A Brief History of the Manitoba Fisheries
MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1955-56 season
To the early explorers of our province, fish was an important part of their diet, and the accessibility of this food did much to advance the development of Manitoba. We can judge that prior to the entry of the white man into the west and as time developed, the natives of the lake and river areas favoured in the selection of their camping sites, locations close to other more prolific fishing grounds. It was said that fish to the lake area Indians were as buffalo to the prairie tribes.
Early records of fish are not too plentiful, but most of the records which I have searched refer to fish in some manner or other. Alexander Ross, in his book on the Red River Settlement, 1856, recounts periods when fish were scarce and in time of famine these sold at high values and he mentions a case in 1822 when a Swiss, almost starving, gave five shillings sterling for six small goldeyes, "for fish little bigger than a sprat". He also told of his men bringing him several small fish from 1½" to 3" in length, scarcely yet dead which had been found on the open prairie where no open water of any kind could be found, and that apparently had fallen during a thunder storm and a torrent of rain.
The early explorers refer to the immense size of the lakes encountered in what is now Manitoba. Lake Winnipeg, Lake Manitoba, and Winnipegosis and numerous other lakes of lesser size, impressed the viewers, and even in those times these waters were known to be potentially great sources of fish production.
While fish were important to the diets of the residents of Manitoba prior to 1882 and 1883, it was only at this latter date that the development of the fisheries in the southern portion of the present province of Manitoba became commercial to any substantial extent. The far northern portions of the Province, lakes and rivers, suitable habitat for fish, were looked upon as able merely to provide the natives with nourishment. The rivers also had been a valuable source of fish, especially to the early settlers along the Red and Assiniboine Rivers.
Here I would quote, in part, an excerpt from "Captain Palliser's Exploration in British North America" by George Edward Eyre and William Spottiswoode, 1859: "At 6:15 p.m. (July 8, 1857), we arrived at Fort Alexander which stands on the left bank of the Winnipeg River, about a mile and a half from its mouth. It is built of wood and situated on a fine fertile land, elevated forty feet above the water, and a wooden pier built out into the water for loading and discharging the boats. Here Dr. Hector reported the catfish as plentiful here, the liver of which abounds with an oil which might be successfully substituted for cod liver oil in the treatment of consumption, cases of which are very frequent among the half-breed population."
J. J. Hargrave, in his book Red River covering the period from 1861 to 1871, referred to the autumn fisheries of the settlement which made available a "copious source of fish." He stated that Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba abounded in fish of various kinds, the chief varieties being whitefish and sturgeon. He explained that during the milder weather, the catch was cured by splitting, smoking and hanging on stages rudely composed of branches. Those caught after the frosty weather set in, were merely hung when extreme cold "must sufficiently preserve them or keep them frozen."
Again he records: "During the summer, the Red and Assiniboine Rivers abound with a species known as goldeyes and also there is catfish and occasionally yield a few sturgeon."
John Macoun, in the Manitoba and Great North-West, 1882, wrote: "After much travel, I have never seen a lake in a forest region that did not teem with magnificent fish and of such excellent flavour that they are never distasteful to the appetite."
Under date of the 11th of January, 1872, W. T. Urquhart, clerk of the North West Council at Winnipeg, reported that although the fisheries of the North-West had not been tributary to general commerce, they were of incalculable benefit to the inhabitants and being of unlimited extent, they must, in course of time, prove a source of great industrial wealth to the Dominion.
In this same year, Mr. Urquhart attached to his report a very learned thesis, written by the then Bishop Tache. This was remarkably complete in that he enumerated in detail the various varieties of fish he had found in Manitoba, with their biological history.
The Bishop stated, "Our lakes and some of the rivers are really like a natural VIVARIA, or according to the half-breeds, "They are the storehouse of the good God'." Just let me quote an amusing passage from the Bishop's report. "At the mention of carp, the people of other countries figure to themselves a good fine fish, but here the impression is quite of another character. When I first came into this country, I talked with gusto about soup a la carp. An old man, who had not tasted soup a la carp but who had considered he had, in his time, eaten too much of the fish could not agree with me and said significantly, 'It is useless to talk of it, carp is but carp'. I did not at first understand the reason for his dislike, but later I had the opportunity and leisure to appreciate the correctness of his opinion. When one has but one kind of food to eat, when, for example, it is necessary to be satisfied with carp, boiled, perhaps in the water it was born in, without sauce or salt or addition of any kind, one quickly tires of the fish and when it is frequently repeated, the simple name of the animal suffices to excite repulsement."
As far as I am able to judge, this is the first year (i.e. 1872) in which some type of statistics were obtainable and these were more or less guesswork. Clerk Urquhart estimated that whitefish (known to the Indians as "Titameg") taken in Lake Winnipeg alone, amounted to 70,000 to 80,000 fish. The Hudson's Bay Company servants at Fort Alexander, he estimated, took on an average 30,000 fish yearly. As for the Indians and half-breeds who lived on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, he estimated that from 40,000 to 50,000 more fish were taken by them and in addition a large number were brought into Winnipeg for sale. He reported that whitefish were bringing in 16 shillings per hundred fish at the places where they were taken, which would work out at just under 4¢ per fish, and the fish, he estimated, averaged 4 pounds each. And yet, he stated, that no where in these waters was there any sensible diminution or the lessening of the supply.
