RHINELANDER, Wis. (AP) _ A state legislator said turnout today holds the key to whether he survives a recall election forced by opponents of spearfishing rights for Wisconsin's Chippewa Indians.

Rep. James Holperin, a four-term Democrat, is Wisconsin's first state legislator to face a recall since 1932.

He was challenged by Sayner businessman Gene Ahlborn in today's Democratic race. The winner meets Republican Brian Sherren in the April 3 election for Holperin's Assembly seat.

''The turnout will be critical,'' Holperin said Monday. ''The turnout in special elections have generally not been that good. If turnout is low, I believe I will not do as well and will be beaten.''

The polls opened at 8 a.m. and Oneida County Clerk Dick MacDonald said today that clerks are expecting a big turnout because of the controversy.

The vote to remove the 39-year-old legislator comes after years of turmoil over the Chippewas' rights to catch walleye with spears in northern Wisconsin.

In 1983, a federal court ruled the Chippewas had the right to spearfish, hunt, cut timber and gather food off the reservation under 19th century treaties that ceded northern Wisconsin to the U.S. government. The ruling is under appeal.

Vilas and Oneida counties, which Holperin represents, have been the scene of angry confrontations between non-Indians and Chippewa spearfishermen in recent years.

Organizers of the recall claimed Holperin lost touch with his constituents over the issue.

Opponents were especially critical of his support for Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson's negotiated plan to pay the Lac du Flambeau Chippewa band $50 million in cash and other aid over 10 years if they curtailed exercise of their treaty rights. Tribal members voted down the plan last fall.

Recall backers noted that surveys indicated 70 percent of Holperin's constituents opposed the plan.

Stop Treaty Abuse-Wisconsin, a group that objects to allowing Indians to spearfish - something non-Indians cannot do - gathered more than 6,000 signatures to force the recall.

''These people ... are crying for representation,'' said Ahlborn, 50. ''I will listen to the people. It is just that plain and simple.''

Holperin repeatedly has said he does not support court rulings that upheld the Indians' treaty rights. He said the lease settlement was a way to defuse the confrontations while the appeals weaved through the courts.

''If (Holperin) loses, it is going to be a threat to anyone who does anything that a special interest groups disagrees with,'' said Gary Greenland, a professor of history and political science at nearby Nicolet College.