A Great Lakes Fisherman
By Capt. Charles R. Hoskins and George P. Wakefield
This story is a continuation of what was printed in the Spring 2021 Issue of Inland Seas.
This original article was a three part essay in Winter 1979, Spring 1980, and Summer 1980 of Inland Seas.
In the initial installment of this series by Captain Hoskins we learned about his early days as a youngster and his steamboat years. Then he told us of his combination fish and passenger boat the Redwing and his subsequent fish tugs the Mavret W. converted from the Redwing; the Mavret H., his first newly built wooden tug; the Mavret H. (II) of riveted steel that later became the Coast Guard fire tug during World War II; and lastly, his final tug, the Charles R. He also related his experiences as a fireman in Cleveland during the War and enlightened us on a typical day gill netting on Lake Erie.
In this section Captain Hoskins takes us to sea, telling of his Lake adventures. He also reminisces about his crews and their problems. Then he goes into detail about the careful methods used in “fishing over the line”, a practice in those years not considered unlawful by the fishermen; the law was observed in the breech rather than in compliance. Later comes fog, snow and ice to further complicate the problems of catching fish and surviving in the days before radio, radar and fathometer when he had to perform or else!
But let’s get on with the story told by the good Captain who has recorded details of his life on the Lakes as we seldom read it.
George P. Wakefield
Experiences at Sea
I believe it was in the fall of 1921 with the wooden Mavret H., a year before we put in the diesel engine, we had twin screw gasoline Peerless engines then. There were a lot of Upper Lake tugs here for the fall herring fishing. This morning the wind was SW blowing quite hard, the barometer was low and falling fast. We left Erie on our trip to the nets, we were fishing canned nets then in what we call the deep water below Erie about 16 to 18 miles and we would be off North East, Pennsylvania. I had one hour and fifty minutes to run to the nets. Only a few tugs left Erie that morning to lift nets and most turned back due to heavy weather. We were able to pull over six boxes of bull nets as they were known. These were about 18’ deep used for herring fishing at that time.
The wind was increasing all the time and as soon as we finished pulling we started back to Erie. We did not reset the nets due to weather. As I said, we had one hour and fifty minutes to run to nets. Well, it took us seven hours to get back to Erie against a 70 to 80 mile an hour wind all day. We had 2,200 lbs. of herring. The Erie paper was out then and said the Mavret H. and crew were lost, as I. H. Kolbe, who was the head of the Kolbe Fish Company, had telephoned all over the Lake, even the Long Point lightkeeper in Canada, trying to find out if we were in shelter across the Lake. Thank the Lord we came through it all safely.
These were very large heavy seas, it seemed as though they were as large as a house-long heavy breakers. If one had broken on us we would have been gone, tug and all, but somehow someone was keeping this from happening. They either broke before us or just after they passed. Also, the water from the spray and seas was hitting the tug so much it came in the pilothouse windows. I was soaking wet and the water dripped down on the pilothouse floor soaking the gasoline engines. I expected them to stop anytime; somehow they kept plugging away. I had a large l½”, bilge pump off the engine, this was running all the way home to keep the water out of the bilge. Heavy weather is hard on wooden tugs, the seams, etc. We finally arrived in Erie and found out that other tugs did not reach their nets. We were the only tug out that got their nets that windy day.
That same day one steam tug, the George Edwards, owned by the Reiger Werner Co. in Lorain was fishing. He went out but instead of coming back to Erie he went in to Dunkirk, N.Y. Big seas had stove in his after cabin. One gasoline tug at Dunkirk lost several men in the gale. Some tugs could not come up Erie Bay due to big seas there. That was the only place we shifted anything on deck, so you can see it was blowing.
It was only a few days after this storm that I signed the contract for the first diesel engine for the tug I had with Fairbanks-Morse. We got it installed the next spring. I had some of the best south shore fishermen with me, willing to work hard and put up with bad weather. Most all stayed with me many years. I always had a waiting list of best men available. One of them rode with me for 25 years, would have been longer but that ended in June 1942 when the U.S. Coast Guard took my steel tug Mavret H. for a fireboat in Cleveland.
