers to stay on the lake for days at a time. Anglers in the winter of 2014-15 logged 1.75 million hours of ice-fishing pressure on the Upper Red, according to DNR creel surveys, and about 75 percent of those hours came from anglers fishing wheel houses.
Hanging up the nets
In tribal waters, gone are the days when band members set nets across the lake for subsistence or sale to the Red Lake Fisheries plant in Redby, Minn. Today, tribal members are limited to hook-and-line fishing. Anglers fishing for subsistence can take 10 walleyes a day and have 30 in possession, Brown said, and walleyes from 22 inches to 28 inches long must be released.
Anglers catching fish for sale to the fisheries plant can turn in 100 walleyes a day but must follow the same 22- to 28-inch protected slot.
Al Pemberton, director of the tribal Department of Natural Resources, said the shift to hook-and-line fishing was a big change for band members, but the technique has gained acceptance in the past 10 years.
“I think it’s gone pretty good, and it’s only going to get better, I think,” said Pemberton, 62. “Last year for the fishermen, it was a record year. I think the hook-and-line fishermen caught close to 700,000 pounds. That’s a lot of fish.”
Stepped-up enforcement also was a part of the state-tribal walleye agreement. While poaching undoubtedly occurs, it’s likely less extensive than it was before walleyes collapsed.
For every 600,000 to 700,000 pounds of walleyes brought to the fish plant back then, a similar amount likely was taken unlawfully and sold on the black market, Brown said.
“There’s probably still some of that going on, but again I’d say if we can keep it under 10 percent (of the harvest), we’re in good shape,” Brown said.
Pemberton said some tribal members wanted to go back to netting when fishing reopened. Today, commercial netting is limited to a crew from the fisheries plant to supplement catches later in the summer when walleyes move farther offshore and are more difficult for anglers with small boats to catch with hook and line.
“They were willing to give it a chance,” Brown said. “Now they’ve bought into it. Change is very difficult, and especially on the reservation, but now this is becoming the new normal.”
The switch to hook-and-line fishing in tribal waters also has improved the perceptions people in the resort community have toward their neighbors on the reservation.
“It’s a whole different tone,” said Petrowske, the fourth-generation Waskish resident. “There’s no blaming, no screaming, no yelling. Everybody is thinking about what’s best for the lake.”