MINOCQUA — Kevin Thompson remembers when trucks and boat trailers lined the streets outside Minocqua-area businesses during opening fishing weekend. But traffic at his bait shop on opening day 2011 was by no means frenetic, and Thompson said there's a simple reason -- fewer fishermen.
Gas prices of more than $4 a gallon surely hurt, as does the general state of the economy. But some local anglers and business owners believe hard-core fishermen are going elsewhere for another reason: Spearfishing has reduced chances of catching good-sized fish.
Thompson, owner of The Great Outdoors bait shop, does not hold that view. The 40-year-old lifelong Minocqua-area resident refused to blame spearfishing solely for the light traffic, and he noted that sportfishermen take far more fish than tribal members.
Between selling scoops of fathead minnows and jigs and answering questions about lake temperatures and how the fish were biting, Thompson suggested that the state Department of Natural Resources should work with fishermen to restock fish in lakes to keep a healthy population. Without good fishing, Minocqua and other communities across northern Wisconsin will suffer economically, he said.
"Let's face it -- this place is a tourist destination," Thompson said. "This is what we need to survive up here. In this economy, we need to try anything to make it happen."
At Minocqua-area boat landings on opening day, misconceptions about spearfishing were easy to find. Many anglers assumed tribal members can spear as many fish of any size they want. Anglers didn't know that every fish is measured and counted against a quota.
Tales of speared walleyes dumped on shorelines are ingrained in fishermen, and every angler seemed to know the story of Big Carr Lake.
That story is true. DNR and Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission wardens caught three Lac du Flambeau tribal members in April 2006 trying to hide 45 walleyes, some reportedly as long as 29 inches, on the shoreline of the Oneida County lake instead of registering the fish with creel teams at the boat landing. The walleye quota that year for the lake was 48 fish. The spearfishermen were fined in tribal court and lost their off-reservation hunting, fishing and gathering rights for one year.
Dale Scharine, 65, of Appleton, who fished May 7 on Lake Kawaguesaga near Minocqua where he has a second home, said he believed American Indian treaty rights were unfair and that spearfishing would hurt the economy. During the controversy two decades ago, he wrote a letter of complaint to then 8th District Republican Congressman Toby Roth.
"We are all citizens of the U.S. and Wisconsin," Scharine said. "Why should one group of any citizens be given more rights than any other group of citizens?"
On the other hand, Scharine said the rock-throwing and violence committed by anti-spearing protesters was "terrible" and that he did not oppose the tribal members themselves.
Scharine's anger at the time has mellowed to frustration, as it has for many anglers after fruitless days of seeking walleyes of legal size.
"We have to face up to it," he said. "I've learned to accept it."