LAC DU FLAMBEAU — The air temperature hovered near freezing one April night as Jeff Williams stood in the bow of a 12-foot Alumacraft boat.
He stared down at the darkened, choppy water of the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. The rain turned to snow and back to rain at the whim of the whipping wind. Williams kept his headlamp trained on the water, eyes peeled for a sparkle in the shallows along the ice-lined shore.
When the beam of light caught the glint of a walleye, Williams struck.
In one fluid motion, he stretched forward and stabbed the water with a 10-foot spear, pulled a walleye from the lake, flipped the flopping fish into a metal bucket behind him in the boat, and readied the spear in front of him for the next fish to appear.
It looked as though Williams was rowing a canoe with his spear -- five long strokes in two minutes; five walleyes in the bucket.
"This is what our ancestors did," Williams said after taking his turn steering the boat. "It's just a thing passed on from generation to generation."
Only the most recent generations of tribal members witnessed the bitter controversy and impassioned protests associated with the ancient custom. Twenty years ago this week, the state of Wisconsin ended its legal challenge to tribes' rights to spearfish, essentially putting to rest the so-called Walleye Wars that roiled the Northwoods for years.
Today, Wisconsin anglers' attitudes about spearfishing range from grudging acceptance to placid indifference. Peace has settled on the Northwoods after a battle that began with a 1983 federal court ruling to grant off-reservation hunting and fishing rights to six tribes of Wisconsin Ojibwe, also known as Chippewa.
The decision upheld rights from a treaty signed in 1854, and as spearfishermen began showing up at northern lakes, people who were not American Indians soon followed. Sign-toting protesters angered at what they called a rape of natural resources chanted slogans such as "Save a walleye, spear an Indian," hurled rocks and fireworks at departing boats, and risked arrests and fines to disrupt spearing.
Two decades later, tribal members such as Williams spear in relative peace, but they acknowledge that many non-Indians still harbor resentment. Anglers remain concerned that tribal and state officials aren't leaving enough walleyes for everyone else, and some fear that the Northwoods has lost its appeal as a fishing destination.
"You still have people with cabins coming up here, but guys who are trying to get their limit aren't," said Tom Glodowski, 47, of Lake Tomahawk, who was fishing opening day on Lake Kawaguesaga in Minocqua. "Do you really want to jump lakes to get your bag limit?"
Fishermen today often must visit two or more lakes that are speared in order to catch the daily bag limit of five walleyes. In most cases, walleyes must be at least 15 inches long to be considered legal for sport fishermen.
It's a far different fishing world than what existed 26 years ago, before the spearing began.
Each spring as the ice melts off lakes in northern Wisconsin, tribal members prowl water about 5 feet deep looking for walleyes spawning on shallow gravel beds. The fishing takes place at night, when spearfishers use headlamps to probe the water. The eyes of a walleye glow like beacons in the light, allowing Indians to spot them and thrust 10-foot poles bearing five barbed tines into the water to stab the fish.
Wisconsin tribes began spearing off-reservation lakes in northern Wisconsin in 1985, two years after the federal court ruling. Many of these lakes are in prime tourist areas, such as those around Hayward and Minocqua.
Few took notice in the early years, until non-Indians began seeing and hearing stories of vast numbers of fish being speared.
Since 1989, Wisconsin tribes have speared more than 585,000 walleyes, according to the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which oversees tribal spearing. In that same period, non-Indians have hooked tens of millions of walleyes.
Still, residents grew angry and mobilized to vent their frustrations. A group called Protect Americans' Rights and Resources, or PARR, tried to stop spearfishing with political pressure and a war of words. An organization called Stop Treaty Abuse took a more militant approach in the late 1980s and led protests at boat landings where spear fishermen were intimidated and harassed. Snipers shot rifles toward tribal members in boats, and others threw firecrackers and pipe bombs at the spearers.
The three weeks of spearfishing each spring descended into chaos from 1987 to 1991. Police and National Guard troops tried to separate angry protesters from tribal members as news media from across the country reported the events. Hundreds of people were arrested. Then-Gov. Tommy Thompson flew in a helicopter one night to view the protests from above.
Standing in front of his Lac du Flambeau home this spring, Wally LeBarge, 54, pointed out a dent in the rail of his aluminum fishing boat left 20 years ago by a 10-inch-diameter rock that was meant for his head.
"If this boat could talk, it could tell some stories," LeBarge said.
Confrontation and the potential for violence simply became a part of spearfishing at the time. Some harassment still goes on today, LeBarge said, recalling an incident a year ago when someone shot a BB gun at him and his friends while they spearfished on Lake Kawaguesaga. Instead of causing a confrontation, LeBarge left that section of the lake, he said.
