HISTORY OF COMMERCIAL FISHING ON THE GREAT LAKESAs told by: Oliver H. Smith, President Smith Bros. Fisheries
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to tell you about the commercial fishing business, especially as it concerns the Great Lakes. As no doubt you know, fishing is America's first industry. The pilgrim fathers had to resort to fishing upon their arrival in this country, and so with the development of the country fishing became a very important part to provide the livelihood necessary for these early settlers. Of course, the reaping of the harvest of the sea entails lots of hard work and it is natural that we have to fight all of the elements; fog, wind, rain, and storm. It is indeed a very hard way to gain a living. Of course in fighting the elements there is a certain amount of satisfaction gained and the wresting of your living from harvesting the sea is indeed a challenge to the men who are engaged in it.
Fishing on the Great Lakes really began about the year 1840. The only information that we Smith's have is the history of Gilbert Smith, who as a young man about 18 or 19 years old, was fired with that enthusiasm of "Go West, Young Man"! Gilbert lived on the shores of Lake Ontario, close to Oswego, New York. His father was a farmer; however, they did have a small seine net to get enough fish to eek out a living. With the trek to the West which had already started, Gilbert left New York and came by boat to Milwaukee. At Milwaukee he shook hands with a young man by the name of Case who was bound somewhere to the South of Milwaukee where he planned to set up a farm implement business. This man was Mr. J. I. Case of threshing machine fame. Gilbert came to the North and settled in the little village of Amsterdam, just East of the now present village of Cedar Grove, Sheboygan County. He had about 150 feet of seine net and in the year 1848 started his first fishery. Naturally, transportation was a problem. Preservation of fish was done by salt only, and therefore, during the height of the runs of fish alt of the fish that were produced were put into kegs and salted. The stories told about the abundance of fish in those days are almost unbelievable. There were Whitefish, which schooled close to shore, and besides the regular run of Trout, which also came close to shore, there was a great abundance of Sturgeon, now almost extinct. It was considered a disgrace for any fisherman to take in a sturgeon less than 200 pounds each and these large fish sold for around 50^ apiece. Now, a sturgeon will command at least $1.50 per pound on the smoked fish market. It has also been told to us that, for excitement and to show off in front of the girls on a Sunday when everyone was supposed to be taking their rest, the fishermen would go down to the shore and throw out a seine and haul in large quantities of whitefish which were dumped in a pile. After the fun was all over with for the day the real job came and that was to dig a hole to bury the fish, for after all it was still Sunday and they did not want to go to the time and trouble of preserving their catch.
Meanwhile, the country was developing very fast. The railroads werd being built into this area and, of course, in came a great influx of fishermen. From the Baltic Sea came a group of people who moved into the Milwaukee area, settling on Jones Island* These were the Poles, who had gained their knowledge of fishing from their homeland. Then there were the French people who had emigrated to the St. Lawrence River region at Bay Chaleur and later on settled "in the Two Rivers, Wisconsin area. Also, there were the Scandinavans, the Danes, the Norwegians and the Swedes, who settled usually in the Northern Lake Michigan and Lake Superior areas. They were all good fishermen and with them came the methods of catching fish which they had used over in their old homes in Europe. The Poles brought along with them the "gill net" idea, The first gill net was a very crude affair; it was held in place near the lake bottom with a stone tied to the bottom edge. The upper end was held or floated with a stick of wood which was tied on to the top line or inserted somehow so that it would form a fence at the bottom of the lake. The net was comparatively small and due to the facilities available at that time, only row or small sailboats being used. Natur¬ally, they had to depend on the wind to carry them to their nets which were usually two or three miles off shore. Sometimes they would be becalmed; sometimes adverse winds would blow them out into the lake and many a harrowing experience has been recorded by these men who had only sails to depend on, or what we call the "whiteash breeze'^ which was rowing the boat. Later on came the idea of the steam engine. Steam was rapidly replacing the sail boats in those days and of course it meant a larger type of boat, which was powered with a large steam engine and of course a boiler. It was also necessary to have the boat quite large to take on the fuel, which in most cases was cord wood bought locally. Later on, coal supplanted the cord wood, but nevertheless the steam tugs were large. They were 70 to 90 feet long and therefore it was possible to reach further out into the lake to do their fishing. This became necessary also, for they began to realize that the supply of fish had started to dwindle close to shore; however, they found more productive fishing grounds farther out into the Lake.
Then came the "pound" net or the trap net. This is a net which is held in place, usually close to shore, by poles which are driven into the bottom of the lake and the net hung on to these poles. The principle of the net is similar to an old-fashioned fly trap which we used to see years ago. The Flies would eventually find themselves in a tunnel and then into a large cage which was designed to trap the fly until it was killed.
Then there was the "hook line", which was indeed an old method of catching fish, especially the lake trout. This is a long line, floated in the water. At spaces of about 15 feet apart another small line or 'fenood" holding a hook would be placed. The hook was baited with small fish, which are the natural food of I the lake trout, and suspended near the bottom or floated on the surface wherever the lake trout were congregated. This method of fishing was very popular up until the year 1946 when the lake trout disappeared and which will be covered later. These three methods of fishing, the "gill net", the "fcound net" and the "hook line" are the three principal methods of commercial fishing on the Great Lakes.
As I stated before, the steam tug rapidly replaced the sailboat and along about the turn of the century a new invention was developed which gave the fishing industry a great deal of impetus. It was a net-lifting machine, an adaptation of the winch. Previous to this time the hook lines and the gill nets were pulled from off the bottom by brute strength and you can well imagine in bad weather what a job this was. The boats were open-decked and with no power available at that time, the nets had to be hoisted into the boats by hand power. This was indeed a great hardship and the coming of the net-lifter certainly relieved a great deal of the manpower and hardship connected with lifting nets. It became possible then to run twice as many nets as before and certainly was a great development.
