SPRINGSTEAD -- The process of spearfishing is as simple as it sounds: Boys, young adults and grown men perch in boats and pluck walleyes from the water with 10-foot barbed spears.
It's brutal but effective -- the same way ancestors of the Lac du Flambeau tribe took walleyes from lakes centuries ago, and have over the 26 years since court rulings upheld the practice permitted by treaties signed more than 150 years ago.
Aluminum boats with Evinrude motors have replaced birch-bark canoes. Flaming torches that once helped tribal members spot the sparkle of a walleye's eyes under the water now are obsolete; battery-powered headlamps work better. Electric knives have replaced venison-bone knives once used to fillet the fish.
Tribal members have adapted to take advantage of modern technology, but the basic skills of spotting fish and timing the throw of a spear are taught each year by fathers to their sons.
On an April night early in the 2011 spearing season, Jeff Williams, 41, and his cousin Byron Peterson, 32, of Lac du Flambeau were spearing on the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. The two have speared together for six years, and on this night, Peterson's stepson, 11-year-old Carl Wewasson Jr., was along for his first time.
Carl didn't get a chance to fish that night, but with temperatures near 30 degrees and a mix of rain and snow falling, it was a trip he likely never will forget.
"That's how we all started," Peterson said as he pointed to his son. "You sit and you watch at first."
There was little talk among the men as they scoured the water for fish. The metal spear tines made a "ting" sound when they hit the gravel bottom. Water splashed as a walleye was brought to the surface and flopped hard against the metal tub holding the speared fish in the boat. The rain briefly froze into hard pellets that pinged off camouflage coats and the aluminum boats.
Peterson stood at the front of the boat peering through the water for the reflection of light off walleye eyes. Expertly, he stabbed and pulled out fish with only a handful of misses. In little more than one hour, he speared 27 walleyes -- several days' catch for a non-Indian angler, but fewer than Peterson expected. He blamed the poor weather for making it difficult to see the fish that swam in the shallow water.
Williams took his turn with the spear and Peterson controlled the motor, following islands and shorelines. Williams' headlamp spooked a deer on shore and a duck as he looked for walleyes. He speared 20 fish with a few misses.
The final count of 47 fish was well short of the 80 walleyes the men were allowed to take that night, but Carl complained about the cold, and no one else in the boat was eager to stay in those conditions.
In another boat, Fred Maulson, 39, of Lac du Flambeau took his son Frederick, 13, and nephew Lyle Chapman, 15, spearing. Maulson allowed the boys time to practice. Lyle was the more experienced of the teenagers and gave Frederick advice on how to hold the spear and thrust it into the water.
"You learn by watching; then you try and get critiqued," the elder Maulson said.
The boys missed repeatedly at first. After a couple of hours, they began to have success and speared about 25 fish before heading in for the night.
The Chippewa name for the Lac du Flambeau area is Waswagoning, which means "a place where they spear fish by torch light."
On this night of miserable weather, two families began to pass the torch to the next generation.
-- Wausau Daily Herald
photographer Xai Kha
contributed to this report.