LeBarge said he had two motives back in the late 1980s for forging ahead with spearfishing despite the protests -- and they're the same reasons he fishes today: to provide food for his family and stand up for his rights.
"We're still proud to be out there protecting our rights," he said.
Fred Maulson was a teenager during the height of the Walleye Wars. His father, Tom Maulson, was a Lac du Flambeau businessman rising to power in tribal politics in the 1980s and was the Lac du Flambeau tribe's informal leader protecting the right to spearfish.
Fred Maulson said he never will forget one night in April 1988 when he joined his father and other tribal members to spear on Butternut Lake near Park Falls. Hundreds of protesters overwhelmed the dozen police officers at the boat landing and sped toward the spearers in boats, trying to create large enough waves to swamp tribal fishermen.
On land, a crowd of protesters surrounded men, women and children from the tribe and forced them from the boat landing onto a peninsula, where they were surrounded by water. For two hours, the angry mob shouted racist threats and threw rocks, Maulson recalled. The scene ended after midnight when Ashland County sheriff's deputies showed up with police dogs to disperse the crowd.
"I remember thanking an Ashland County officer, and he said, '(Expletive) you. If I weren't working, I'd be on the other side,'" he said.
Fred Maulson, now 39, lives in Lac du Flambeau and is the chief warden for the Great Lakes commission. He admits he was scared that night and said it was not his last frightening confrontation. On another night of spearing a few years later, he raced across Big Arbor Vitae Lake to avoid protesters. His father followed on land in his truck, pulling the boat trailer. Inside the truck was a rifle.
"Dad was going to protect us if he had to," he said.
As a warden today, Fred Maulson is the one providing the protection. He monitors boat landings for tribal members' safety and checks for spearing violations that could threaten the walleye population.
The walleye lottery
A light rain was falling April 20 as a few dozen men stood outside a one-room building on the Lac du Flambeau reservation in Vilas County. They stood with hands in their pockets alternately looking up at the sky and at a whiteboard on the side of the building. The board contained the names of lakes the tribe intended to spear that day.
Discussion focused mostly on ice conditions on Mille Lacs Lake, about 220 miles away in central Minnesota, where some tribal members planned to fish that Friday night. A March 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling recognized Chippewa tribes' right to gill-net walleyes on the lake. Tribal members said they can harvest 300 to 400 pounds of fish, more than they can spear in Wisconsin, on a good night.
Neil Peterson, 49, of Lac du Flambeau didn't plan to go to Mille Lacs. He was waiting for a tribal leader to call his number, part of the ritual of modern-day spearfishing.
At noon each day, the Lac du Flambeau tribe notifies the Great Lakes commission of which lakes it plans to spear. Tribal members who want to spear that day must meet at the reservation building at 5 p.m. for a lottery drawing. The tribe gives each spearer a number and places a corresponding ball in a bingo hopper. A tribal official selects a ball, and the person with that number gets to choose his lake for the night. The lottery continues until everyone is assigned a location, and each lake has its own quota of fish that can be speared.
On this day, Peterson was near the bottom of the list and got Butternut Lake, about 50 miles west of Lac du Flambeau.
Few of his family members and friends talk about the protests anymore, and he said that non-American Indians seem more accepting of spearfishing now than in past years. Peterson now feels comfortable taking his 14- and 15-year-old sons along.
"We get people coming out on their dock and saying 'Hi,'" he said. "We get just as many people asking about the fishing than yelling something at us."
Great Lakes commission wardens say they investigate one or two reports a year of gunshots near tribal members who are spearing and reports of verbal confrontations.
Night on the lake
After receiving their lake assignments April 20, tribal members scattered and prepared for the night. By 8 p.m., the sky was dark and 18 boats were on the water at the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage near Mercer. Rain mixed with snow, and a brisk wind made the lake surface choppy. Visibility was zero without the aid of a battery-powered headlamp, and even those lights had to battle the rain and snow.
Fishing was slow that night and some Indians gave up before catching their limit.
"It's so (expletive)ing cold the seals and penguins are coming out," one man said to no one in particular as he climbed out of his boat.
At the landing, creel teams waited in cars and trucks to stay warm. The teams are made up of local residents hired by the Great Lakes commission to sign in every boat of spearfishermen at designated boat landings and to count, measure and determine the gender of every fish speared. The data are used to determine when the number of fish allotted to be speared from each lake has been reached.
A tribal member can spear only two walleyes more than 20 inches long each night, and only one of those can be longer than 24 inches. If a person spears even one fish over the quota or violates the size restrictions, a commission warden issues a citation. The tribal member then must appear in tribal court, where a judge can levy a fine based on the severity of the violation.
One of those wardens is 27-year-old University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate Riley Brooks. This was his second year working for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission after working summers in the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest. He's still getting to know the tribal members, but they were quick to recognize him in his warden uniform.
