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Becker County Sportsman - Conservation on Minnesota's Red Lake

Twenty-five years ago, I was often within the confines of the big --nearly 835,000 acres -- Red Lake Indian Reservation, Traveling with Paul Doerner, a Deputy Attorney General. We were in quest of parcels of land in Northwestern Minnesota. Paul was a giant of a man. A single, accomplished musician, his Karman-Ghia was stuffed with an outsize guitar, drums and sheet music.

The vehicle is a deluxe version of the common Volkswagen "Bug." We made a trip onto the Red Lake Reservation often, dealing with tribal leaders. They knew, of course, of Paul Doerner's role in law enforcement, so we never did get to buy the illegal take of dressed walleye, which was readily available.

Years later, Paul became a Judge of the Minnesota District Court, so it was perhaps fortunate that he didn't successfully conclude purchases of any walleyes on the Reservation. We were employed by the Minnesota Highway Department.

In the last decades of the Twentieth Century, conservation measures on the Red Lake Indian Reservation were not practiced. Commercial fishing took a large share of the walleyes in Upper Red Lake. This twin lake is one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the United States. It's always a great walleye fishery, with sport anglers bringing huge craft to these waters, a good take was usually the result. The fishing, both sport and commercial, as well as that which provided sustenance for the Native American families diminished alarmingly. There was a constant taking, always a drain, with no or very little effort towards greater propagation of the walleyes.

About 1995, the Minnesota Department Of Natural Resources stepped in. The DNR has always had access to the lake, and was aware of the situation. Biologists worked with concerned, interested individuals in the Tribe, and were successful in convincing these leaders that reversals had to be initiated.

In 1997, ice fishing hit new lows. It was further proof and indications remedial measures were in order. It was at the urging of the band itself that all commercial fishing on the Red Lakes had to cease. It also halted the sport fishing. In 1999, the DNR halted all fishing on its portion of the lakes. That same year, the first of millions of tiny walleye fry and fingerlings were introduced into the lakes. With all authorities cooperating, the fishing was gradually restored. Sustenance fishing provided necessary fish to families on the reservation. Walleye fishing once again attracts sport fishermen with big rigs, big motors, and pontoon boats. The walleyes here aren't trophy size, probably averaging an ounce or two over a pound.

Upper Red Lake, under supervision of the Minnesota DNR, collects spawn from the netted walleyes as soon as the ice is out in the spring. The band and its partner has released 100 million walleye fry into the lake, some of which comes from the Band's own fish hatchery, operated by native people.

Minnesota's Upper and Lower Red Lakes are among the shallowest of the large bodies of water. The bottom is rich deep black soil and it is in this muddy environment that the five foot high aquatic plant, wild rice, thrives.

Like the fishing, wild rice harvest or restoration had been abandoned for years. Now the restoration of the wild rice is a second success story on the Red Lake Reservation. Harvesting or "ricing" by primitive means isn't as popular. Yes, some families continue to take a pair of canoes into the dense stands in late August or September, gathering enough for family use by flailing the bent over stalks, permitting the green rice to collect in the canoe. Families sell the seed or dry process and toast the rice themselves.

But ricing has become an important cash crop since commercial operations take large amounts, and do less harm to the remaining plants, which reproduce dramatically. Rice buyers are readily available as the new approach is successful.

The University Of Minnesota, Department Of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service must all recognize the sovereignty of the Indian Nation, and of course they do. Cooperation toward a common goal is the objective.

Many on the Reservation live below the poverty line. This was evident to Paul Doerner and I those many years ago. This hasn't improved appreciably in recent years. Many seek jobs on adjacent farms or in the small towns adjacent. These jobs are limited in number and don't pay great wages. The economic status of Northwestern Minnesota has never been very high. Management of the walleyes and the wild rice are positive steps, and all of Minnesota looks for better things for our Native Americans, who have learned some bitter lessons and have profited from them. Conservation on the Reservation is working well, and it appears that this will continue.

Paul Doerner died in his court room at Saint Cloud a decade ago. He loved the Native Americans, never derogatory as some have been, he wanted them to succeed. He would be proud of their reversals in conservation, managing hunting, fishing and rice.

Important Sportsmen's Club meeting

The Becker County Sportsmen's Club will hold its annual election of officers meeting at 7 p.m., on Thurs., Dec. 6. As usual, it will be held at the American Legion Club rooms on the lake.

A wrap-up of the club's achievements and activities of the past year will be presented. President Brett Friesen and the other current officers invite all club members to attend and participate in this important meeting.