village tugsVillage Fish Tugs


Great Grandfather HampMy great-grandfather in his fishing boat. Authors photo


St Ignace BoatsSt Ignace Boats Authors Photo


Pond Net DiverPond Net driver belonging to Ben Goudreau with either Vi (his wife) or Genevieve at the top. Courtesy of Curt Gheeseman.


nets on roller for repairRoller to mend nets on. Authors photo


old boat

old boatSome of the many boats left after the fishing industry was no more in St. Ignace and Lake Huron. Authors photos.


Sea Lamprey


mouth of Sea LampreyMouth of Sea Lamprey

Fishing Industry in the Great Lakes

Lake Huron was known to the Indians long before the first white man came to its shores, they called it “The Great Fish Lake.” The Chippewa Indians and Ojibwa Indians lived around the upper Great Lakes since 1525. They were expertise in fishing and subsidized their food stores with them. They used birch bark canoes and nets made from twisted and knotted strands of willow branches. Because the supply of fish was so ample, they would dry it to sell and trade to explorers.
After the lumber industry, once so booming passed, the scene turned to the fishing industry and remained strong for many years. Commercial fishing began around1820 and expanded until 1880.
They used what was called Mackinac boats and other small crafts for fishing then. I can still remember my grandfather going out in the early dawn to raise nets and bringing boxes and boxes of fish home to clean and then take them down to Kolbe’s fish market in St. Ignace to send to the cities.
Whitefish was a staple in the diet of thousands of low-income local people and the principal product of the fisheries but it began to show signs of depletion as early as the 1890’s. By 1920, fishing showed to be in rapid decline. Part of the trouble was the improvement of fishing gear that led to over production. Also no one worried about the pollution of off shore water both by the communities and industries causing the fishing trade to dwindle to a near zero point in the 1940’s and 1950’s. In those days people felt there was an endless world of fish in our lake’s depths that would last until the end of time.
By 1935, the great sturgeon, once so plentiful in the Great Lakes became almost extinct. Fishermen did not like them and considered them a menace to their nets. One fisherman reported that after a storm, thirty or more were caught in his net. There was no market for sturgeon so they were stacked like logs along the shore around Tawas and Oscoda until the odor was so bad that they burned the fish, causing the sky to be blackened by the thick oil black smoke. Russia had prized caviar from the sturgeon for many years but Michigan didn’t realize its value. Finally, having no market, the fish were given to the local Indians living near the AuSable River. The Indians considered them a delicacy. They were soaked in brine and smoked. The sturgeon were bottom feeders with wedged shaped snouts that stirred up the soft lake bottom and detected shells, crustaceans and small fish on which they fed. They had no teeth to capture larger prey. Their bodies had 11-13 bony shields along the back and 29-30 shields along the sides. Occasionally a sturgeon was caught in the deep waters in the winter in Mullet Lake near Cheboygan but that was over forty to fifty years ago.
A story is told in “Around the Bay” by Neil Thorton that a John Dingle of Oscoda gained a moment of fame when he leaped upon the back of a sturgeon below the Foote Dam. The fish had made its spawning run up the AuSable and could go no farther because of the dam. Mr. Dingle was severely bruised struggling with the fish but finally succeeded in capturing the monstrous fish, which weighed in at one hundred pounds. He also got in trouble after it was widely published and the conservation officials went after him for capturing a protected species.
Michigan commenced to have a program by collecting the eggs of whitefish caught by the fishermen’s nets, fertilizing them and sending them to state hatcheries. By this method, Lake Huron was stocked, propagating the whitefish for several more years.
Whitefish, lake trout, herring, yellow pickerel were the choice fish. Fifty pounds would be packed in wooden crates with ice and shipped to city fish markets in New York, Chicago and Boston in excellent condition. It was realized only the Great Lakes produced the large quantities of fresh water fish that the large city fish buyers were willing to pay large sums of money to the fishing firms to keep them engaged in the industry.
A conference of commercial fishermen and the Department of Conservation was held in Bay City, Michigan to urge that measurers be taken by the legislature to regulate fishing during the spawning season. With the closed season, it was felt that the undisturbed spawning grounds could be re-established by restocking would bring them back quicker aided by the regulations on commercial fishing. Herring was rapidly depleting more so than the other fish but the netting of yellow pickerel and whitefish were declining also.
