December 1, 1928

By Gregory Clark, December 1, 1928.

This is the Time of Danger for Four Thousand Fishermen On Ontario Lakes

For four thousand men of Ontario this is the time of danger and grim omen.

Out of the northwest, any night or day now, may come without warning a gale that will turn to a blizzard and a tempest that will turn to a hurricane.

And when it comes, these four thousand must at once go forth and place their lives in jeopardy.

We think of sailors as being the men who now must walk with circumspection. But the great lakes fishermen, as far as the perils of their craft go, are in a class by themselves. When this November storm season comes, a whole department of government goes into action to warn and safeguard the sailor. But in their isolated fishing stations the fishermen do not receive meteorological notices.

When the blizzard comes, the sailors steer their ships for shelter. But it is when the hurricane breaks that the fishermen have to leave their little harbors and go forth to save their fortunes.

Despite the fact that one-third the surface of Ontario in water, we are landlubbers to the core in this province, and we do not grasp the extent and range of the fishing industry which is not only a great wealth producer, but one of the most colorful and romantic features of Ontario life.

We do not understand that a fisherman has an investment of fifty thousand dollars or more entrusted out there in the gale-swept reaches of the northern lakes to the cruel mercies of wind and wave.

One pound net, fresh from the makers, costs $600. When that pet is fitted and laid, anchored and buoyed, with all the infinite labor that we will shortly describe, its value, as it stands there off some rocky point, is in the neighborhood of $1,500. Many fishermen have the maximum number of these large pound nets, which is ten. That makes $15,000. His steam tug costs around $25,000. His three or four smaller gas boats total up another thousand or two. His fish-houses, ice plants, wharves, pile-driver and all the rest of the impedimenta necessary to netting fish from the water in paying quantities, run up to an unknown average, but they will bring the whole far above fifty thousand dollars all told.

And a storm can ruin it all. The terrible storms of last year came the second of December, and fortunately most of the fishermen had their nets safely hauled ashore and stowed for the winter.

But a storm that is a storm can take those costly nets and not only wreck them but utterly destroy them. They will not be seen again. Three years ago, that great August storm ruined many men and brought others close to ruin. Nets swept away, boats wrecked and smashed, lives lost.

34 Million Pounds of Fish

It is to try to save their property that the fishermen have to go forth when all the rest of mankind run for port. Epics are for the time being out of fashion in literature. But when the deeds of men once again transcend in popular fancy the psychoses of flappers male and female, then someone with the gift may find the material he is seeking along the north shore, from Killarney westward over the wide sea, amid white cliffs and gray sullen water where, curiously enough in this advanced day, men lie in port in fine weather and only go out to their task when the storm gods stream along the sky.

Ontario’s four thousand fishermen take their fish in a number of different ways. The pound netters and the gill netters require big outfits to lay and handle the nets. Last year there were about 1,300 pound nets, some of them belonging to big outfits that had ten, and some in singles and twos and threes belonging to more modest fishermen.

Over seven million yards of gill nets were used in the great lakes, from the St. Lawrence to the Nipigon last year. Try to picture yourself setting just a hundred yards of gill net down into three hundred feet of water, all properly leaded and buoyed, and then imagine seven million yards.

A hundred thousand hooks were also licensed last year. These are the long lines set in deep water, with hooks every two feet or so along the line, baited with small herring. Only a little outfit is needed for this kind of set-line fishing, and sometimes it gets very big results. A few seines, hoop-nets and lesser tackles are used by individual small fishermen.

These four thousand fishermen use over three million dollars’ worth of nets, boats and other plant. They own 118 tugs, over a thousand gas boats and launches and a thousand sail and rowboats.

On Lake Ontario is, strangely enough, the biggest fishing community, for while the lowest lake of the chain is naturally supposed to be fished out, from a commercial point of view, there are immensely rich fishing banks at the eastern end of the lake, down past the Bay of Quinte and the outlet to the St. Lawrence. Over 870 men are employed, mostly gill net men with gas boats, and their take of fish does not rank with other regions, being only around $400,000 a year.

Lake Erie and the Georgian bay each have about 750 fishermen working on them, counting the north channel as part of the Georgian bay. They both have something like 35 big tugs operating, but Erie has over 550 pound nets while the Georgian bay men have only a little over 200. Their take of fish both run over six hundred thousand dollars each.