Urquhart also refers to the take of sturgeon, more especially in the waters of Lake Winnipeg, lying east of the Grand Rapids on the Saskatchewan River, where this fish was found in greatest numbers. He also stated that numbers of sturgeon had been taken around Fort Garry, some weighing as high as 80 pounds. A considerable quantity of sturgeon oil, at this time, was made in the country. This was not exported but was used as a machine oil and found to answer this purpose remarkably well. A 50 pound sturgeon, in good condition, produced about one gallon of oil. He also stated that there was no trade in this fish but the Indians and half-breeds used it for their own consumption. He wrote in his records that no trout were found in the lakes of southern Manitoba, but that many were found in the northern portion of the area.
In 1884 some semblance of control was seen. Inspector McQueen indicated some alarm with regard to whitefish and the closed season which had been determined was, in his opinion, utterly inadequate, and that others would have to be substituted for the complete protection of this fish during the breeding season. The protection of fish, notably whitefish, especially during their spawning seasons, had been a continuous theme of almost all of the inspectors through the years. In this year, 1884, McQueen reported that the "total disbursements of the fisheries supervised in his area totalled $872.40 and there were no receipts reported. The salary for the fishery officer showed as $450.00 for the period October 1879 to November 1882. (3 years)
In 1883 the quantity of whitefish exported was 72,867 lbs. at a value of 4¢ per pound and by 1884 this had risen to 359,000 lbs. at a little less than 4¢ per lb. On the other hand, the average price for home consumption in Winnipeg was 8¢ for whites, 10¢ for sturgeon and 3¢ for pike (pickerel).
McQueen suggested to the Deputy Minister of Fisheries in this year (1884) that a practical policy of licensing be adopted and revenue derived therefrom. He also urged that the exportation of fish, other than pike and jackfish, be prohibited, at least for a year, because, in his opinion, if exportation was permitted, the fish in the Province would soon become depleted in numbers. He wrote: "To supply the foreign markets from our by no means inexhaustible lakes, would in a few years so deplete them that a great source of food supply for our present inhabitants and incoming settlers would become practically destroyed."
Mr. J. B. Skaptason, the late Director of Fisheries in Manitoba, stated in his publication on the Manitoba Fisheries: "that commercial fisheries in this province began with Lake Winnipeg and that while it may date back to 1872 when a few enterprising men built, in Winnipeg, a half decked boat of some tonnage and with drag seines and other nets, made several trips from Winnipeg to the Little Saskatchewan River where they established a fishing station." The object was to supply Winnipeg with fish, fresh and salted, and chiefly whitefish. He stated that this, however, was not a successful venture, no doubt owing to the limited market, as fish were then plentiful in both the Red and Assiniboine Rivers at the Winnipeg location.
He continues: "Actually the first sound commercial fishery enterprise for the supplying of the market with fish was commenced in 1882 by Messrs. D. F. Reid and Dave Clark, who began with one sailboat on Lake Winnipeg and they brought their catches to the Winnipeg settlement." (Clark died in 1883 and the business was carried on by Reid and Tait.) The operation was to a great extent an experiment, but the results were encouraging. In 1883 they increased their operation employing two sailboats and their catch was reported by Inspector McQueen in his government report which has been previously referred to. (whites to the number of 72,867 lbs.).
As far back as 1865 legal restrictions for the protection of fish had been instituted and these started with reference to the injuries to the fisheries caused by the erection of barriers and weirs and referred to the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. In 1873 the North West Council invited action by the Dominion Government to protect the fisheries from the accumulation of sawdust in rivers and streams to assure the residents, who were entirely dependent on fish for food, of an assured supply.
In that same year the session of the Dominion Government enacted a statute providing for the extension of the Dominion Fisheries Act to Manitoba.
It was in 1882 that Charles Gauthier formed the Dominion Fish Company, financially supported by Booth Fisheries, and he brought in a number of fishermen from the Georgian Bay and Manitoulin Islands districts of Ontario to organize the work. The Icelandic settlers had come to Lake Winnipeg in the years 1873 to 1880 and these together with the eastern fishermen insured an ample supply of experience.
Although Inspector McQueen recommended in his report of 1884 that a policy of licensing be instituted, it was not until 1887 that a license system was made effective, and this proved a successful experiment from the authorities' point of view. At the start 130 gill net licenses and 34 drag seine net licenses were issued. Pound nets which had been used for sturgeon were prohibited as was the use of explosives.
In 1885 Shammey and Chandelar of Westbourne handled 100,000 lbs. of fish from Lake Manitoba. During that summer season, Hugh Armstrong of Poplar Point handled over 240,000 lbs. There were some other smaller operators who handled lesser amounts.
We now come to the year 1890 while Alex McQueen was still inspector and at which time commercial fishing had taken a more definite shape. During that year, three small tugs and twenty-five sailboats were in use and 188 men were employed in the industry. Thirty-two thousand fathoms of nets were in use, valued at $4,500.00, and the lake stations on Lake Winnipeg were valued at $27,000.00 Three tugs were employed in the transporting of fish and these were valued at $75,000.00.
