MILLE LACS — It flowed from the box of the pickup truck, through Brad Kalk’s hands and into a tub at his feet.
Careful not to let the gill net touch the ground, Kalk pried his last walleye from the mesh, then picked at the bits of stringy weeds that also had gathered.
Kalk, commissioner of natural resources for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and a regular netter this young season, didn’t have much to show for his efforts Wednesday morning at the Powwow Grounds access just off Highway 169 on Lake Mille Lacs — seven walleyes weighing exactly 10.20 pounds.
Yes, precision is of the essence here.
It was still early in the season — a season that started earlier than most, Kalk explained of the meager take of walleyes at the access that morning. Then, ever so casually, he produced a small rock. Clamped onto the rock was another resident of Mille Lacs — a zebra mussel about the size of a quarter. It was found at the access earlier that morning.
Tribal netting and zebra mussels are hot topics this time of year on the lake that is regarded as the premier walleye fishery in the state and also is listed as an infested waters — reportedly with, among other invasives, a booming zebra mussels population.
Kalk and Mike Taylor, chief conservation officer for the Mille Lacs Band DNR, say the tribe — one of eight netting and spearing this spring — goes to great lengths to make sure zebra mussels aren’t transported via the tribal nets.
The same goes for the typical annual netting concerns. For years there have been reports of misconduct on the part of the netters — reports of dumped fish carcasses and carelessness with — and ultimately lost — nets. And while Kalk and Taylor admit there are occasional wrongdoings, a rigid checks-and-balances system is in place so that every pound is accounted for in the band’s pursuit of its allowable safe harvest of walleyes and northern pike, which always draws attention on the big lake.
The Mille Lacs Band doesn’t take this responsibility lightly, Kalk said. Mostly, he said, it’s a matter of respect — right down to the handling of the nets.
“Some tribes lay their nets on the ground. But here we’re taught that these nets feed us and to respect the net,” Kalk said as he cleaned his gill net. “We take them from the tub into another tub. We never let them touch the ground.”
Then there’s that stringent checks-and-balances system.
“When they pull their nets, a conservation officer is always present,” Taylor said. “The size, weight and sex of the fish are checked. So it (the take toward the tribe’s quota) is right down to the 10th of a pound.”
Even getting a net in the water involves a process.
“You have to contact the license office prior to 11:30 a.m. the previous day and declare a landing, a time you’ll pull the nets and the net I.D. number,” said Taylor, who has worked enforcement in some capacity here since the mid-1990s. “You can set the net (that evening) or you have until 8 p.m. that day to cancel the set. And we have to be present before they pull the net. Then they pick out the fish and give them to a Great Lakes team (at each access) to creel.”
Besides allowing the tribe to keep exact tabs on its take, the record-keeping system also aids Taylor and company in their investigation of any related offenses. For example, if, say, a pile of northern pike carcasses is illegally dumped, Taylor said he can go back to those creel records to help find the culprits.
“You’re going to have wrongdoers, but it’s easy to go back to the creel sheets and do some investigating,” Kalk said.
Taylor said that, each year, he writes about a half-dozen tickets, mostly for minor infractions.
“People try to get away with things,” Kalk said. “That’s why we have the checks and balances.
“We have to be (law abiding). You have to know the rules before you go. That you didn’t know doesn’t fly here.”
Several years ago, some nets were lost when they slipped between lingering sheets of ice that shifted unexpectedly in the wind.
“If they lose a net, they don’t get another permit until they find the net,” Kalk said of the 100-foot-long by 4-foot-tall nets. “They have to get out and find the net.”
Most every year in May, non-tribal anglers voice their concern about a possible conflict between netting and the state fishing opener. But Kalk said, “We stop netting when the season opener starts for public safety. We don’t want to have a bunch of nets out there and have them get caught in a prop. That ruins a guy’s weekend.”
Walleyes netted Wednesday morning were typical in size. Taylor said the mesh is 1-3/4 inches to target the smaller fish.
“They’re consistently under 20 inches and the average is 1.8 pounds (per fish),” said Taylor, who like most law enforcement with the Mille Lacs Band is not a member of the tribe.
Unlike, say, commercial tribal fishing on Upper and Lower Red Lake, Mille Lacs Band netters keep their fish, Kalk said. Most, including Kalk, donate their take to the tribal elders. And while the going was slow Wednesday morning, the result was four gallon containers full of fillets for the elders.
“They’re filleted and donated to the elders. They’re for the elders’ food bank,” Kalk said. “By doing that we make sure to provide them with the traditional foods. We have a lot of elders. It’s always a treat (for them).”
Kalk, 50, who said he has lived on the Mille Lacs Reservation since he was a child, has been on the job for about a year-and-a-half. He said netting is the busiest and most visible season for the band, with wild ricing and deer hunting also included in the mix.
“With netting, the bounty is a walleye,” Kalk said of the popularity of netting over ricing and deer hunting. “The intent here is sustenance. We want to implement it into our diets and live healthy.”
Through Tuesday, the tribe had harvested 13,221 pounds of walleye and 4,184.8 pounds of pike, meaning it still has a ways to go to reach it’s quota of 28,428 and 8,250, respectively. It’s not completely out of the ordinary for the tribe to fall short of its quota.
“We don’t deal with hunting and fishing but for three months. The other nine months it’s environmental issues that we’re dealing with like any other natural resources department,” Kalk said.
Such as zebra mussels.
“It’s like a sleeping giant out there with zebra mussels,” Kalk said. “That’s been the most significant change with the environment (since he started on the job). Even with Eurasian milfoil, it’s not nearly the same thing. We’re not trying to keep it out. We’re trying to contain it. It’s had the most dramatic effect on the lake than anything else (in the last year-and-a-half).”
According to tribe regulations, “All nets and associated fishing gear ... must be dried for at least 10 days or frozen for at least two days before being used in non-infested waters.” Related steps also must be taken for boats, trailers, livewells and bait containers.
“This is the only lake they can gill net in the spring,” Taylor said of keeping zebra mussels at bay. “When they (tribal netters) are done, they string them up for a couple of weeks. And if they’re on other lakes, there’s a bleach solution that they have to use (on the nets to deter zebra mussels). We’re on the same page as the state (with the DNR at each access, checking for invasives).”
Having disposed of the single zebra mussel found at the access, Kalk looked around at the lake that has been a part of his life since he was a child.
“I have a love for the lake that anyone who has spent 35 years on the lake would have. It’s our responsibility to take care of the lake. I want my grandchildren to enjoy it. It’s not just a today thing.”