Then in 1925 another incident happened with the wooden Mavret H. with the diesel. This had a reverse gear and clutch, etc. We had been fishing in the spring at Ashtabula and had moved some nets off Erie and the day we took fish over to Ashtabula we loaded up all the dry nets and started the run to Erie. A few miles NW of Conneaut a pin in the go-ahead clutch sheared off so we drifted in an increasing fresh NW wind. I thought if we drifted in closer someone from the Conneaut lighthouse or shore would see us and send a tug out. So we kept drifting closer. Finally I was afraid we would go on the west breakwall so we dropped our anchor. This held just enough to turn us around with our head to the west. We could still use the reverse so backed up some as we drifted, dragging the anchor on the bottom. By careful judgement I was able to get past the lighthouse and into the harbor entrance. The keeper saw us and came out with a small gasoline boat. Soon we were inside the gap. He came and we got a line to him. We let go the anchor and he towed us up the harbor, otherwise we might have gone up on the inside of the east breakwater. We were there a couple of days getting the necessary repairs, then on to Erie to finish the spring fishing. Again someone was watching over us, so thankful.
The steel diesel tug Mavret H., built in the summer of 1926 at the Ashtabula shipyard, was a fast tug at 12 miles per hour. The fishing was blue pike off Erie as the herring fishing was all over several years before. We pulled two gangs of nets and had 2,500-3,000 lbs. aboard. We ran off Ashtabula outside and rope set these nets there for herring as they were worth much more than blue pike. This new tug had large fuel tanks, 2-400 gallons. We had worked about a month at Erie and had refueled and had been working a few weeks, after that I guess I thought more of the time-days rather than the distance run. We were running to our nets. Well anyhow, we started for Erie and had run about an hour when we were out of fuel. Not very smart on my part. One learns from experience. We anchored and laid there.
In the night a steamboat came near so we flashed flares, etc. He came alongside so we could talk. He had no fuel oil but did have wireless so we advised him to notify the Kolbe Fish Co. at Erie. We thought they would send out a tug. Seems, we found out later, Kolbe contacted their trap net foreman at Ashtabula and he was to come out with a trap net boat bringing several 50-gallon drums of fuel oil. However, things happened and he did not get out that day. In the afternoon I took some lube oil and gasoline which we carried for our net lifter and mixed up ten gallons of emergency fuel. I got up on the roof and poured this into the day tank. After we were able to vent the fuel lines and start the engine we pulled the anchor and ran towards shore. I thought we could make Conneaut before the fuel ran out but we had to anchor again. That night a SW wind came up and got quite a sea running but we were anchored with a long chain so the boat rode well.
Sometime in the night the car ferry Maitland came east on the way to Maitland, Ontario. We flashed flares again. He went by but shortly decided, due to weather, to turn around and go back by us and return to Ashtabula. When he made the turn he got into the trough of the heavy seas and some of the cars got loose. They thought they were going to lose her and put in the general alarm. (Of course, we learned this all later on.) They finally turned around and went back to Ashtabula. They had to use a wrecker to get the cars straightened around. I heard their damage amounted to about $5,000. They had wireless and had sent a message, so the next morning several tugs from Ashtabula and Erie came to us with food and fuel. We had only boiled pike, no salt even, for food. We raised anchor and went to Erie. Of course, this never happened again. You learn from experience. We had a drum of extra fuel oil in the hold and also a lot of canned goods in case of an emergency after that. None of it was ever used all those years to 1942 when the USCG took the tug.
Crews I Have Known
Regarding my crew members: All are gone now to the happy fishing grounds, but, of course, each one had his own personal way. I had one John Meyers who rode with me for 25 years. He was a person who, no matter what I wanted to do about fishing the Mavret H. would always say, “Captain, you do what you want, I’m right here with you.” This was really something, as some of the others would not want to go along with my ideas, probably more work, etc. So, I soon learned to go to this man first and get his reaction and then go to the others, who not wanting to express what they really thought or wanted would follow with, “Yes, captain, we are right with you.”
This man, I never heard all those years say anything bad about anyone. If he could not say something good he just did not say anything about him. Sure was a wonderful person. He was with me till the USCG took the tug. He lived to be well into his nineties. While he did not like bad weather, he always went and took it. He was a very fine Christian man.