This indicates that this year, 1890, showed a very substantial investment in the Manitoba fisheries. The catch was valued at $232,104.00. He made reference to a winter operation when quite a number of men devoted a couple of months to winter fishing; these men being principally Icelanders and Indians.
In this year, 1890, the Department of Fisheries gave a decision that, under the treaty stipulations, the Indians were bound by the fishery regulations to the same extent as other subjects of Her Majesty, but that, as they had enjoyed the privilege of continuous fishing so long, to rigidly enforce the regulations might lead to privation and trouble. It was therefore suggested that the Indians be issued licenses to permit their fishing for their own immediate use.
At this time the use of freezers and ice houses at lake points on Lake Winnipeg were in operation. The freezers permitted the care of summer production by freezing with salt and ice at the place where the fish were taken and so overcame losses at times when transportation was delayed or slow. Such plants had been built at Dauphin River and Berens River, then a year or two later at Reindeer Island, Selkirk or Horse Island and still later at Pony Island, Grand Rapids, Big Black River, Warrens Landing and Eagle Island-and, of course freezers had already been established at Selkirk. There had been in use during the up-lake freezing four floating barges or freezers in which the fish were transported to Selkirk.
In 1890, the Logberg, an Icelandic paper reported that there were about 3,000 Icelanders and probably 2,000 Indians on Lake Winnipeg ... and that both winter fishing and employment with the packers and traders in summer conferred a great boon on the Icelandic Community: "They having been induced to settle in the vicinity of the lake mainly on account of the fisheries."
Export of fish from the Province to eastern Canada's leading cities became important, but still the home consumption enlarged to the point where one firm in this year of 1890, sold some 100,000 pounds of whitefish in Winnipeg. At this time whitefish were sold at Selkirk in lots at 5¢ per pound.
Fishery Guardian J. H. Adam, who resided at the source of the Waterhen River and had guardianship over the area from Lake Dauphin, north to the Duck Bay point of Lake Winnipegosis, reported that Lake Winnipegosis had fisheries potentially prolific. Because there was no rail contact, export production had to be moved by teams. Some 157,000 lbs. of white fish were sold to the trade at 2¢ per pound and these fish were taken by teams to the Strathclair station on the Manitoba and Northwest Railway, and to Raeburn on the Canadian Pacific Railway, and shipped thence to eastern and southern markets. This was a winter operation and at that time the buyers were John McKenny and Company, Adam, Ross and Company, and one or two smaller dealers.
Mr. Adam reported in the year 1893 that, because his location was in an out of the way place, he did not yet know who the Inspector was for Manitoba as: "I did not get mail since over three months."
Referring again to Inspector McQueen, I quote from his report of 1890: "In the near future, the Hudson Bay Line will be completed to Fort Churchill. This road will pass through a portion of country in which are found many lakes, some of them large and all said to contain an abundance of fish of various kinds. It will give access to salt water fish in Hudson's Bay which contains codfish, salmon, herring, pollock, halibut and many other varieties. Whales, porpoises, walruses and seals are plentiful in the Bay."
In 1895, we find that the expenditures of the fishery department in Manitoba were $2663.55 with a revenue of $2149.30. You will note revenue is now showing as a result of licensing which started in 1887.
The Lake Winnipeg commercial fishing in 1894 and 1895 was expanded. The heaviest effort was concentrated around Horse Island at the north end of the lake with the Manitoba Fish Company operating there and the Robinson Fish Company at Pony Island. The Dominion Fish Company had bought out Reid and Tait in 1894. Ewing and Fryer started fishing for sturgeon in Playgreen Lake and Berens River and also extended into the whitefish business. Steve and Joe Sigurdson carried on pickerel fishing in the south end of the Lake.
The most prominent men and those who stayed longest with the fish business on Lake Winnipeg and who had come from the East with Gauthier were Captain Pollock, William Purvis, W. J. Guest, J. Seamen, Dick Boyd, The Barker brothers, T. J. Jones, Wm. Overton and J. W. Simpson.
I should say here that my main informant on Lake Winnipeg matters has been George D. Simpson of Selkirk and Winnipeg - the son of J. W. Simpson mentioned above. George Simpson came West in 1886 as a child from Kincardine, Ontario with his father and has had close interest in the fisheries on Lake Winnipeg since his youth. He recalls his first employment with W. Robinson at Selkirk when he received a monthly remuneration of $5.00 and nothing found. He also recollects that he was at Grand Rapids in the year 1895 when his work was to count the whitefish - for which the fishermen were paid 3¢ a fish. This is the year in which a start was made in shipping whitefish in the fresh state. The companies brought the fresh portion of their production into Selkirk. from which point the fish were taken to East Selkirk, a distance of four miles, and from there were shipped by rail to the eastern markets. This method of shipping in the fresh state was found to be successful and plans for expansion in this method of shipping were inaugurated.
In 1896 Inspector R. L. Tupper reported to the Hon. L. H. Davis, Minister of Marine and Fisheries at Ottawa, that with the expansion showing on Lake Winnipeg operations ten commercial fishing licenses had been issued. He recorded that one firm with less than 9000 fathom of gill nets took the immense quantity of 104,000 lbs. of fish in one haul.