Soon after this came the gasoline engine. It was a one cylinder or a two cylinder engine and all the troubles connected with the operation of such an engine were tremendous as it was a crude affair. Breakdowns were regular and the boat sometimes drifted around the lake at a peak of a storm two to three days before being found, and towed to shore. Soon after World War I, however, the first diesel engine was developed and now with modern diesels replacing all of the old types of engines, the modern present day fish tug is comparatively a palace to work on. Instead of a wooden hull the modern fishing boat is made of steel, built strongly to be able to crush through ice fields which we encounter in our winter fishing operations. Machinery now does much of the work. Many fishing boats now have a sounding device, instead of the old lead line which the fisherman had to use in locating the fishing grounds. Now he has a machine and just by glancing at a dial, can indicate to him at all times how much water he has under his keel. Then, too, we have "ship to shore" telephones, the most won¬derful invention for the operation of a fishing boat. The captains of the fishing boats can talk to each other very easily. By using this radio device they help each other locate their fishing nets out in the lake. They compare notes with one another about fishing operations. We here on shore are able to know many hours in advance how much fish a boat has caught and what time they expect to be on shore, and other incidents connected with their operations. From a safety angle, this is indeed important and many times a boat in distress has been located and has been towed ashore by another fishing boat close by which was called to the rescue. The safety feature alone of ship to shore operations is well worth the price paid. At the present time we are also toying with radar. Not alone im¬portant for safety purposes, but from the angle of locating our nets in bad weather. Of course, fog and snow reduces visibility a great deal and it is a problem to locate nets in such weather. Radar sira plifies this and without a doubt, as years go by, radar will be standard equipment on even a lowly fishing boat.
Fishing grounds depend upon the bottom of the lake. The bottom is al¬most similar to the landscape which we encounter in our own countryside here. It is full of hills and holes and in most cases these are the best fishing grounds. To the Northeast of Port Washington, we have what we call a "mud hole". It is a very large area, comprising about 20 miles in diameter, in which waters as deep as 80 to 85 fathoms can easily be found. A fathom, you recall, is six feet. Therefore, when you fish in 480 feet of water, you will realize that these nets have to be pulled out of a very deep body of water. Besides the holes, we have hills in the lake called "reefs". To the Southeast of Port Washington we have a reef called Northeast Reef, it being in the northeasterly direction out of the port of Milwaukee and evidentally located originally by the Milwaukee fishermen. To the inside of the reef there is about 75 fathoms of water, 450 feet, and a mile to the east will bring you up into 20 fathoms of water or 120 feet. The bank is very steep and to be able to place your nets in the right spot in this reef usually produces a nice "lift" of fish. Then to the East of Port Washington, about 35 miles out, is "Sheboygan Reef". It is a large fan shaped hill or hummock in the middle of Lake Michigan. There are deep waters practically all of the way around it; however at its very peak we have found 15 to 16 fathoms of water. This Sheboygan Reef Area is indeed a heavy producer of fish and has been a very-popular spot to fish for both the Port Washington and Sheboygan fishermen.
Of course, with the development of the fishing industry comes problems, and especially the problem of conservation. Like the forests were depleted by the lumbermen, so as time goes on eventually the supply of fish was threatened. Therefore, laws had to be promulgated to protect the fish, expecially as to size of the mesh of nets which the fishermen used and also the minimum size of trout and whitefish, keeping in mind that enough stock had to be left in the lakes to reproduce and perpetuate the supply. This, naturally, has brought about a great controversy among the fishermen and no doubt you will recall some of the incidents connected with the enforcement of the conservation laws as pertaining to the fish supply on the Great Lakes. It was indeed a long drawn out battle, and just at the time when we thought we had everything properly controlled, and that was along about the year 1938 to 1940, one of the worst things happened to the fisheries of Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior, which ever could have hap¬pened and that was the growth of the Sea Lamprey Eel. The Sea Lamprey was first noted in Lake Erie in 1921 but we fishermen on the Great Lakes, that is especially Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, did not pay much attention to it. It failed to establish itself in Lake Erie; however, eventually they found their way through the Detroit River up into Lake Huron, where with spawning conditions perfect, they immediately reproduced to such an extent that by 1936 to 1938 the Lake Trout started to be killed off. We did not notice the Sea Lamprey in Lake Michigan until about 1940, however, by 1946 it was no longer fished for Lake Trout, since the Sea Lamprey had wiped them out. The Lamprey Eel is an ocean parasite that found its way into the Great Lakes and subsists by sucking the blood of susceptible fish, mainly trout. The Sea Lamprey has now established itself in Lake Superior and that alone is a subject which would take a long time to discuss. At the present time it looks as though the Sea Lamprey will be brought under control but this is a long range program and we do not expect any concrete results from the government program for another 8 to 10 years. At the present time all we have left in Lake Michigan to fish for the year 'round are the Chubs, which are very abundant and as no doubt you know are finding a ready market as the Smoked Chub Whitefish. Perch are also still abundant at certain times of the year, as well as Pike and Smelt.
Another threat to commercial fishing has recently appeared in the form of another fish, also originally from the ocean. This is the Alewife, a fresh¬water variety of the Shad. The Alewife is a small, very bony, valueless fish, which threatens the Chub supply, since it eats the same food as the chub.
To sum up, Commercial Fishing is an old, but well established industry, employing thousands of people in the Great Lakes Area alone. It has a rugged history of growth, beset with good and bad years, problems and their solutions. It is little understood by the average public, who take for granted the existence of Fresh Fish on the market counters or on the restaurant menus.