Last year, altogether, they took over 34 million pounds of fish out of the great lakes. By far the greater part of this was sold to the States, shipped by highly-organized shipping service to New York, Chicago and other cities.

The biggest catch was of lake trout, seven and one-half million pounds, with whitefish at six millions, herring and the two kinds of pickerel at over five million pounds.

Many of these fishing outfits are located at out-of-the-way corners of the great lakes. And none of them is more picturesque than those along the north shore of the Georgian bay and the north channel.

The Fisherman’s Daily Routine

Just at the close of the season, when the phenomenal spawning run of the lake trout and whitefish were on, we visited Killarney. On Joseph Rocque’s tug, we went out and watched them lifting their nets and going through the daily routine of the fishermen’s life.

Rocque has eight pound nets. A pound net is a complex and elaborate affair. It cannot be set anywhere. Its location has to be a specially selected one, somewhere along the deep shores where the trout and whitefish cruise by in their eternal pilgrimage in pursuit of the herring.

Out from the shore is run the lead, which is a strong net sometimes several hundred feet long and as deep as the water is. The first of Rocque’s nets we visited had a lead three hundred feet out from shore, and its depth was eighty feet all the way. It reached from the bottom of the lake to the surface.

This immense spread of net was supported every forty or fifty feet by an immense wooden spar, made of as many spruce poles as were needed, spliced strongly together and driven by a pile-driver into the sand at the bottom of the lake. Then it was guyed with strong ropes attached to regular ships’ anchors, attached to each upright pole. Rocks were fastened to its bottom to hold it trim and upright so that all the fish that came along that shore, on reaching the net, could not pass under or over it, but had to follow it outward until they got into the toils of the pound.

Try to imagine the task of setting that long lead, eighty feet deep and hundreds of feet long. without the services of a deep-sea diver. Against current and tide, wind and weather, that lead has to stand trim and true from spring until late autumn.

The lead runs out to the pound. Two other great fins of net reach outward, called the heart, to prevent the fish from swinging outward round the “pot” – as the pound is called by the fishermen – and these also are anchored and guyed in place.

The “pot” is simply a huge bag of net, square, thirty-five feet to a side, and eighty feet deep. or shallower or deeper as the water requires. Just an immense sort of landing-net.

In the side of it, facing the long lead out from shore, is a small opening, about three feet square, framed with metal. The fish that come feeling their way along the lead bump up against either the outer net wall of the “pot” or else the out-flaring wings of the “heart,” and in due time, such is the doggedness of fish, they discover this opening which they think is the way out. But it is, alas, only the way in.

Every two days, the fishermen come in their tugs, towing a sort of small fish barge. They run alongside the “pot,” three or four men get into the smaller craft, and taking one side of the great bag, haul upon it little by little, the bag is shortened and they have at the surface a thrashing and floundering netful of fish.

Then with hand-nets they scoop the fish out of the shortened bag into their boat, rejecting the under-sized ones and tossing them back, unharmed, into the water. That is one beauty of pound nets. They do not injure the fish as gill nets or hooks do. And furthermore, if great storms come up that prevent the fishermen taking the fish from the nets, they are in no way spoiled, swimming freely about in the big space of the bag. Whereas, in gill nets, if the eaten is not attended to within a certain reasonably short-time, the fish die and spoil. That is why, when you buy fish, you should look for those that show no net marks on them, by which they strangled and slowly died, or were half dead when taken from the nets, but try to get the firm fish that were leaping with life when taken out of the pound nets and promptly killed.

Nets Thousands of Yards Long

For as soon as the net is lowered again into the water, the barge comes alongside, the fish are thrown up aboard the tug into waiting boxes. And while the tug steams to the next net to be lifted, the fishermen clean the fish right on deck and have them ready to be immediately packed in ice on reaching the home wharf.

“How big do the hauls come?” we asked Joe Rocque.

“They vary from day to day. Some hauls we will take only a box or two of fish, but other times, almost a ton of trout and whitefish will be lifted. Record hauls for one pound net would be something over two thousand pounds. Maybe nearly three thousand.”