It was at this time that Lake Manitoba showed a more vigorous prosecution of the fishing industry through the building of a freezer at Westbourne, which permitted the opening up of summer operations. Prominent in this operation was Hugh Armstrong-later to become Provincial Treasurer for Manitoba. Armstrong did a great deal to expand the fisheries of Lake Manitoba through to Lake Winnipegosis and on to Cedar Lake by establishing posts at many fish producing areas. He organized the Armstrong Trading Company and in association with Booth Fisheries was instrumental in opening up a large portion of the Province to commercial fishing. Inspector Tupper also referred to the catch in this year, 1896, on the rivers at Winnipeg which was taken by hooks set on night lines, and which was sold in the city each morning as taken from the water.
In 1897, the completion of the railroads to the Village of Winnipegosis gave immense impetus to fishing on the lake of that name, and between this time and the year 1900, a large number of fishermen flocked in making the settlers alarmed and afraid that the lake would become depleted. The department therefore restricted the number of licenses to one hundred and to actual settlers only. These newcomers were to a great extent fishermen from the Georgian Bay area of Ontario. Icelanders also moved in from the northern states and other points.
It was in this year that sturgeon produced at Cedar Lake on the Saskatchewan River, which was then in the North West Territories, was brought across High Portage and down Lake Winnipegosis for shipment by rail. This routing in movement of the production from the areas of Cedar Lake, and also from the Moose Lake and the Grand Rapids area continued through to the year 1907.
The Inspector for the North West Territories had expressed the opinion in 1899 that the fish resources of his area should be regarded more as sources for food for the resident half-breeds and Indians rather than as objects of mercantile exploitation, and he recommended: "that it would be inadvisable to imperil the permanence of the fishery by permitting too great a strain on it," and so he suggested: "that fishing be discouraged for export."
While a number of hatcheries have been operated in the Province through later years, I wish to give reference to the first one built in Manitoba at Selkirk in the year 1893.
The report made by R. Latouche Tupper, appointed Inspector of Fisheries, September 21, 1893, stated that, as it was a new venture the operation was somewhat difficult, yet the quantity of eggs collected and placed in the building amounted to upwards of 21 million. It is later noted that the distribution out of this 21 million was given as 14.5 million in the spring of 1894. Whitefish eggs require to be held through the winter months, since the fish spawn just before freeze-up and the eggs hatch close to the time of break-up. Tupper referred to the building as being extensive and commodious and probably the best one in the Dominion at that time.
The difficulty experienced in the taking of eggs is worth recounting. The officer in charge in the year 1895 gave a very detailed report which I will now quote. "On the 10th September we went to the lake to select a place to fish and decided to set a pound net off Grand Marais. As I had been asked to keep down expenditures, I decided to try this location for another year. I left five days earlier to cut my own stakes and on the 15th, the stakes were driven for the first net. The net was old and unable to stand the heavier storms we experienced. On the 25th the fish were coming in nicely but on the 26th it blew a gail from the north west and piled the water over our nets taking out some stakes and releasing the fish. On the 30th we again lifted and found the whitefish coming in but on the 1st of October there was another heavy storm which caused us a loss again. On the 7th there was a gail and heavy snow. On the 8th we lifted again and found there was not a large increase. On the 14th of October we lifted again and got 18 ripe fish and on the 16th, 56 spawned fish. There was so much storm and our nets had been so damaged and cleaned out of fish that on the 17th we lifted again and got only 12 quarts of eggs.
Seeing that the prospect was very slim of getting a full complement of eggs, our only chance to fill the hatchery was to try Black River. It was too late to set a pound net, if I had had one, so I hurried to Selkirk and got three gangs of whitefish gill nets from the Manitoba Fish Company. We got to Grand Marais that evening on the tug "Miles" at 6 p.m. At 4 a.m. on the 18th it commenced blowing a full gale, the heaviest in years, and although in harbour we rode at anchor all day with double anchors and could not make shore 300 yards away. On the 19th we left before daylight, the storm having moderated at 4 a.m. Off Elk Island our engine broke down and there was nothing left to do but to go back to Selkirk for another tug. On the 20th October I started out with the tug "Fisherman". Ice was forming. Got to Grand Marais and took equipment, men and two tents aboard. It snowed heavily. At Black River we set a gang of nets and camped in the snow. Two men started for Mink Point, 8 miles away, on foot. On the 22nd again a gale swept in and we could not set. It snowed and froze hard. The two men came back from Mink Point and reported that Indians had been getting spawning fish but could not get to their nets. We tried to go out but could not stand the sea. We lifted the nets at the mouth of the river on the 23rd and got only five or six spent males and one spent female. We sent out a sailboat to Mink Point and moved our nets off the mouth of the river inland. That night the river froze over, and on the 24th we started the tug to break ice out of the river. We had suffered in the tents for four days now with insufficient clothing and wet, but there was no complaint if we could only get eggs, but we had to hurry out of the river as it was becoming too heavily coated with ice for the tug to break up, and it was plain that the fish had spawned and left the shore. We had collected 4,260,000 eggs." (1895-6). The record of the hatch at this hatchery and fry distributed is recorded as 1894, 14.5 million; 1895, 19 million; 1896, 4.5 million; 1897, Nil; 1898, 9 million-Winnipegosis 1899, 20 million; Winnipegosis 1900, 32 million.