Brooks checked the incoming boats for illegally harvested fish, broken boat lights and proper registration.
"So far, so good," he said. "It's a good night. No citations."
Tribal members grumbled over the checks but were quick to acknowledge that Brooks was just doing his job.
What horrified protesters about spearfishing -- and still bothers some people today -- were the numbers of fish speared and timing of the harvest.
The walleyes are speared in spring when they come to the shallows to spawn, making it easy to pluck them from the water on the end of a barb. Often, female walleyes have not dropped their eggs when they are speared, harming a lake's ability to restock itself.
The six Wisconsin Chippewa tribes speared a record number of walleyes in 2009 -- harvesting 32,201 fish -- and a new record of 34,156 walleyes in 2010, according to the Great Lakes commission. The Lac du Flambeau tribe, the most successful of the six tribes, declared an intent to spear 20,970 walleyes for the 2011 season, more than triple the 6,188 walleyes it speared in 2010, which was 65 percent of its quota.
Tom Maulson, who is serving his second term as tribal president, said the need for more fish stems from the poor economy. Tribal members told him they need more fish for meals, Maulson said.
"We don't take a look at this as a sporting thing," Maulson said. "We don't play with our food. The creator has offered (the animals) for us to utilize."
Williams is one tribal member who relies on the fish.
"I gave away too much last year," said Williams, a 41-year-old member of the Lac du Flambeau tribe. "I ran out too quick last year."
Williams was joking about being too generous, but said he does give away many of the fish he spears. Many of his relatives cannot fish because of age, disability or lack of resources. If he isn't giving away food to those who can't fish, he is giving walleyes to others to celebrate birthdays or to feast after funerals, he said.
Williams' girlfriend of three years, Christine Turney, is the family cook, often deep-frying or baking the walleyes. Turney, 36, is a member of a Kansas Potawatomi tribe and is of Lac du Flambeau Chippewa descent. She said the family relies on the walleyes Williams spears, as well as the deer he hunts, to put food on the table. Williams and Turney have a combined 13 children from previous marriages, ranging from 6 to 22 years old. Many of their children also have learned to spearfish.
"We depend upon (spearfishing) for our survival," Turney said. "It is an important part of Native American heritage, and we will continue to practice it, and our children will practice it."
Like the well-versed politician Tom Maulson is, he is quick to point out that the tribes have never taken their full quota of fish. He talks up the good working relationship tribal leaders already have established with new DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, and the need for additional action to keep lake water clean and free of invasive species.
Like many other tribal members, Maulson doesn't talk about the spearing controversy unless someone asks. Yet he cannot forget protesters' chants at boat landings -- "Where have all the walleye gone? Ask Tom Maulson."
"They don't need to sing the song anymore," Maulson said. "There are plenty of walleye out there."
About 1.4 million traditional hook-and-line anglers caught 88.2 million fish in Wisconsin during the 2006-07 license year, an average of 63 fish per person, according to DNR data derived from a random mail survey of people who bought fishing licenses. Anglers released about two-thirds, or 55.1 million fish, meaning people kept an average of 24 fish a season.
Based on the survey, the DNR estimated that anglers caught 7.07 million walleyes and kept just 2.16 million, or 30.5 percent. Walleyes were the third-most caught fish, behind panfish and bass.
The DNR nets and temporarily stuns fish with electricity in every lake that tribes spear, then counts the walleyes and uses mathematical formulas to determine how many can safely be taken by spear and by hook-and-line fishermen for the year. That number, called a safe harvest, is used in negotiations with tribes for setting quotas and determining anglers' bag limits on lakes.
Joe Hennessy, a DNR official who works with the state's tribes on treaty issues, said sport anglers were more liberal in their harvest of walleyes in the 1980s when there was no size limit. The daily five-walleye bag limit for lakes that aren't speared has been in place for more than 30 years, he said. Lakes that are speared have had a bag limit of two or three walleyes since the late 1980s.
"In some places, people say they are not catching as many fish as they once did -- and others are catching more, but those people aren't talking," Hennessy said, meaning that anglers like to keep hot fishing spots secret.
Back at his home April 20, LeBarge had finished cleaning a pile of walleyes he, LeBarge's son and a friend caught with his handmade tamarack spear the night before on Lake Kawaguesaga. The night was good for them, and he had a large stack of fillets waiting to be frozen.
LeBarge has told the story about the rock hurled in anger countless times, a reminder of what tribal members endured while practicing a custom recognized by treaties. But he said he holds no ill will today toward the man who threw the rock, nor anyone who spat racial slurs or tried to swamp boats during the Walleye Wars.
"I'm a good-hearted man," LeBarge said. "I forgive and forget."