I had a cousin from Ashtabula, Ben Hoskins, who rode with me many years and did shore work mending nets, stringing twine, putting corks and leads on, and oiling and baking corks. After the war when we put up nets for the new Charles R. we used aluminum floats as we could not get good cedar wood floats anymore. These, of course, had to be baked and dried in large ovens and dipped and coated with linseed oil, several coats baked on. This was quite a job. So, with the aluminum floats they were much better, never got heavy with water soaking into the wood. They cost more, about 10 cents per float with a lot more work putting them on nets, but they were worth it. We had to buy thousands for the new rig. These floats fished better because they maintained the same buoyancy all the time.
Another story I remember: It was around 1924-25 on the wooden Mavret H. with the diesel. She was several years, old then. We were fishing for herring in early fall here at Erie. Our nets were away outside in deep water SE of Long Point. This morning the wind was blowing quite hard from the SW. I was on the tug with the diesel warmed up ready to go when the crew got there. I, at that time, took care of the machinery as well as sailing the tug. I had thought I would go outside the harbor and see how bad the weather was, then decide what to do-go out and pull the nets or come back in and miss the day. Well, when the crew came and all four were aboard I hollered out from the pilothouse door to let go the lines and no one-seemed to be doing it, so I stepped out of the pilothouse and. went aft.
One of the crew met me and said, “Captain, we are not going out today, it is blowing too hard.” I found out afterwards, they had talked this over and all agreed to do that. Well, of course, when that one said that to me that sure made me mad. So I said, “Well, if any of you are not going out with me, they had better get on the dock because this tug is going out even if I have to take her out alone. And if they get on the dock they don’t work for me anymore.” Of course, I was mad to think someone was trying to tell me what to do with my tug. The one who said they weren’t going out got on the dock while the other three stayed aboard. They did not want to lose their jobs on one of the top money tugs on the south-shore.
We went out and put in a bad day but we got the nets and 3,000 lbs, of herring. I did not take that man back and he had ridden with me for some years. It turned out, as I found out later, the one who got off on the dock and lost his job was not the instigator of the mutiny but I did not know this at the time!
Some of the other fishermen who rode with me for several years and were considered among the best gill net fishermen on the south shore of. Lake Erie were: Ernest Holmgren, Carl Donaldson, Archie Bauman, William Tabb, Clyde Wellman, Harry Wellman, Vincent Harte and my son-in-law, C. Dud Rogers. There were many others but these were outstanding fishermen as I saw them and their work. These men are all gone except William Tabb of Erie, and C. Dud Rogers. Some of the best diesel engineers I knew well and worked for me were: Jerry Cranston, Alfred Seabrook, William Stephens, Roy Newman and Jerry Fabish.
Fishing Over the Line
I said I fished over the line in Canadian waters a lot. Well, somewhere around 1928 I was in Canadian waters out of Erie. The boundary patrol tug found and pulled $3,200 worth of my whitefish nets. I was able through the Kolbe Fisheries in Port Dover to buy them back at a cost of $2,000, some sad blow. Later one spring out of Lorain, I expect this was early 1931, the Canadian patrol tug took around $2,000 in perch nets. We did not get these back, someone overbid our bid put in by the Kolbe Company over there. This was another sad blow but if you play with fire you must expect to get burnt. All in all, I made much money from fishing. I took fish over there when tugs on this side had very light catches. Later I decided the reason for the good fishing over there was due to the lack of pollution- no industry. This came to light in later years when our Government was doing a lot of research and I had access to all the information. We had several encounters with the Canadian patrol tug in both ends of the Lake. Once he was alongside and said, “I’ll take your boat and all.” We were too fast and maneuverable for that never happened.
Here is how we fished over the line: Generally we left two drop buoys, flag buoys the same as ordinarily used on the nets this side. We used these two buoys near the line on our side, then run time and course from them to the nets which we set, which we called blind, nothing showing on the surface. Then we would throw over a drop buoy to serve as a marker indicating our dead reckoning position. From that we would grapple and pull them up and follow to a bridle, tie a standing buoy on and pull the short piece back to the end. Then we went back to the drop buoy and pulled that part of the net. Sometimes we fished different pieces nearby which meant we had to grapple for each. This was so if the patrol boat got hold of one piece he would only get that section. The time he got our whole gang of nets we had buoys on each end, not expecting him to be around. If we were many miles over the line we would usually leave drop buoys 20 or 30. minutes run from the blind nets.