And so this paper passes from the recorded history of the fisheries of Manitoba as I have gleaned from various written sources to that part which is still within the memory of living men.
My direct contact with the industry goes back to 1913 when I first went to Winnipegosis. To fill in the gap between the turn of the century and my time of interest, I enlisted the knowledge possessed by two men who had direct experience through these intervening years and it is my wish to now acknowledge their assistance to me. I refer to Charles L. White who left Parry Sound as an experienced fisherman in 1898 and after spending a year on Lake Manitoba where he fished for Peter McArthur, arrived at Winnipegosis in the year 1899. He has lived there since that time and has followed the fishery throughout this period. The other, to whom I refer, is George D. Simpson of Selkirk and Winnipeg. To him I have already referred.
The industry through the earlier part of this century had a variety of phases,, each one of which is worthy of a paper of its own. In that period, the companies concerned had perforce to conduct the complete operation. (Later this was broken down to some extent by packers and traders doing a great part of the initial work in actual production.) This complete operation necessitated the opening of posts in the more favoured fishing locations where men were available, and many of these posts were on or adjacent to Indian Reserves. These posts had to be stocked with all the requirements for the carrying on of fishing and investments were substantial. For example, Hugh Armstrong of Portage la Prairie, in developing his expansion of operation in conjunction with Booth Fisheries, opened five posts that I knew of around Lake Winnipegosis. A knowledge of floating and fishing equipment and of navigation was essential. Winter transportation necessitated the owning of horses and this, in some cases, developed into the operation of farms by the companies. Production of fish and the required care of the product in the fresh state, and also the proper methods of freezing during the summer months were part of the work.
I now give you some detail of what I believe will be of interest to you. Although my references are mostly taken from the Winnipegosis Lake area, such actions as I describe were duplicated at other lake points.
First I would refer to the method of transportation of the fish production in the winter months on Lake Winnipegosis. This method changed from the earlier method whereby each fisherman had to care for the movement of his fish to rail contact, either by dogs or teams, which was an individual responsibility and limited the opening up of more distant waters. As fishing took place at those more distant points an improved method of transport had to be inaugurated and the development of the "snow plow" mode of movement, whereby collective action was taken to care for the transport of the fish from a number of camps, was started. This method was used through the years 1912 to 1933.
The planning of the snow plow was done at the Village of Winnipegosis with the securing of from twelve to fourteen teams suitable for the gruelling work. Latterly the fish companies had to purchase their own teams, when the farmers would not rent out their teams for hire. The outfit was composed of from ten to twelve heavy sleighs with three inch runners and three or more horse toboggans; also the essential caboose or combined cook house and bunk house for men, with a horse tent for the housing of the horses. This caboose was thirty-six feet long and was built of light wood. Along the sides, outside, mangers were built and over the mangers and attached to the roof of the caboose on both sides were canvas coverings which, at lake stops, were extended out from the roof of the caboose to form a stable for the horses. Inside, the cook performed his cooking duties in part of the caboose, while the other part had bunks where the teamsters slept. At stops for the nights, the canvas, called the horse tent, was extended and pegged to the ice and so permitted the stabling of the animals. This tent extended some twelve feet out from the caboose. During the night the heat from the horses melted the ice to some degree and the teamsters in addition to their regular moccasins, used a second pair of larger size and packed hay between the two pairs to protect their feet from the wetness while walking around feeding and harnessing the teams in the morning.
The first plow constructed in the Winnipegosis area is credited to Captain Alex Vance, a man of many capabilities both on the lakes in the summer and on the lakes and in the bush in the winter, and a man who did much to advance distant exploration of the lake area. This plow was built in 1912 and was made after a plan of what had been used on Lake Winnipeg. It was of substantial construction, weight around half a ton and was made of three-eighth inch steel plate. It was pulled by two teams; heartbreaking work even for strong teams when the snow was deep. These teams had to be changed each half day. In addition, a pole attached to the plow was extended behind to which another team was hitched, but, as this was the less strenuous part of the effort, this team also pulled a sleigh load of goods or fish, depending on the direction of movement. The plow, with metal blades ten inches wide, scraped the snow off the ice down to glare ice; one for each runner of the sleighs to follow. As it moved the snow was pushed to the side of the track. The sleighs had what were known as fish racks, some thirty feet long, suitable for the loading of one hundred and twenty boxes of frozen fish, which would give each load, a total of from seven to eight tons, that is, per team. Once the sleighs were moving with loads, the teams had no difficulty pulling the sleighs, but the starting each morning was a special effort. The runners would freeze to the ice, unless the runners had been pulled over small round sticks by two teams and so left with as little contact with the ice as possible. Even so, each runner had to be loosened from the ice by side force with a bunting pole three inches in diameter.
In times of storm any shelter available for the equipment was taken advantage of, such as the lee of an island or point. Usually the men did not set foot on land throughout the whole trip, other than at times when they were taking merchandise ashore or hauling fish from the lake camps.
