Column: Flag up, fish off

ESCANABA — In the world of hook and line sport fishing, especially in winter, if someone yells “flag is up”, it usually means there’s a fish hooked on the line of a tip-up. This is positive and encouraging.

In the politics of hook and line, especially in the soft water season, if someone yells “flag is up”, it usually means something has gone wrong and the cause is up for discussion. It’s a reaction to a stressor similar to when a deer raises its tail if it is alarmed.

A couple weeks ago an email was sent out to stakeholders involved with the Great Lakes Sport Fishermen (GLSF) regarding a shipment of fish that was enroute to Little Bay de Noc. The memo states that there were 250,000 walleye (assuming fry stock) loaded on a truck from the Sault Tribe for planting, but was turned around by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) as they were not (the preferred) Bay de Noc strain.

The reason for the rejection has not sat well with fishermen, one stating that, “When Little Bay de Noc was rehabilitated back in the (now retired) fisheries biologist Jerry Peterson day, walleye from several waters in the U.P. were used for brood stock.”

Another fisherman responded by quoting Jim Dexter, MDNR fisheries chief, who was, at the time, the Lake Michigan basin coordinator. “I have attended more than one meeting where Jim Dexter said, “A walleye is a walleye is a walleye.” If they were from the St. Mary’s system…those fish originally came from Little Bay de Noc in the first place. Sounds like some games being played to me, all at our expense!”

That was enough of a flag for me to contact the MDNR local fisheries unit manager Darren Kramer. He acknowledged that there was a shipment of 180,000 fish from the Sault Tribe and that it was refused due to being stock from the St. Mary’s River, which means the fish were acclimated to a river system that is colder and deeper river contrary to habitat found in Little Bay de Noc.

Kramer explained that the genetic science policy in place requires the MDNR to really maintain the fish from same quality habitat as the local fishery. He also dismissed the concern that some may speculate to be the cause of refusal as the fish were plants outside of the Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia (VHS) testing series. VHS is a deadly infectious fish disease. Kramer further indicated that the MDNR is not testing 100 percent of fish plants; instead all eggs are being treated with iodine to prevent disease outbreaks along with infusing vitamin B to their system.

The genetic strain used as the primary reason for turning down the gift of walleye is actually part of the Walleye Management Strategy (Plan) for Little Bay de Noc (LBDN), Lake Michigan (published July 2012). “This should be done through measures that protect the spawning stock from over exploitation and the population’s genetic integrity (e.g., regulations and stocking only when necessary).”

I also contacted Jay Westerly, the current Lake Michigan basin coordinator, to again review the issue. He agreed with Kramer regarding the strain of fish. “The problem is at this time the fish are not of the Bay de Noc strain and that the MDNR had accepted fish from the St. Mary’s strain prior to 2017 on a one-time basis.” The decision made is in concurrence with the MDNR Aquatic Species Regulatory Affairs Unit (ASRA).

Since the passage and enforcement of the Clean Water Act, and in 1971, MDNR Fisheries Division began stocking LBDN in an effort to rebuild stocks. In the mid-1980s walleye rearing efforts were stepped up and walleye stocking was expanded to include other areas of Lake Michigan, namely Big Bay de Noc (BBDN), Cedar River and Menominee. Data collected through the years showed a rebounding population as of the end of 2009, 75 percent of the 0-3 age class of walleye examined in LBDN were of wild origin and 61 percent of 699 walleyes examined in BBDN were naturally-produced.

A subsequent crash came about and it is believed that a combination infestation of invasive aquatic species such as zebra and quagga mussels, goby fish and a variety of plant life, caused deeper water clarity, which is contrary to habitat necessary for walleye. Low lake levels and an increased overall temperature of lake water was coupled into why the fish seemed to disappear.

A study done by the GLSF does not agree with the MDNR findings. They compared LBDN to Saginaw Bay which has a similar ecosystem make up. The same element components exist yet their fishery continues to thrive.

Why then is there a difference?

Private conversations with stakeholders from both sides of the issue do share the thought that while walleye fishing this year is improved, the low numbers seen over the last decade or so in Little Bay de Noc are mostly due to illegal gill net poaching by tribal commercial fishermen. Poachers are being caught but the penalties are minimal.

Is it possible that the Sault Tribe was offering an “olive branch” in lieu of past history and the fact that treaty negotiations are due to begin soon. Some contend they don’t want the fish so the point of impact poaching has played to the detriment of the fishery can stay in evidence.

There is no immediate resolve to the issue and I’m sure it will be of high priority when all factions assemble in meetings. It’s hard to declare one entity being correct over the other when there is such an array of interpretive information available.


Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.