IT HURTS to see photos from those tribal muskie spearing tournaments every winter because I know well the heart and passion of die-hard muskie anglers who release everything and can hardly sleep at night when a fish gets hooked too deep.

To see more than a dozen of their favorite fish lying frozen on the ground, some nearing the trophy 50-inch mark, is sickening to say the least.

I’m pretty much a spectator to the muskie fever that has taken over the fishing world in recent decades, but I’ve got close friends who live and breath the sport like there is no other in the world.

The Donnie “Musky Man” Allen Sr. Memorial Musky Spearing Tournament was staged by Lac du Flambeau tribal members Jan. 26 on reservation lakes and seven Vilas County lakes: Big and Little St. Germain, Big and Little Arbor Vitae, Big, Clear and North Twin.

This isn’t about the right of tribal members to spear fish or to hold a muskie tournament, because we all know that the federal courts have made these rights the permanent law of the land.

And the tournament thing, well, we anglers hold them all the time because it’s fun to compete for cash and prizes against fellow anglers. So on that basis, we can hardly criticize tribal members for doing the same.

The rub, of course, is that we have failed to win any sort of consideration from tribal spearers on the argument that muskies, the king of freshwater, are too important to the economy and tourism industry to kill by spearing.

We always hoped that the economic factors, the money spent on the sport and the conservation dollars that go into muskie stocking, would be enough to convince tribal members to rethink their views on muskie spearing.

Think about that for a moment. Have you noticed that among all anglers here, no group has larger boats, bigger motors, fancier gear, better electronics and more expensive tendencies than the muskie hunters?

Not that we can link the benefits of tourism to the average tribal spearer, but if we could, they would know that muskie anglers are willing to spend big bucks to chase their favorite fish. 

And that makes the muskellunge a unique and valuable fish — too valuable, in the eyes of anglers and business owners, to be lured beneath a hole in the ice and stabbed in the head or spine.

Muskies are only valuable to the tourism industry when they are alive and swimming for the next angler or the next generation to chase. Their value pretty much ends the moment they are impaled on a spear, for they won’t be fighting another day.

On the conservation side of things, growing and stocking muskie fingerlings is difficult and expensive. Groups such as Muskies Inc. raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to help with stocking, boat landing improvements and other conservation efforts related to their sport.

The last thing these conservationists want to see is a line of dead, frozen muskies full of spear holes, lying in a parking lot as part of a tournament. You can see how that defeats the entire purpose of their efforts to make Wisconsin the best place for muskie fishing.

Beyond economics, there is much less of a chance that spearers will understand the passion of catch and release, and if they do, even less chance that they will care enough to give up their own heritage and traditions to appease anglers and the tourism industry.

If you think hard about how you value your own heritage and traditions, you begin to understand why tribal members won’t give up theirs. Don’t expect any relief from the tribes any time soon.

So the only solution to this dilemma might be returning to the federal court to argue that muskies deserve special status as Wisconsin’s state fish and its boon to the tourism industry as a subject of catch-and-release fishing.

Don’t hold your breath on that one. Just because we’re in conflict with the thoughts and values of tribal members about muskies and how they should be treated doesn’t mean the court can do anything about it.

One part of this controversy that has always bothered the scribbler more than any other is the determination by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the federal courts that winter spearing is “low efficiency harvest.”

And because they have labeled it low efficiency, in the same category as sport angling, there are no size limits, no bag limits and no season limits for those who exercise these treaty-based, off-reservation rights. In fact, there is no reporting on the volume of muskies taken through the ice whatsoever.

Let’s get one thing straight. Maybe winter muskie spearing is lower efficiency than open water spearing, but it’s wrong to compare any spearing to sportfishing.

For the DNR and the courts to say winter muskie spearing is in the same category as angling is perverted thinking. Spearing dozens of muskies through the ice on a single weekend is crazy efficient compared to anything anglers could do in winter, when these fish are dormant and feeding very little.

Seeing the photos and knowing this practice continues unchecked is pure frustration for those muskie nuts who’ve worked so hard to gain protective regulations, aggressive stocking, higher size limits and today’s near-perfect catch-and-release ethic.

Where anglers have come today on muskie catch and release is something tribal spearers could respect. Instead, they spear hundreds of muskies every year, in spring and winter. And in winter, we have no idea what the total harvest entails.

But you can see from the results of just one tournament effort on seven lakes that the practice of winter spearing is very effective, regardless of how the courts have mislabeled it.

Being told that we have to live with this conflict over the muskie resource is a tough pill to swallow.