Fog and Snow on the Lake
With the diesel engine running we could not hear another boat’s fog signals until we were real close by. One morning going out of Ashtabula in a real thick one, I heard a steamboat bound for Conneaut running on her full speed gait of probably 12 miles per hour. I stopped the diesel and as I did I could just make out the freighter ahead. I quickly started up and reversed and by the time I had the Charles R. stopped I believe one could have jumped from the freighter to my boat! This near collision was as close to death as I can remember while fishing although, of course, I experienced difficulties in many storms I came through when I was close to death, too. But thanks to someone who was along, seemingly to watch over us, we got safely through it all.
Finding nets in fog and snow was always a problem. Sometimes we would grapple nets in quite bad weather but I never liked to do this. At times we never got hold and had to come home for that day. Of course, around Erie there are many bars and shallows, and deep water or canals on the bottom, this shows on the good charts. We used the sounding lead line a lot so had good records in our log book when we set. I got to know the bottom of Lake Erie most everywhere from west of Lorain to way east of Erie, by years of experience. I knew where the bars, reefs and variations in depths were, the kinds of bottoms, clay, sand, cobble stone, etc. If I had known in my early days of fishing what I knew when I retired in 1961, I’m sure I could have been quite well-to-do!
Ice in the Lake
I have fished one time or another in all these ports- Huron, Vermilion, Lorain, Cleveland, Fairport, Ashtabula and Erie. Regarding ice in the Lake, we used to always lay up in late fall in Lorain. Sometimes we would run into ice west of Cleveland en route to Lorain but somehow we always got there for an early start in spring, on March 15th when the season opened. At times the ice would not be out so we would have to wait until it blew out, as it did there before it did in the lower ports. We usually fished out of Lorain for perch some weeks before moving the nets down to Fairport or Ashtabula. Generally we kept the nets aboard as we pulled off Lorain and then loaded them up and made the run to a lower port and set them off that port.
The tug Mavret H. (steel) was fast, 12 mi/hr. We were at Lorain and started fishing but there were so many perch that spring, tugs were catching several tons each, and the price went right down as there was no market for so many. We were all Kolbe tugs that year. They ordered their tugs home, three went to Erie and we went to Ashtabula but there were hardly any pike or whitefish there that spring. So we talked I. H. Kolbe into taking the perch to the Kolbe fish house in Ashtabula if we delivered them. We set our nets off Lorain again and fished perch there for several weeks, making the run to Ashtabula after lifting the nets with perch, then the run back to Lorain. We lived aboard the tug then and sometimes did late night running back from Ashtabula to Lorain, then would leave Lorain early in the morning to the nets. I remember it was around a 6 to 7-hour run from nets to Ashtabula. This was quite a spring but we made some money, more than tugs in Erie or Ashtabula, so it paid off. Some of the perch lifts were from over the line and mostly in tons each time we lifted and since the water was cold the fish held up well.
In early spring with ice on the Lake we had to use what we called ice poles, not standing flag buoys, as ice would freeze on these and break the bamboo staffs off or the buoy part would catch in the ice or freeze in and drag the nets. The ice poles were 12 or 18-foot 2 x 4s, cut diagonally into two pieces with a hole in the large end for the anchor line with a couple of rings, enough for the pole to float 2 to 3’ above the ice. The poles allowed the ice to run over them freely. Later when the ice fields were gone for sure we put standing buoys on in place of the ice poles which were laid away for next spring. The 2 x 4s had to be a good lightweight wood coated with linseed oil, painted well. Tug initials were painted in large letters such as MH or CR as on buoys. Leads were stamped to identify nets.
In the late fall, ice in Erie Bay would freeze up making the tugs work an hour or more getting out to the open lake. This would be the late fall herring fishing when we would be bringing in tons each day. We who wanted to be sure to get up the Lake to lay up for early spring fishing had to watch this condition carefully and pull our nets in time to avoid getting frozen in.