Movement of merchandise and fish to or from the plow was made by horse toboggan. These were three feet wide by sixteen feet long and could carry twenty-two boxes of fish and were pulled by one horse.
The trip on Lake Winnipegosis was one hundred and twenty miles each way. It was always figured that for light loads brought into Winnipegosis ten inches of ice was sufficient but by the time the snow plow started, at least two feet of ice had to be general on the lake.
The teamsters were a rugged lot ay they had to withstand the exposure to the weather. In driving their teams they either drove on top of the load with no protection or walked alongside. Their wages were one dollar a day and board. On their return to town after each trip things did break loose and the cry, "The snow plow's in", meant a great deal' to the inhabitants.
One of the most discomforting experiences was with ice cracks. When the weather was mild the cracks closed in to some extent but piled the ice high, and during the colder times the cracks would open up with a noise like thunder. At times the cracks would be six feet wide and the piled up ice would be up to ten feet high. To cross these cracks with loads was a problem and caused the plow to move in one direction or the other to find the most suitable place to cross. Bridges were carried. These were planks in three pieces, each two inches by ten inches and sixteen feet long, braced with cross pieces and two or these were required to make a bridge, one for each runner of the sleighs. The ice had to be chopped down and the space between filled in. It would take half a day to make the bridges on occasion. Two teams were used to cross with each load. With heavy going in slush ice it was sometimes necessary to put as many as six teams on the plow.
To protect fish, ice is an essential and the harvesting of ice was done in the winter months at most up lake stations to care for the summer production. This was another experience in weather exposure for the operators in the ice harvesting gangs. They moved by team in open sleighs with a crew of fifteen men and there were also two teams with feed for the horses and food for the men and the necessary equipment. 'They would stop at each summer station and fill the ice houses. The extreme points on Lake Winnipegosis were one hundred miles apart. The scraping of the snow off the ice, the marking and the cutting of the ice into cakes, two feet by four feet, was done by horse power. The cakes were then sawn through by hand with ice saws. The preferred thickness was from twenty-four to thirty inches as ice thicker than this created heavier handling with the primitive power and tools available and slowed up the operation. Usually this work was done at the year end, in late December. It took five days travelling each way to Whiskey Jack Island where a station was located and at which point some one thousand tons of ice were harvested. Lesser quantities were stored at the smaller stations. The ice was insulated in 'the ice houses with moss or sawdust, whichever was available, and usually hay was used to cover the ice and protect it from the weather.
Navigation, Boats and Captains
On Lake Winnipeg the main courses were sounded and channels - charted between 1901 and 1904 and with very little addition these charts are still in use. On Lake Winnipegosis, however, charting was unheard of and the soundings and laying of courses had to be done by the local operators. Plotting of courses could only be arrived at by actual experience, and for the movement of the most perishable of commodities, in all kinds of weather, local navigators with experience were at a premium. I should mention here some of the earlier navigators; men who did much for the advancement of the fisheries in this area. Captain Coffey from Lake Michigan, and later from Lake of the Woods, moved in the spring of 1897 to Winnipegosis and brought in one of the first steam boats, the "S.S. Mockingbird", in the year 1899. This vessel was registered at Collingwood and had been a tow tug on the Great Lakes. She sank the following year. She, being low in the water and being overloaded with cordwood and fish, got caught in a storm and went to the bottom. Captain Coffey replaced her with the "Lottie S." from Rat Portage.
Captain William Sifton from the narrows of Lake Manitoba was a most capable man who knew lake waters as no others in the area did and who, in my remembrance, sailed a raft, not of logs but of some 100,000 feet of lumber, from Crane River to Totogan with only a small tug for guidance (the S.S. "Sandy McPherson").
Captain William Mapes, from the Great Lakes where he had served his apprenticeship, dared all weathers and handled mane of the steam boats on Lake Winnipegosis and also, in later years, supervised some of the hatcheries in Manitoba and in Saskatchewan.
There was also Sandy Vance, a man who feared no exposure and to whom I have previously referred; one who was always striving for the lake beyond.
The "S.S. Manitou" is a good example of the earlier type of freight boat used in the fisheries. She plied the waters of Lake Winnipegosis from 1900 to 1942. She was launched on the 1st day of July, 1900 at the, Village of Winnipegosis and was built from material shipped from Collingwood, Ontario and from some native lumber be Albert Hackett of Goderich, Ontario. The frames and the below-the-water-line planking were of rock elm which actually outlasted the boat. The keel was of beech wood. The stem and stern were of oak and above the water line she was built of local tamarac. The upper works above the water line had to be rebuilt in 1918. She was nicknamed the "Shoepack" because of her nearly flat bottom construction. She was originally powered with high pressure engines but after three years these were replaced with fore and aft compound Dote engines, twin screw. She was one hundred feet long with a beam of eighteen feet, and had a load capacity of four hundred and fifty boxes, each containing one hundred and fifty pounds of fish, three hundred boxes below and one hundred and fifty boxes on deck. This gave her a load of almost 70,000 lbs. of fish and the weight of the boxes and ice doubled this weight.
