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Spearing walleye, fighting misconceptions: a night with tribal members on a Northwoods lake

Ben Meyer
Sokaogon Chippewa tribal members Leelyn VanZile, standing, and Wayne LaBine spearfish for walleye on Butternut Lake in Forest County.

The sound of spring peepers filled the air as the sun set on Butternut Lake in Forest County in early May.

Standing on the back of his motorboat, Sokaogon Chippewa tribal member Wayne LaBine dropped some tobacco into the water and said a prayer.

He pulled his Native Pride baseball hat on his head. Then he took a seat behind the boat’s wheel.

“Before we harvest anything, whether it’s fish or deer…we offer our ‘asema,’ our tobacco,” LaBine said. “We show that respect to the things that we’re going to take because they all are living and they all have spirits. They’re giving their lives for us.”

The ice departed this lake about a week prior, meaning conditions are right for walleye to enter the shallows to spawn. Like they have for thousands of years, these Ojibwe tribal members will harvest some of them.

“Take what you need. Not what you want,” LaBine said as he started across the lake. “That’s what this is.”

Ben Meyer/WXPR
Leelyn VanZile has been spearfishing for walleye each spring for a decade.

As the boat drifted into the shallows, the light of tribal member Leelyn VanZile, standing in the front of the boat, joined the light of the moon and stars above.

He illuminated his headlamp and grabbed a long spear with four barbed tongs on the end.

“This is where walleyes like to spawn, is in the rocky area,” VanZile explained. “I just kind of sit here and look for the eyes. You can see the eyes glowing in the water.”

He saw the eyes of one walleye reflect his light and plunged the spear into the water.

The first fish of the night dropped into a bucket in the boat’s bottom.

Ben Meyer/WXPR
Leelyn VanZile spears a walleye in the shallow waters of Butternut Lake.

VanZile’s older brothers taught him to spear – and taught him what not to spear.

“See this big female right here? Generally, [we] want to leave them alone,” he said.

Taking females full with eggs is a sure way cut off a lake’s walleye reproduction, so VanZile aims for, and spears, only other walleye he sees.

Harvested walleye will go to his family and fellow tribal members for consumption throughout the year.

“My wife’s grandparents, they eat some. My father-in-law. My in-laws get quite a bit. I eat quite a bit myself with my kids,” he said.

Ben Meyer/WXPR
Sokaogon Chippewa tribal member Wayne LaBine, who has been spearing for nearly 50 years. He endured violent boat-landing protests starting in the late 1980s.

On this night, the spearers faced no issues, besides slightly choppy water from a light wind.

But that was far from the case starting in the late 1980s, when non-tribal members ignited one violent protest after another on lakes across the Northwoods.

ceded territory.jpg
Treaties signed in the 1800s guarantee Ojibwe tribal members the right to spearfish off-reservation lakes in the so-called "ceded territory," shown here.

Wayne LaBine was at those tense boat landings. He remembers the encounters “like it was yesterday,” he said.

Many non-tribal people were upset that a federal court affirmed 19th-century treaties preserving Ojibwe spearing rights on off-reservation lakes. Some arrived at boat landings to harass tribal members in protests that, at times, turned violent and racist.

“Full beer cans. Open beer cans getting thrown at you and hitting you and rocks and cussing,” LaBine remembered. “Things like, ‘save a walleye, spear a squaw’ and ‘you guys are all welfare people’ and whatever.”

Protests over tribal spearing sometimes turned violent and racist at Northwoods boat landings.

A heavy law enforcement presence tried to keep some semblance of peace. But stopping the gathering, shouting, and chanting proved nearly impossible.

“I never thought that people could be so cruel about fish and not recognizing somebody’s culture and how they did things,” LaBine said. “I mean, we’ve been doing this for thousands of years.”

Indeed, spring walleye spearing has been an Ojibwe subsistence custom since before European settlement. Centuries ago, it was done with canoes and torches. But for over a century, states outlawed the practice despite treaties guaranteeing its preservation.

Spearfishing Protests

The level of hostility has subsided in the Northwoods. The temperature has cooled since those initial protests after tribal rights were reaffirmed. But the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) still keeps a tally of incidents of harassment, like shouted profanities and firearm discharges. They record several each year on an interactive map.

LaBine believes those modern incidents spring from lingering resentment and long-held misconceptions some people hold about tribal spearing.

“They’re not educated on how it works and they’re afraid to ask. They don’t understand it,” he said. “[They still think] we’re out there slaughtering fish. We’re not. We’re taking what we’re allowed to take and that’s it.”

In fact, spearing is regulated in the extreme.

Ben Meyer/WXPR
GLIFWC-employed creel teams diligently document each fish caught by tribal spearers at boat landings.

Upon returning to shore, LaBine and VanZile turned over their catch to a GLIFWC-employed creel team. One team is stationed at every landing every night of spearing season.

Ben Meyer/WXPR
Generally, tribal members are strictly limited to harvesting 30 walleye per night, and only on agreed-upon lakes. Specific length limits also apply.

“When the tribal members come in with their catch, they measure, sex, and document each fish,” explained GLIFWC Chief Warden Adam McGeshick.

“It is very highly regulated,” he said. “Some people think it’s a free-for-all. That is not the case.”

The DNR and GLIFWC work together to determine how many walleye can be harvested from a lake and still support a heathy population.

Tribal spearing permits are issued based on those calculations. The limit is generally 30 fish per spearer per night. Only two fish can be in excess of 20 inches in length.

If the creel team finds a violation in a tribal member’s catch, even by just one fish or one inch, the spearer is likely to face a tribal-court citation or even loss of harvest privileges.

It’s the way it should be, VanZile said.

Respect for the resource means tribes want to sustain a healthy walleye population while providing food for their families.

“That’s just what we do,” VanZile said. “Like Wayne said before, take what you need, not what you want. That’s the way we believe.”

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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