Ojibwe spring fishing season begins, legally protected

Tribal members are currently exercising rights to harvest fish, and monitoring and managing impacts.




4 minute read

Ojibwe people spearfishing. (Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission)

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has issued a statement reminding residents of Ojibwe tribes’ spring fish harvesting season. This traditional practice is protected by binding treaties between Indigenous people and the U.S. government. The DNR also emphasized that interfering with tribal fishing rights is illegal and could result in charges.

Article Five of the 1837 treaty, in which the Ojibwe ceded some rights to territory including the St. Croix River region, put the matter in definite terms: “The privilege of hunting, fishing, and gathering the wild rice, upon the lands, the rivers and the lakes included in the territory ceded, is guarantied to the Indians, during the pleasure of the President of the United States.”

Despite being eventually excluded from much of the lands in the territory by the government, the Ojibwe reserved their rights to its food, medicine, and more. Spring fishing season is an essential part of Ojibwe culture, and a important food source. It is carefully managed in collaboration between tribes, the DNR, and the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC).

“For Ojibwe families, the spring season is a brief opportunity to harvest walleye and other species from Ceded Territory waters,” said Jason Schlender, executive administrator of GLIFWC. “But the benefits of eating healthy meals for Ojibwe communities lasts throughout the year, from household kitchen tables to elder nutrition programs.”

Legal and regulated

Tribes also perform extensive management and support for the resources, including fish stocking, regulation, habitat restoration, research, wild rice seeding, carp removal, and much more. The collaborative Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission was formed by eleven Ojibwe bands, and works across the region to manage and restore lakes, rivers, and habitat. GLIFWC wardens also enforce conservation laws, with violations prosecuted in tribal court.

The tribes’ positive impacts are outsized, as there are approximately 25,000 enrolled members of Ojibwe tribes in Wisconsin, and last year Minnesota sold more than a million fishing licenses and Wisconsin sold 1.4 million licenses in 2021. Wisconsin residents are estimated to harvest 33 million fish each year. The annual tribal harvest is between 18,500 and 30,558 fish.

No matter the magnitudes, the law of the land is clear: tribal members can hunt, fish, and gather.

“The Wisconsin DNR fully supports Ojibwe sovereignty and treaty rights,” said DNR Deputy Secretary Steven Little. “We encourage tribal citizens to get out and exercise their treaty rights. Likewise, we remind the public that it is illegal to interfere with this right and have zero tolerance for harassment.”

There are 2,300 lakes larger than 25 acres in the 22,000 square miles of Wisconsin in the Ojibwe’s ceded territory. That includes 919 designated as walleye lakes and 623 designated musky lakes. Ojibwe citizens fish between 144 and 171 of those lakes during each spring harvest season, according to the DNR.

The DNR and Ojibwe tribes work together to set a safe harvest limit for every walleye and muskellunge lake in the ceded territory, intended to prevent any harm to the lake’s fishery. By March 15, each tribe declares how many walleyes and muskellunge it intends to harvest from each lake, and issues nightly fishing permits to harvest a specific number of fish.

Tribal officials at boat landings document each fish taken each night, and once the previously decided harvest limit is reached for a lake, the harvest season is closed on that lake. Daily reports are sent to the DNR for all fish harvested.

Conflict continues

Despite the careful management, Indigenous anglers are still sometimes harassed and threatened. After long and bitter confrontations in the 1970s and 1980s, when the tribes first reclaimed their rights, bigotry and ignorance remain a problem.

“Tribal citizens must be able to exercise their right to hunt, fish, and gather in the Ceded Territories safely,” said Attorney General Josh Kaul. “If there is any unlawful interference with these rights, please contact local law enforcement or the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission.”

A federal court reaffirmed In 1983 that Ojibwe have the right to hunt, fish and gather off-reservation in their ceded territory, including the right to catch fish by spearing and netting. But there have been several incidents of harassment and worse in the St. Croix River region in recent years.

GLIFWC maintains a database of some confrontations, with several in the St. Croix watershed. In 2021 on Cedar Lake in Polk County, Wis., a non-tribal group returned to the boat landing as the spearing party arrived. They made several anti-Native American and anti-spearing comments to the tribal members. The same year on Balsam Lake, also in Polk County, a truck drove past the tribal officers documenting the harvest and yelled profanities. In 2015 on North Sand Lake in Burnett County, a firearm was discharged by harassers.

Just outside the St. Croix River watershed, on Lake Mille Lacs in 2021, a particularly offensive incident occurred. Twenty-three-year-old Colin Louvar screamed “racially-tinged profanities” at a Red Cliff Ojibwe family fishing on Lake Mille Lacs. According to the Statement of Probable Cause, Louvar yelled that Ojibwe people were ‘killing all of our fish,’ and told the boaters to ‘come up here and I’ll kill all of you’ from an east shore residence. Louvar went on to pull down his pants and expose himself to the Ojibwe fishing party, which included a 13-year-old, while others on the shoreline threw various objects at the family.”

Louvar was charged the next year with three crimes, including indecent exposure in front of a child, disorderly conduct, and felony harassment aggravated by racism.

Penalties and protection

The Wisconsin DNR says violating tribal rights can result in charges under several Wisconsin laws, with potential fines up to $10,000 and up to nine months in prison. Tribal member whose rights are violated can also bring civil lawsuits for damages and seek restraining orders. When a hate crime penalty applies to a felony, the maximum fine can be increased by up to an additional $5,000 and the maximum prison term can be increased by up to five years.

Prohibited conduct against any tribal citizen includes, but is not limited to, stalking, obstructing access to lakes, recklessly operating watercraft, creating hazardous wakes, threatening violence and committing acts of violence.

GLIFWC recommends four steps for tribal members experiencing harassment:

  1. Create distance. Move to safety if there are physical threats, use best judgment if harassment is verbal. Never engage or provoke harassers.
  2. Confirm your location. Document where harassment is taking place to help with reporting to law enforcement and reporting.
  3. Call 911. If there is physical harassment or a threat of physical harm, call 911.
  4. Check in with GLIFWC. Call 715-685-2113 to document the incident after you are done harvesting.


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One response to “Ojibwe spring fishing season begins, legally protected”

  1. Mark Hove Avatar
    Mark Hove

    Wonderful article, thank you for sharing this important information!