In addition to the fish loading she carried during the summer fishing seasons, she also had the important work of taking the equipment and supplies to the sites where the winter camps were located. The date deadline was the 8th of October in each year, so that three or more trips had to be made taking in the fishermen and their families, their help and equipment, their dogs and horses and everything required to carry the fishermen through until the snow plow freight sleighs arrived early in the new year-three months later.
On one occasion in 1908 there were 90 dogs aboard. Horses also had to be handled and loading them aboard at the docks in the Village was a simple matter, but the unloading at locations where there was no, dock was something different. In such cases the horses were either slung over the side of the boat in a horse sling and dropped into the water to swim ashore in the frigid water or forcible driven over the side to make shift for themselves. On occasion horses died from the shock of the drop and the cold water.
In 1918, the "S.S. Manitou" was caught in the ice up lake at Whiskey Jack Island where there was a good harbour. The crew had to walk home a few weeks later through Mafeking, a distance of 60 miles. In 1925 she was caught in the ice in the channel at Moose Island, a treacherous location, where there was no harbourage. She was badly weakened and took water to a considerable extent throughout the earlier part of the winter. The boiler having been drained and the equipment dismantled, hand pumping was quite a problem for the captain who stayed on board after the crew had walked out. The captain, Bill McDonald, always claimed that he had hand pumped the lake through her three times before we got a gasoline powered pump to him. The necessary care of the vessel through the spring opening of the lake meant moving her around to keep her from being crushed by the moving ice.
Use of Pigeons
In the summers from 1923 to 1939 at Winnipegosis and prior to the installation of radio service, a Mr. John Butler kept a supply of pigeons for the use of the operating companies at that point, and this method of conveying information from up lake stations and the shipping points was a boon to those in the business. It was not too reliable, however, because a number of the birds did not reach their destination as a result of their being killed by hawks or being chased off their course and delayed. Butler could always tell exactly how the birds had been treated, for instance, if the messages were wet, then the birds had not been watered prior to being sent on their trip. The birds were sent up lake in cages on the "S.S. Manitou" and were held in similar cages at the station, for example, at Whiskey Jack Island, and on being released with the message written on cigarette paper tied to the legs, the birds covered the trip to Winnipegosis, a distance of 120 miles, in about 90 minutes. A continuous watch was kept for the arrival of the birds to secure the messages which gave details of what fish was on the freighter, and between five and six o'clock in the afternoon and eight o'clock in the morning, we had canvassed the trade and lined up our shipping distribution. Additional birds were always kept on board the vessel in case of delay or disaster, as there was no other means of communication from ship to shore. The birds aboard were let go in the morning when the ship was within 40 or 50 miles of port. After making shipment of all the orders, we froze surplus stocks at Winnipegosis for future shipments. This freezing was done with salt and ice.
Now a short reference to actual fishing operations in the winter months. This fishing was done through the ice and in the earlier days all fish were frozen on the ice as caught. The required nets, with corks and leads, had been prepared before the lake froze over so that they could be set early when fish usually were more plentiful. The nets were for the most part of linen and were from forty to forty-five fathoms in length. The size of mesh was four and one quarter inches for pickerel and five and one quarter inches for whitefish, and the depths varied according to the depth of the water fished. Basin holes were cut of a size suitable to the thickness of the ice, so that with thin ice a fourteen inch square hole was of ample size, but with heavier ice holes up to two feet square were cut by hand with ice chisels. A running line of No. 120 cord was then attached to the running pole, or in later years, a jigger. The original method was to use a pole, cut in the bush, of about thirty feet in length, flattened so that it would slide under the ice in a reasonably straight line. This pole was directed under the ice surface and holes were cut as its length was extended so as to be able to propel it further along until the required length for the net was reached. The pole was then withdrawn from under the ice and the running line taken from the pole. With this line between the two holes in the ice and under the ice, the net was ready to be pulled into position for setting. Anchor stones were attached to each end of the net at the bridle, and the weight of the leads held the net on the bottom of the lake with the corks or floats holding the net upright. This procedure was continued until all the gangs of nets were set. To withdraw the nets, the reverse procedure was used and the fish were taken from the net, spread on the ice surface to freeze, and the net was reset. Nets were lifted twice weekly to prevent the drowning of the fish.
The first improvement in the manner of setting was the use of a running pole composed of four pieces of select one by four lumber sixteen feet long. These four pieces were nailed together to give approximately a sixty foot long stretch between the cutting of holes in the ice. With the introduction of the jigger, the cutting of intervening holes was done away with as, with this tool, a line could be run to any desired length. The more modern jiggers have a clapper attached by which the direction of its movement can be more easily traced by sound.
In the winter months, fishermen worked out as far as eight miles from their winter camps when they used dogs, but with ponies it was possible to go as far as ten miles.
I should say here that it was usual for each fisherman's wife to fish a few nets of her own close to camp in order that she would have some revenue coming to her at the end of the season, even if the husband's operation had not been a profitable one.
License fees at the turn of the century were $2.00 for the winter season for the use of one thousand fathoms of netting. In the summer, the fee was $5.00.
