Commercial Fishing on Isle Royale, 1800-1967
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Fishermen came to Isle Royale from their homes on the North Shore—Two Harbors, Grand Marais, or Duluth—as early as possible in the spring, but generally by April 15th. They travelled either in their own boats or by lake steamer. The first fishing in the spring was done with gangs of hook lines, baited with herring and set in deep water. Then in July or August gill nets were set in the harbors or off the reefs. Nets were from 350 to 400 feet long, the size of the mesh varying according to the type of fish sought. They were set at a given depth, weighted by stones and marked by floating buoys. Each fisherman had several "gangs" of such nets. In fall the nets were reset to catch the spawning runs of whitefish, lake trout, and herring. This was the season of the heaviest catches. By November 15th most fishermen would again leave for their homes on the Minnesota shore. Some fishermen wintered on the island, carrying in supplies to last them from late November to April, staying in such areas as Chippewa Harbor, Rock Harbor or Hay Bay.

Isle Royale had several favorite grounds for commercial fishermen. The conditions needed were the combination of reefs and deep water favored as a habitat by the commercial fish, and harbors as a base of operations. Fishing grounds were allotted among the fishermen themselves, according to prior use and location of fishing stations, so that no fisherman would encroach on the fishing grounds of another. The practice was analogous to the custom of stockmen in the west, dividing grazing grounds in the days of the open range. The sheltered waters of Washington Harbor had numerous reefs and shoals where trout spawned. The southwestern shore, from Long Point east, was favorite fishing ground. Here the trout and whitefish came to spawn earliest in the fall and the heaviest catches were made. This area, however, necessitated long runs from Washington Harbor and Grace Harbor on the west, and from Fisherman's Home on the east. Long Point and Little Boat Harbor were the only good havens on the southwest coast, and they were not continuously occupied.

Siskiwit Bay, with its numerous reefs, its series of protective offshore islands and its good harbors, was frequented by fishermen. Wright Island has been continuously occupied for a century; Hay Bay has had a series of fishing settlements in or near it for almost an equal length of time. Between Siskiwit Bay and Rock Harbor only Chippewa Harbor offered refuge. A large number of fishermen had homes in Rock Harbor and Tobin Harbor.

On the north shore, the coast is more abrupt and there are few good harbors. Belle Isle was continuously occupied by fishermen from 1866 until the Scofields established their resort. Amygdaloid Island, at the site of the present ranger station, Green Isle in Todd Harbor, and Little Todd Harbor were long occupied. Temporary camps were made at the site of the old Indian portage between Pickerel Cove and Herring Bay, and kegs of herring were rolled over the portage and taken out in small boats to be picked up by the steamer America. Birch Island, and Indian Point, in McCargoe Cove, were occupied for many years by Captain Francis. A short, white-bearded man, who kept an immaculate cabin, he fished with pound nets in Five Finger Bay and Duncan Narrows, and experimented with artificial propagation of white fish, maintaining a hatchery on Birch Island.

Fishermen occupied sheltered coves or harbors, with water deep enough inshore to accommodate their boats. Ownership of the land varied. Some had only squatters' rights until comparatively recent times. Many on the northeastern end of the island acquired title after 1900, when the demand for summer homes caused the government to resurvey the area. Some bought from mining companies or land speculators. Typically, the fishing station consisted of a few frame or log cottages, store houses, a net house, a fish house, a wharf suitable for small boats, and a series of racks for drying nets. Buildings were constructed of the materials at hand. Drift wood, and on the southwestern coast red sandstone were used for buildings. Abandoned buildings of the mining settlements, such as the Island Mine and Minong, were dismantled and their lumber rafted off to fishing stations. A logging disaster in Washington Harbor, in which a logging company lost thousands of board feet of logs when flood and winds broke their booms and scattered their logs, gave fishermen in the harbor the material for wharfs, fish houses and fuel.

The homes of the fishermen varied a great deal. Some were crude shacks of wood and tarpaper, with a stove, homemade table, bed and cupboards made of soap boxes and orange crates, decorated only with calendar art, and poorly maintained. Others were set up as family homes, with good furniture, decorated with photographs and paintings, nets, or relics of shipwrecks. Wood burning stoves were universally used, and the shores of the island furnished an inexhaustible supply of fuel. Outside, the wives of fishermen usually grew flower gardens, and sometimes vegetable gardens. One fisherman kept a cow, which he would row in a a skiff from one island to another to graze. Eventually the cow learned to swim from island to island in search of browse. At Long Point, both cattle and hogs were raised.

Vessels made regular trips to and around the island to carry the fishermen to their homes, supply them with salt, groceries and mail, and to carry the fresh or salt fish to market. They were owned, for the most part, by Duluth fishing firms—Booth Fisheries, Sivertsen Brothers, and Christensen Brothers were among the most recent. Some ships plied between Washington Harbor and Duluth or Grand Portage; others made a trip around the island two or three times a week, increasingly, as the time went on, carrying summer home owners or tourists as well as serving the fishermen. The America—by common consent among the old-timers the best vessel that ever served Isle Royale—the Easton, the Detroit, the Dagmar, the Redwing and the Winyah were among the boats used. Their successors, the Voyageur and the Hiawatha, carry on this tradition.