It takes about halt to three-quarters of an hour from the time the launch arrives at the net until it sets forth to the next net. In foul weather, the time may be much longer, for in handling the nets, nothing must be done that will endanger its security or tear the net. Home from the nets, the fish are promptly packed, a hundred pounds to the box, in chopped ice to await either the steamer that calls regularly for the shipment, or to be taken by the fishermen themselves to the shipping point. The north shore’s catch is picked up by a regular steamer service of the Dominion Transportation Co., carried to Owen Sound, where refrigerator express cars await the fish to be rushed to New York.

From the water in Georgian bay to the market in New York city, it is only thirty-six hours.

The gill nets outfits use nets hundreds and perhaps thousands of yards long, narrow four foot nets, that have lead sinkers on the bottom edge and wooden or tin floats on the top edge. And these are sunk down into all depths of water, even to 300 feet, where they rest, upright, on the bottom. And the fish, swimming along the bottom, run their heads into the meshes of the net and are caught, gilled. They run in as far as they can go, try to back out and are caught by their gills.

These gill nets can be lifted by hand from small craft, and are also lifted and laid by donkey-engines aboard steam tugs. No more than in the case of pound nets do the gill nets have to be taken out of the water. They are raised to the surface, the fish freed and taken out and the net is re-set in the depths.

This has to be done at all seasons. In the late fall, when the silver horde of whitefish and herring are on their spawning run, they come right inshore into ten feet of water and less, on to the shoals to spawn. This season is also the season of storms. But the gill net fishermen make their mightiest haul at this time. They set their nets in shallows. This naturally means grave risk, for nets in shallow water are likely to be torn to ribbons in a gale. On Fitz William island the fishermen camp along the beaches, their watch-fires burning all night, while the men lie ready to take to their boats at the first hint of a November gale, to let them and roll them up aboard, until the gale abates.

On other fishing grounds, such as Papoose island, out from Killarney, the fishermen stand by their nets as much as possible, ready to lift them.

A Risky, But Free Life

At no time is it not a dangerous business and in the fall it becomes a decidedly risky one, because then to save your property you must risk your life, or preserve your life ashore at the risk of losing your outfit.

Lifting and rolling up a gill net, even if it is miles long, is a simple task compared with putting a pound net away at the command of winter. The huge bag of the “pot,” the vast expanse of long and deep lead, have to be lifted and at the same time freed from the eighty-foot poles, from the anchors, rocks and guys. The spliced poles have to be freed from the bottom where the pile-driver sent them, and the anchors lifted. The whole huge apparatus is hauled ashore to dry. Then it is repaired and rolled up and carried back to the fishing station for the winter. Joe Rocque employs eight or nine men on his eight nets during the setting and final lifting, and four or five men during the season while taking the fish. The winter is spent in these remote little villages repairing nets, cutting timber for new ones, repairing boats, building fish boxes and doing the heavy work that prepares for merely the dangerous and fast work of the harvest season.

They make good livings. We heard of some outfit-owners along the shore who cleared, over and above their expenses, twenty and twenty-five thousand dollars cash last year, which was a good year. Yet this year has not been good. The catch has been poor. Bad weather has prevailed. One storm can wipe out the better part of the handsome cash profit.

No motor car has ever left its track at Killarney. It has no movie or other modern attractions. The men who own these investments of many thousands of dollars and who sometimes clear as much cash as would make a good-sized Toronto business man take a winter trip to Europe or Florida at least, go about in their soiled overalls, unpretentious men, who put their winnings right back into the pot.

The day we went out first with Joseph Rocque it had blown all night and morning, but had eased off in late afternoon. The north Georgian bay was sounding its deep call, the call that has filled countless sailors with forebodings. The sky was dark and the clouds tied raggedly above the heaving water.

Watching the sky, Rocque finally said he would lift three of his nets, those beyond a partly sheltered arm of the north shore. He himself, boss of the outfit, had the wheel of the steam tug and drove it heaving out into the dark sea.

The gulls rose up from nowhere and pursued us in ragged, veering platoons. An eagle joined them and flapped heavily along in the hope of picking up a fish that might have been gilled in the great bag. A few are. It was a sort of Landseer sky, moving and grim.

“It’s a free life,” we cried from the shelter of the wheel house. When city men are slightly awed by the wild spaces of the elements, they mask themselves in a great reverence for freedom. “It’s picturesque and you never know when you have to move. It’s a free life!”

“That,” called Rocque from the wheel house, “is why we follow it.”

Editor’s Note: $50,000 (the cost of the whole investment in fishing) in 1928 would be $830,000 in 2022.