GARRISON, Minn. (WCCO) — The battle over Native American fishing rights across northern Minnesota is about to heat up again.
“Perch are usually the sign of the end,” explained Chippewa netter Mike Herberg.
On the shores of Lake Mille Lacs, Herberg is pulling perch from his gill nets.
Five days ahead of the state’s fishing opener, he and other band members are exercising their court-granted fishing rights. Since 2000, the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians has been legally harvesting walleyes before the state fishing opener under a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Herberg is well aware it’s a sensitive spring ritual, so he keeps a low profile.
“I try not to get too involved politically, just try to bring fish home for my family,” said Herberg.
But for as long as the tribal members have been spearing and netting the egg-laying walleyes, hook and line anglers have expressed their dislike of the practice. They believe taking the fish in this method and at this time is harming the lake’s precious resource.
Already, the state has been forced to impose strict fishing and slot limits on Mille Lacs to help balance the harvest by both the Chippewa and sport anglers.
Last May, just a day before the fishing season was set to begin, noted fisherman Steve Fellegy decided he would put these “exclusive rights” to the test.
“I was cited for taking a fish during a closed season,” Fellegy explained.
When prosecutors in Beltrami County refused to charge several Native Americans in Bemidji with illegally harvesting fish outside the treaty area, Fellegy tested the law. He’s now fighting a $160 misdemeanor ticket in District Court.
Fellegy’s case puts the state in a tough position. If charges against him are dropped, it could encourage others to take fish before the state’s fishing opener.
But if Fellegy is convicted, it would surely launch an appeal of the Constitution’s equal protection provisions under the 14th Amendment.
The tournament angler and area guide insists he wasn’t looking for a fight. But rather he hopes to force lawmakers to take a serious look at a constitutional guarantee.
“In the process I’m asking basically how you can be cited for taking a fish during a closed season during the same period of time that there’s 60 some tons of walleye being harvested by U.S. citizens like me?” said Fellegy.