Laws were enacted to protect the whitefish in later years but the development of submarine nets in the late 1920’s caused serious problems. Pond nets were the most widely used but some fishermen still used gill nets. These were fashioned by hand from twine and hemp rope. I often watched my grandfather, father and uncles weave them in the neighbor’s field or at the slip at St. Ignace and we would play in them for awhile until they were completed. Nets being able to be submerged to depths of 60 to 80 feet led to the rapid depletion of the whitefish with the larger catches. By 1938, the Lake Huron whitefish were in serious trouble. The fishermen were hoping that restocking the lakes would bring back the industry. No whitefish had been hatched since 1932 when 85,000,000 fry were released in Saginaw Bay. They hoped that with the spawning grounds undisturbed for the season that the whitefish would be re-established and brought back quicker, aided by the regulations put on commercial fishing. But it was not to be. Fish production continued to fall and the end for commercial fishing in Lake Huron was in sight. In 1947-1948 that seemed to be a final spurt in whitefish fishing. Those years held record seasons and they were shipped by trainloads to the city markets.
My dad told me of the last day of the season that they had put their nets away for the winter but they borrowed another fisherman’s nets for the day and had the biggest netting of fish, they ever had. Never again would they see a season like that. Many of the commercial fishermen after struggling for years trying to make a decent livelihood discontinued their business. The century of whitefish had come to an end.
Herring, was the main staple diet of many low income families along the shores of the Great Lakes. The fish practically disappeared in the late 1940’s and the reason for it has never been explained. These slivery hoards, once so prolific were an important part of commercial fishing and  it had suddenly died.
Some believed the major problem was the pollution caused by factories during World War II that caused the demise of herring. Over fishing, shoreline and stream habitat destruction accelerated the decline also. During the 1920’s 13 million pounds were shipped out to the markets. By 1940 it dwindled to 500,000 pounds and rose to a dramatic production by the end of the 40’s but since then swindled to almost nothing in the Great Lakes. They were a soft fish, 2-3 pounds in weight and had excellent flavor making them very popular to the American people. They ranged 13-14 inches usually but there were some prized catches of 18 or more inches by ice anglers in 1950-1951 reported at Tawas Bay. The Erie and Ontario Cisco went extinct in the 1960’s, followed by the Long-jaw Cisco and blue Pike in 1983 and the Short Nose Cisco in Lake Michigan and Ontario in 1985.
The introduction of non-native and invasive species into our lakes such as the sea-lamprey played a major part in the decline of commercial fishing. They first came to our lakes between 1936-1946. The lamprey is an aggressive parasite with a tooth filled mouth that flares open at the end of its eel like body. It latches on to its prey with a rough tongue that rips a hole in the fish. Its saliva has an anti-coagulant that keeps the hole open for weeks draining the lifeblood out of the fish. My grandfather showed us one of his fish with several lampreys connected to it. Most lampreys are 12-20 inches long. They appeared in Lake Erie for the first time in 1924 probably brought down and then up to the Great Lakes by the way of the St. Lawrence Seaway by freighters. In 1958 scientists found a solution to killing the larvae in the spawning grounds thus bringing the lampreys under control. The lampreys were considered a delicacy in Europe in the time of King Henry I of England. He in fact died from a fit of royal gluttony feasting on Lamprey. The unappetizing appearance of said creature did not appeal to the people of this country.
Today only a few pockets of commercial fishing remain prosperous in Canada and Lake Erie. Salmon and trout along with walleye and yellow pickerel have been re-introduced in recent years. They benefit mostly the sport fishing and the tourist industry, which are a multi-million dollar industry in Michigan. The commercial fishing has dwindled so much that most of the fish served at our restaurants now-days are cod and other salt-water varieties. The demise of our once plentiful fishing industry in Lake Huron and the other Great Lakes is probably the worst tragedy of the twentieth century.