Open water fishing was done wholly with gill nets on Lake Winnipegosis, and the use of small craft, known as punts, were used at close-in points. However, in the expanded commercial fishing, sail boats came into general use. The first record I can find is that of Joseph Grenon who, after having viewed the operations on Lake Manitoba and explored Lake Winnipegosis in the previous year, went to Detroit in 1895 and brought a boat builder to Portage la Prairie to build two sail boats. These were named the "Wilfred Laurier" and the "Diamond Jubilee". They were taken to Westbourne by wagon and launched. Grenon and his son travelled north on Lake Manitoba and through the Waterhen Rivers to Lake Winnipegosis. He started operations in the name of Joseph Grenon and Son. In later years, the son, Joseph Grenon also, joined with Hugh Armstrong and was a factor in the development of the fisheries in this area. The two boats referred to were thirty and thirty-two feet long.
At this same time, the Hugh Armstrong Fish Company and the Dougald McAulay Fish Company started operations and prepared for the entry of the railroad into the Village in 1897. The Dougald McAulay Company sold out to Armstrong in 1899. Later, in 1900, John McAulay and Ed. Burrell brought in sloops, one of which was in general use up to the advent of the gas boat in the years 1930 and 1931.
The procedure in setting nets was similar to that of the winter season, without the necessity of cutting holes in the ice, and, of course, a wider range of area could be more easily covered.
The fishermen were law abiding and stayed within the legal size of nets. All nets were taken from the water on Saturdays and returned to the water Mondays. These nets were dried on reels over the weekend after having been washed. Some might set in a few nets on Sunday or fish with a few nets more than was allowed but these actually were their only misdemeanours. Once when a new inspector was appointed, Sandy McPherson, he found his only method of getting to the fishing grounds and stations for inspection was on board the "S.S. Manitou". On his first trip the Captain had the Union Jack hoisted and explained that, always when the representative of Her Majesty was on board, it was his duty to show respect to that representative by showing the colours. Sandy was quite proud until on a later voyage he discovered that the only purpose was to warn the fishermen that the inspector was on board.
Nets used in the summer months were uniform in linen and sixteen mesh deep, in 35/3 cord with four and one quarter inch mesh being used for pickerel and five and one quarter inch for whitefish. They were seamed seventy fathoms long and two nets were carried to each net box. Marking buoys were set at the end of each gang of nets; these net buoys being stakes floated upright by being inserted through a cedar bowl. A flag was nailed to the upper portion of the stakes so that they could be located. Nets were located by the taking of ranges on the shore, but also by the direction finding ability of the operator. Movement to the lake station quickly with the catch was essential. Originally, the fish boats had to make their own way to shore by sail, but later the use of tugs which towed the boats to their grounds and brought them back in resulted in speedier movement.
The earlier gill nets, as I have stated, were of linen thread. During the first war, the scarcity of linen forced the use of cotton. The heavier threads of 28/4 cotton cord were general, but as time advanced, the lighter threads of 40/6, 50/6 and smaller were used. (Today nylon nets are general).
Camp life at the summer stations was a pleasant one for the families of the fishermen. During the school holidays, the wives and children moved up lake. One of their interests was to take two or three sacks of sugar, have the whole family pick berries, mostly raspberries, and put up their year's supply of jam.
Now a word on the pioneering in the airplane transportation of fish off the lakes, a procedure which as far as I am able to find out, originated at Winnipegosis in the winter of 1931-32.
The production points were Grand Rapids on Lake Winnipeg where Mrs. F. L. L. Campbell and John Simpson had posts, at an air distance of one hundred and twenty-five miles one way; and at Spruce Island in the Duck Bay area of Lake Winnipegosis, an air distance of fifty miles one way. Our chief pilot was Konnie Johannesson who at that time flew a Stinson Detroiter SR with a carry capacity of eight hundred pounds. Jack Wight of Regina had an earlier model Stinson with a similar capacity. Al Edwards had a Gipsy Moth with a carrying load of two hundred and fifty lbs. Herb Seagram was Konnie Johannesson's mechanic. These two latter gentlemen, Al Edwards and Herb Seagram, are now high ranking officials of the Trans-Canada Air Lines.
Konnie Johanneson is well known in Manitoba flying circles, having established a flying school at the Winnipeg airport during the second world war and later being in evidence flying out of Flin Flon in general freight and passenger service.
The rate for flying of the fish from Grand Rapids to Winnipegosis was twelve cents per pound. This rate was effective on all other freight in or out of the Grand Rapids. (Imagine adding $12.00 to a sack of sugar or flour and much of these commodities were taken in).
These fish referred to commanded a premium although they were only moved by air one hundred and twenty-five miles and then taken by rail some fifteen hundred miles to the market.
The important factor in airplane transportation, which has developed greatly in more recent years, is that quality freshness can mainly be obtained through the care of the product in that time between the taking of the fish from the net and the storing of them in cooled cars in boxes well covered with ice. Air service has made this possible.
While opinions differed amongst the early departmental inspectors and the controllers of the regulations of the Manitoba fisheries, the fact remains that, with the present production at a high level, we are justified in the belief that good judgment and careful and proper control through these early years, all with a view to conserving a valuable natural resource, were soundly exercised, and that credit for this should be recorded by the present generation.
Page revised: 22 May 2010