As climate change alters lakes, tribes and conservationists fight for the future of spearfishing

HAYWARD, Wis. (AP) — Cold nights on the Chippewa Flowage in northern Wisconsin don’t deter 15-year-old spearfisherman Gabe Bisonette. He’s been learning the Ojibwe practice for so long that when his headlamp illuminates the eyes of his quarry, he can barely tell his father what he’s seen in a word.

With the pointed spear at the ready, Gabe pushes the pole down and strikes the rippling water. He scoops the pole through the air in a practiced motion—the hardest part, he says, is keeping the walleye on the spear as it wiggles—and then slides the catch into the boat with a thud.

Ojibwe and other indigenous peoples are fighting to keep this way of life alive. Due to warming waters, ever-changing seasons, and lakeshore development, walleye numbers are declining in some lakes. Losing the species would mean losing a food source for community members, a sovereign right to fish, and a deep connection to tradition and nature. Many are optimistic that with science and good management, this tradition can continue into the future, but there is also concern about the changes already taking place.

“We’ve seen things here in the last few years that I’ve never seen before,” said Brian Bisonette, Gabe’s uncle and the director of the Lac Courte Oreilles Conservation Department. “It worries me, what I’ve seen in my lifetime, what is my grandson going to see in his lifetime?”


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a series on how tribes and indigenous communities are coping with and combating climate change.


Bisonette described how early leaders, recognizing the need for sufficient food to survive in their homelands, strategically secured the right to hunt, fish, and gather wild rice in certain areas as part of 19th-century treaties that ceded land to settlers.

But long afterward, the state of Wisconsin restricted tribes’ treaty rights and, in some cases, even arrested tribesmen for engaging in activities that were integral to their heritage. A 1983 Supreme Court ruling finally upheld the Ojibwe people’s rights, but resistance flared. Angry and misinformed locals showed up at lakes to harass tribesmen, slashing tires, shouting racial slurs, and shooting spearfishermen.

Today, guards work at each dock to keep people safe, but incidents still happen from time to time. Bisonette laughs at the idea of ​​people yelling “go back where you came from” at Native people, but she still carries the burden of past confrontations. “It would be scary for anyone,” he said. “You like to think that time heals everything, but it still doesn’t.”

Now, with the importance of that history in mind, tribes and local conservation teams are finding ways to keep the walleye and spearing traditions intact. Spearfishermen must apply for permits that limit the number of fish they can catch, and some lakes are “stocked,” meaning that most of the fish population is hatched and released into the lake. But the goal in many cases is still to encourage natural reproduction.

“Whether it’s tribal or non-tribal, this is a concern for all of us,” Bisonette said.

Lake ecosystems in danger

At another inland lake, Lac Courte Oreilles, Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Max Wolter and regional team leader Angelena Sikora are also looking for walleye.

They take a motorboat to strategically placed nets set at various points along the shoreline, and Sikora happily plops each walleye or crappie onto the measuring surface to record its size and sex. If it’s a new individual, she marks it by clipping a fin and then tosses it back.

The goal is an accurate picture of inland lake fish populations, which the DNR is collecting in collaboration with tribal conservation partners and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. By pooling their data, experts in all groups are seeing signs of change.

“It’s not that the adult walleyes are simply dying out, it’s that the amount of reproduction is not happening at the same level that it used to, especially in certain waters,” Wolter said. GLIFWC Communications Director Charlie Rasmussen added that even when young walleyes do hatch, they have a harder time surviving to adulthood.

Kelly Martin, who has been spearfishing with his family for decades, has seen the changes firsthand. This year, he was surprised by the start of the season, which came early because there was no ice on the lake this winter. Wolter explained that winters are becoming wildly inconsistent in length and temperature, and that climate change is making some lakes clearer because of prolonged droughts that slow the inflow of river currents, which negatively impacts habitat for walleyes that thrive in murky water.

Martin has also seen other factors change, such as development. After the pandemic, he saw business skyrocket in his work as a roofer on lakefront homes that attract both home workers and tourists.

“You want to make sure that this lake is sustainable for everyone, for many years to come,” he said. “My great-great-grandchildren, I want them to be able to spend time with their families and create their stories.”

The DNR updated its walleye conservation plan in 2022, with a focus on climate change. And in January 2023, GLIFWC released the updated version of its climate change vulnerability assessment, a work seven years in the making, driven largely by what they heard from tribal members about changes they were observing.

“The knowledge that tribal elders have seems to be more widely accepted,” Rasmussen said. “Science supports and learns from the knowledge of the indigenous people.”

Tribes are the first to adapt

Many northern Wisconsin tribal members have seen an influx of people into their small community, seeking the promise of a “climate-proof” vacation thanks to the abundant supply of fresh water, relative safety from rising sea levels, and warmer but still cold winters.

But these newcomers and summer tourists aren’t the ones who rely on nature for food, and they’re not the ones who fight for traditions that go back generations. As inland lakes warm due to climate change, tribal members are feeling the effects first.

That’s why the tribes’ deep knowledge of the lakes, passed down through generations, inspires Bisonette and others committed to spearfishing to continue fighting for their success.

“That’s one thing for all indigenous peoples: they want to adapt,” Bisonette said.

For now, with conservation efforts keeping walleye populations intact, Martin, whose Ojibwe name Giiwitaayaanimad means “wind that blows all around,” is spearing enough fish to feed elders in the community. He and everyone who helps him work for hours removing walleye scales, carefully making each cut with a knife and washing the meat in a bucket. The resulting harvest is stored in a refrigerator or freezer until it can be taken to people throughout the community, something he enjoys doing. Hearing the elders’ stories is priceless, he says.

“Some of these people grew up like this. This is what their life is, doing this,” Martin said. “I just hope that’s how I turn out. Someone will remember me.”


Follow Melina Walling on X on @MelinaWalling and John Locher on Instagram at @locherphoto


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