Fishing was a dawn to dusk occupation. Fishermen went out at four or five o'clock in the morning, making their runs to the fishing grounds. There they tended their nets, and by late morning or afternoon returned home with their catches. The fish were cleaned and processed—packed in ice or, in the case of herring, salted and packed in kegs. There was always an abundance of work to be done around the station, cleaning or repairing nets, maintaining boats and machinery or preparing to move nets to new fishing grounds.

Life for the fishermen was not all work. The wild fruits of the island—wild strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries—were gathered and preserved. The bi-weekly call of the mail and fish vessel, or calls by visitors, were always social occasions. Many of the fishermen and their wives were accomplished musicians, and played at dances held in Washington Harbor or Rock Harbor. There was always the store of stories to be told and retold—of large hauls of fish, with herring hanging from the nets like grapes from a vine, or of large siskowit or trout caught from hooks; of the mines and copper finds; of storms at sea and shipwrecks; of the caribou, the coyotes, the mink and beaver, and other wild life of the island, and of the strange ways and wonderous errors of the summer visitors. There was always good food at the social gatherings—smoked or fresh whitefish or lake trout, wild berries in season, cakes and coffee.

Fishing as a way of life has seen few changes over the past fifty years. Some changes in fishing technology have occurred; boat engines have improved, nylon nets have replaced those of twine, and plastic floats those of wood. The radio and the airplane have made the fishermen less isolated than in the past. Three major changes, however, have occurred that have affected the life of fishermen. One is the advent of tourism, especially after 1910; second, the creation of a National Park, and third, the coming of the sea lamprey.

Isle Royale had some reputations as a health resort as early as 1855. During the 1860's and 70's excursion boats carried travelers to the island, to picnic at the site of the Siskowit Mine or near the Rock Harbor lighthouse. With the advent of photography, commercial artists produced stereopticon slides of Isle Royale. By the 20th century there was a boom in tourism from two sources. Resorts were established as commercial ventures. In Washington Harbor, the Wendigo Copper Company, disappointed in its attempts to find copper in paying quantities, decided to mine tourists instead, and two resorts—the Singer resort on Washington Island, and the highly exclusive Washington Club on the mainland—were established. On the other end of the island, resorts were established in Snug Harbor—where the present lodge is located—on Tooker's Island, Davidson Island, Minong Island in Tobin Harbor, and to the north on Belle Isle. At about the same time, businessmen, clergymen, and teachers from Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois began buying up the small islands in Tobin Harbor and south of Belle Isle for summer homes. The story of tourism on Isle Royale is a fascinating one in itself. However, we are here concerned with its relationship to the fishermen. It aided the fishermen economically. Fishermen had a new market for fresh or smoked fish at the resorts. Some took in summer visitors as paying guests. Fishermen served as guides for the tourists and summer home owners, and in this performed much the same interpretive service to the visitors that park naturalists do at the present time.

A movement to establish Isle Royale as a National Park began in the 1920's. Several groups were concerned with the movement. They included Senator Vandenberg and Representative Cramton of Michigan, the Detroit News, and a number of Duluth businessmen. The summer home owners, particularly those on the northeastern end of the island, were strong in support of the movement. The policy of the National Park Service was to acquire all the holdings. To this end, the lands and buildings belonging to the fishermen and summer residents were purchased and the owners given life leases.

The passage of time, coupled with the coming of the lamprey, has resulted in a decrease in the number of fishermen on the island, and at present there are no more than six active fisheries. The activities of the fishermen do not clash with the recreational values of the park, and on many occasions the fishermen have been of good service to park personnel. They have served as guides to park officials and furnished them with historical and ecological information needed to carry on interpretive work; have carried on rescue work with their boats, and during the 1936 fire were of tremendous service in carrying men and supplies to the fire areas. In general, relationships between park officials and fishermen have been extremely cordial.

The sea lamprey made its first appearance in Lake Superior in 1952. This parasite has a sucking mouth, with which it attaches itself to trout and drains the blood and body juices from the fish. It multiplied rapidly in Lake Superior, and threatened the very existence of the lake fishing. Commercial fishing for lake trout was curtailed on Isle Royale because of the lamprey, and only one fishery on the island was permitted to make sample catches. The result of the lake trout decline was a shift to herring fishing. These fish, salted and packed in kegs, have a large market in Virginia and the Carolinas, but are small, require more preparation than do the trout, and sell at a cheaper price. The lake fishermen, who had relied largely on the lake trout for their livelihood, suffered economically.

The American and the Canadian governments spent millions of dollars in research, to find a way of controlling the lamprey. A solution was found, in the use of chemicals placed in their spawning grounds, which killed the lamprey but did not affect the commercial fish. In 1967, with the control of the sea lamprey and subsequent increase in lake trout numbers, the commercial fishermen at Isle Royale were allowed a small annual quota of trout. Each commercial fisherman is assigned an area and dates for net fishing which are planned to avoid conflict with recreational fishing. The lake trout caught by the commercial fishermen are carefully measured and scale samples are taken to determine age and growth rate. By gathering data, the fishermen at the island aid the state and federal biologists in the management of this species.

Eventually some of the fisheries will be preserved as historical exhibits, so that the visitor may see what life was like here in the past.

Map of Isle Royale. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 02-Apr-2007