Lake Mille Lacs: The Fishery

Overview

Ice Fishing Shelters on Lake Mille Lacs, 1945.

Lake Mille Lacs has long been renowned for its fishery — it has been described as a “Walleye factory”, where 11 billion Walleye eggs are deposited onto the rocky spawning grounds every year. Mille Lacs is also famous for its trophy caliber Muskie and Small Mouth Bass, and its outstanding Perch. Despite Mille Lacs’ unquestioned natural bounty, there are some major issues facing the management of the fishery resource for leisure. While the Mille Lacs Grand Casino has come to match fishing in its draw for tourists, fishing has been by far the number one pull factor for tourists at Lake Mille Lacs.

The Fishery: Contemporary Management Issues

Fishing on Mille Lacs, 1950.

There are a huge variety of restrictions and regulations concerning fishing on Lake Mille Lacs. Some examples of this include the closing of the winter spear fishing season in recent years, a ban on night fishing from the first monday of fishing season until six weeks afterwards. The main and most pressing issue however, concerns the hunting and fishing privileges that the Mille Lacs Ojibwe were granted in treaties.

Signs describing Fishing Restrictions

Every year, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources sets an allotment of Walleye for the Mille Lacs Ojibwe, and whether or not they fish all that is allotted, this greatly limits the livelihood of non-Indian fisher people on Lake Mille Lacs, forcing them to throw many of their catches back and creating a great deal of tension and resentment between the Mille Lacs band and non-Indian fisher people. The heated nature of the conflict can be best understood in relation to facts such as the 830,000 walleye that had to be thrown back in the year 2001 over the course of just two months. A nine year legal battle was waged from 1990-1999 regarding the legitimacy of the 1837 treaty, and the hunting and fishing privileges it granted the Mille Lacs band, the historical basis for the yearly quotas and allotments for fish. In 1999, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the privileges of the 1837 treaty.

Fishing on Mille Lacs, 1940.

The allotments of fish haven’t only created tensions between the Mille Lacs Ojibwe and outsiders, they’ve also had a major effect on tourism and the local economy. For complex reasons, the number of Walleye in the lake can vary tremendously from year to year, and this is considered a “boom or bust” situation. For example, in 1999 there was an unprecedented number of walleye in the lake, and a Mille Lacs resort owner commented that the resorts were all full while at the same time a year ago there were many, many openings. Many resorts and businesses feel threatened by the economic instability that they believe is fostered by the DNR slot limit regulations, as they are called, and believe it to be in their vested interest that Indians and non-Indians eventually have equal fishing privileges.