Image: © Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis
It’s 10:00 P.M. on a Saturday. LSA junior Jasmine Pawlicki holds up her flashlight and climbs into her father’s canoe. It’s cold out on Roberts Lake in northern Wisconsin in late April, but that doesn’t bother Pawlicki. Her dad, Emanuel Poler, climbs in the boat behind her, his flashlight illuminating the shallow water, the canoe, and the 10-foot-long spears that they’ll use to catch walleye.
“We paddle to the far end of the lake where my dad knows the fish spawn there really well,” says Pawlicki. The ice has just melted, which for thousands of years has been a sign to her tribe, the Sokaogon band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, that walleye are in shallow waters ready to spawn.
“Back in the day, people used torches and fished with a torch and a spear,” she says. “Walleye have a reflective catch above their eye. We shine the light above them at night and can see them really well and then we know what to spear.”
Pawlicki aims, then sends her five-pronged spear into the back of the walleye’s head. Spearing the fish this way “is the most efficient, most humane method, and it keeps the meat intact,” she explains. While the fish will remain on ice for the night, in the morning Poler will clean the walleye, fillet them, save some to eat, and freeze or sell the rest.
Pawlicki has been out in the canoe each spring since she was six years old. It’s part of her heritage, and yet this world feels far removed from her hectic life in Ann Arbor. This year she declared her major in philosophy, and between researching and writing papers on ethics and ethnicity, taking both Ojibwe and French language classes, pursuing a minor in women’s studies, and caring for her five-year-old daughter, there’s not much time to just sit, to connect with nature and her past.
But that’s what she does this night, glad that the busyness of another semester of schoolwork has ended. “Where we are on the lake there are no other lights, and the stars are amazing, so natural and beautiful,” Pawlicki says.
“I can imagine my ancestors doing this. I think that’s really, really cool.”