Is spearfishing flap overblown?
The other day I read with interest a story on spearfishing by Jessica Vanegeren in the Capital Times. You might have read earlier news that six northern Chippewa tribes have declared intentions to harvest 59,399 walleyes this spring—the second most since 2010. They are allowed to spear the fish under treaty rights. That plan prompted the Department of Natural Resources to declare bag limits for anglers of just one walleye on 197 lakes across roughly the northern third of Wisconsin.
Critics suggest the tribes are setting their take high in protest of new mining legislation and the state’s new wolf hunt. Some observers fear a return to the “Walleye War” of spearfishing tensions last seen in the 1980s.
Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, criticized the Chippewa plan and said resort owners and other businesses that rely on tourism—really the key economic driver in most of northern Wisconsin—are scared about the resulting ramifications. Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, responded that Kaufert’s comments amounted to an “1800s mentality toward the Chippewa tribes.”
Here’s where Vanegeren’s report gets interesting. Creel censuses taken from 1990-2007 by the DNR showed few hook-and-line anglers catch more than one legal walleye anyway. In lakes with no minimum size, 76 percent of walleye anglers got “skunked.” Only 5.4 percent caught two, and only 5.5 percent caught the legal limit of three. In lakes with a 15-inch minimum, 88 percent didn’t catch a walleye. Fewer than 2 percent caught two, and just 1.1 percent caught the limit of three.
Still, as DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp suggested, most anglers hope to catch a bag limit, and if you remove that chance, they might go elsewhere.
While bag limits might be adjusted on some of those lakes after it’s known just how many walleyes the tribes actually take, here’s my limited view of the situation. I have an aunt and uncle living on Lake Tomahawk. Ten or 20 years ago, my uncle and I used to jig for walleyes with the expectation of catching one or two in a couple of hours of fishing. Now, that vast fishery has changed. It’s mostly panfish and bass. We seldom even bother to fish for walleyes anymore—they just don’t seem to be there.
This year’s plan to spear some 59,000 walleyes amounts to between 6 percent and 11 percent of the total walleye populations on the lakes that tribes will target. While those are small percentages of the estimated overall walleye populations, the change in the fishery on Lake Tomahawk leaves me to wonder about the long-term ramifications of spearing.
Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Or follow him on Twitter or