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Patrick Durkin column: Facts trump fears after Lac du Flambeau spearfishing tourney

Mar. 23, 2013
 
Spearfishing through the ice can be more efficient than casting or row-trolling, but still requires long waits for fish to swim by.
Spearfishing through the ice can be more efficient than casting or row-trolling, but still requires long waits for fish to swim by. / Patrick Durkin/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com

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While walking into Dan Folz’s DNR office in Oshkosh many Februarys ago, I heard the veteran biologist explain why warm weather and weak ice wouldn’t cause the Department of Natural Resources to cancel Lake Winnebago’s sturgeon spearing season.

“It’s a week away,” Folz patiently told the caller. “The weather could turn and refreeze everything. But if it stays warm and the ice gets dangerous, spearers will stay home. And if they stay home, sturgeon season — for all practical purposes — is closed. I appreciate your concerns, but we should let this play out.”

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp should remember Folz’s calm response the next time folks and fellow politicians panic about the Lac du Flambeau tribe holding a muskie spearing tournament on ice-covered lakes. Stepp should not play Henny Penny to state Sen. Tom Tiffany’s Chicken Little. Leave him to his fear-mongering.

More on spearfishing in our 'Peace on the Lakes' special report from 2011: Read the complete report | Protest photos from 1980s and 1990s | Database: The most speared lakes | View spearfishing slideshow

In case you missed it, the Lac du Flambeau hung posters two weeks ago announcing a March 16 tournament on five Vilas County waters: Big Lake near Boulder Junction, Big St. Germain Lake, Big Arbor Vitae Lake, and North and South Twin lakes. The event offered $6,500 in prizes and cash.

In response, Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, told the Lakeland Times that the Lac du Flambeau should “reconsider the consequences of holding something like this.” He demagogued: “I believe we will have less tourism because of this. That affects all of us, including the tribes. We also need to be protective of our resources, and it sounds like this could harm the resource and consequently our economy in northern Wisconsin.”

Hmm. A half-day spearfishing tournament will hurt tourism? Seriously?

Spearing through ice is more productive than casting or row-trolling in open water, but has Tiffany ever waited in a dark shack for a big fish to swim by? As the late outdoors writer Jay Reed said of spearfishing sturgeon on Winnebago: “It’s the closest you’ll ever get to above-ground burial.”

Anyway, here’s the bottom line: Of about 100 tourney contestants last Saturday, 14 speared a muskie before the event ended around 1 p.m. The fish were inspected by Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission biologists at each lake, said GLIFWC spokesman Charlie Rasmussen.

The muskies ranged from 28 to 46 inches long, with most measuring in the mid-30s. The most speared from one lake was five. They also speared one walleye. GLIFWC biologists collected samples from each for aging and mercury tests.

David Walz, DNR warden supervisor in Woodruff, said state and GLIFWC wardens were at each lake. Walz said the event was well-organized and generated no violations.

Tiffany, of course, isn’t renown for deliberate, thoughtful comments before or after events. Eighteen months ago he called for the DNR to fire its deer-management team when some folks grumped about their hunts. And only after helping relax mining laws this winter did Tiffany concede the new law would cause environmental problems.

Stepp was more diplomatic about the tourney, but said: “We try to have two-way communication with the tribe and work with them on issues, but at times the communication is only one way; from us to them.”

Again, hmm. From the tribes’ perspective, the DNR and Wisconsin lawmakers did not deal with their nation directly and respectfully the past few years when legalizing wolf hunts and relaxing mining laws. Therefore, in the case of the Lac du Flambeau and tribal chairman Tom Maulson, they responded with a muskie-spearing tourney and higher walleye allotments.

Granted, the spearfishing tournament was an unprecedented jab. Tournaments paying cash and prizes are not what we expect from the Chippewa. They’ve always been above that; viewing fish as food for their families, not coupons to cash in, so I’m confused how this tourney meshes with their long-stated values.

Even so, it’s harder to see how 15 dead fish in a half-day tournament hurts tourism, muskie populations or the region’s economy. Yes, recreational and muskie tournament anglers practice catch-and-release, but research tells us 5 percent to 30 percent of released muskies die, depending on handling and water/weather conditions.

Vilas County boasts of anglers catching and releasing 1,500 muskies a season. Tournaments, meanwhile, combine to catch and release several hundred muskies annually; let’s say 300, to be conservative. Again, being conservative, if 5 percent of 1,800 muskies die after release, that’s 290 floaters.

Maybe that’s too much perspective for Tiffany to recite, but facts trump fears when promoting a region’s charms.

Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors for Press-Gazette Media. Email him at patrickdurkin@charter.net.

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