Commercial Fishing on Isle Royale, 1800-1967
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I. Lake Trout, or as they were some times called, salmon trout or Mackinaw trout, were taken almost exclusively by gill nets, though records show the use of some pound nets during the 1880's. They had cyclical fluctuations in numbers, but had few natural enemies save man, until the coming of the sea lamprey during the 1950's.

Those who classify lake trout are divided into two groups, splitters and lumpers. Splitters define many sub-species, while lumpers place all lake trout in a single group. Isle Royale fishermen are confirmed splitters, and classify trout according to their color, depth at which they feed, and spawning ground. The following classification comes from one of the old-time fishermen of Isle Royale:

Redfin—one of the earliest, spawns in shallow outlying ridges with gravel bottoms in 3 to 4 feet of water.

Channel or Silver Salmon—spawn in bays or channels of mud bottom with weeds.

Silver Grey—spawn on outlying ridges and in a little deeper water than the Redfin.

Smoky—spawn after Silver grey on same spawning ground, or possibly in a little deeper water.

Grey Salmon—spawn in 20 to 30 fathoms of water in weeds on mud bottom, such as Rock Harbor channel, inner half of Siskiwit Bay and Washington Harbor.

Paperfin—a small, thin, gaunt fish, never going over three pounds. Spawn in spring and fall, don't know where.

Rock of Ages Trout—at Rock of Ages Reef and occasionally some at Taylor Reef and Menagerie Island. Spawn in September.

Siskiwit—both white and black. Black generally run almost three times as large as white. Spawn in up to 100 fathoms of water.

Mooneyes—spawn on the north side toward Gull Rock, and to Blake Point and Passage Island. Also south to Mott Island, in 35 to 50 fathoms of water.

Unnamed species—breed on Superior Shoal. Don't know name, but it is a different breed and poor eating.

The Siskiwit (siskowit, siskawit) deserves special attention. It is restricted to Lake Superior, while the lake trout is found in the other lakes. It is an extremely fat trout, and unpalatable when eaten fresh; but salted it was considered a great delicacy, and was much sought after during the early days of commercial fishing. As one authority wrote:

This fish, like the former species, came frequently under my eye during my late northern tour; and I rejoice in the possession of a barrel of him in his pickled state, which I procured at the Sault Ste. Marie, on the strength of which I can recommend him to all lovers of good eating as the very best salt-fish that exists in the world. He is so fat and rich that when eaten fresh he is insufferably rank and oily; but when salted and boiled, after being steeped for forty-eight hours in cold water, he is not surpassed or equalled by any fish with which I am acquainted . . . His excellence is so perfectly understood and acknowledged in the lake country that he fetches double the price per barrel of his coarser big brother, the namycush; and he is so greedily sought for that it is difficult to procure him, even in Detroit, and almost impossible in Buffalo.

II. Whitefish. The whitefish was found in all the Great Lakes. It has been known from the time of the earliest explorers as a fine table fish. The earliest commercial fishing on Lake Superior involved the catching of whitefish in the rapids of Sault Ste. Marie. It ranked with the trout as the most important commercial fish in the lake. During the early 1870's, the Bureau of Fisheries made a great many experiments in the artificial propagation of whitefish.

III. Lake herring. Herring were not sought to a large extent during the early period, since they were of less commercial value than the trout or whitefish. The profit for fishermen was less because of the low price on the market; and the cost of dressing and packing them was greater because of their small size. They became the mainstay of fishermen on Isle Royale, however, when the lamprey decimated the lake trout.

The American Fur Company's fisheries were successful in that a large number of fish were caught. The pack of salt fish for 1837 was 2000 barrels, for 1838, 4000 barrels, and for 1839, 5000 barrels. A system of inspection for quality was developed, and some sales made, but the panic of 1837-41 put an end to the fishing business. An agricultural depression in the Ohio Valley cut off the market there for this new food, and efforts to sell fish in the east failed.

Chippewa Harbor—A. C. Lane photo, 1896

Rock Harbor Lighthouse—A. C. Lane photo, 1896

Mackinaw Boats, Barnum Island—A. C. Lane photo, 1896

Captain Francis and others—A. C. Lane photo, 1896

Steamer Easton—N. P. S. photo

Steamer America—N. P. S. photo

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Last Updated: 02-Apr-2007