Back in those days everything was done by judgement based upon experience and the captain had to make the proper decisions. Now the whole condition is changed, with very expensive equipment on most tugs-radar, fish finder fathometer, ship-to-shore radio, USCG weather reports. All the equipment requires operational experience, but takes most of the experience I learned out of the fishing business. But I am thankful I had it all the hard way and am safely here at 86 years to tell about it.
Twine: For many years cotton thread was used for all small mesh twine and linen thread for big mesh twine, whitefish nets. This went on ‘til after the war, 1942-45. Then shortly after that, somewhere around 1950, the netting companies developed a nylon netting thread for twine. This, of course, did not absorb water and expand as the cotton and linen lines did so it way outfished the old twine. Also, it did not require washing and reeling which saved a lot of time and expense. The new twine cost more but it sure was worth it as it almost doubled the production per net over the cotton and linen nets.
So, eventually, as fast as we could, and could afford them, we all got into nylon nets. Some fishermen even had thousands of dollars worth of new linen nets and some were never used for whitefish. Some used these nets for big mesh yellow pike fishing and used them up that way. In yellow pike fishing the large fish were very hard on gear, tearing large holes in the nets, so were used up in that way.
Regular Gill Nets (Bottom Nets or Small Mesh Nets): These nets were usually small mesh, 2¾” measured stretched diagonally, and were set on the bottom with leads to sink them and corks to float them off the bottom like a fence in a vertical position. In a 12 to 15-box gang of nets there would be end buoys, also what is known as quarter buoys every 4 to 5 boxes, so if nets parted the extra buoy made finding easier in bad weather. These buoys had certain flags which were kept track of in the logbook. A single net would run from 150’ to 210’ with depths of 44” to 60”. All these dimensions are variables depending on mesh size and the individual fisherman requirements. With six nets to a box a gang setting could stretch out for 2 to 3½ miles.
Small mesh nets were usually 22 to 30 mesh deep, corks and leads about 6 to 7 feet apart, with a length of net about 25 to 30 corks. Large mesh nets for yellow pike would be 20 to 30 mesh deep or about 6’ to 9’ with 4¾” mesh and 150’ to 210’ long.
Canned Nets: Most all of herring fishing was done with canned nets. This was with cans about 2 gallon size (8” x 16” cylindrical) with lines on running down to the nets, floating it at a specific depth, where the fish were expected. The fish were off the bottom and we generally used two sets of can lines like 8 and 10 fathom lengths, this would be attached to a bridle-every other bridle-where the nets are connected. The net then would float at the 8 or 10 fathom depth sagging between canned bridles, the lowest part of the nets, and high at the bridled cans.
In pulling the nets the captain would watch to see where the greater number of fish were, at the cans or off bridle. Then when setting nets back he would regulate the can lines shorter or longer according to where the fish were, trying in this way to keep the nets at the depth of the fish as they lowered or raised in relation to the surface.
Late in the fall all fishing was without cans, with nets on the bottom. Can lines varied in regard to the depth of the water. When we fished below Erie in deep water the can lines would be as long as 18 to 20 fathoms in 25 to 30 fathoms of water. This part of Lake Erie is the deepest; just east of Long Point it is 33 fathoms deep. We fished there, too.
With canned nets we used 2-lb. weight rings, like quoits, on lower bridles under cans. The lower bridle or off bridle had a 1½ lb. ring for weight. These canned nets, later on after the herring were gone, were used for pike extensively at certain times of the year. The canned nets required a heavy double type anchor between each box of nets, one box generally was 6 to 8 nets. With these anchors we used 25 to 30 fathoms or longer on each end anchor depending upon the depth of the water. We had to have many coils of rope for anchor lines for this kind of fishing.
Sometimes in the spring when the water was ice cold we would have 5 to 6 gangs of nets in the Lake. In summer we generally had 1 to 2 gangs at the most. In the fall about the same as summer, which kept our stock of fish in good condition, lots of live ones when we pulled the nets-unless we had a bad storm which changed things some.
We fished out of Erie one fall in 1930 after we had the 12 mile an hour Mavret H. (steel). We started getting some herring about one hour’s run out of Erie. Kept getting a lot in the upper end, west end, each day, and moving nets that way each time ‘til we were west of the car ferry Ashtabula course north of Ashtabula. This would be 42 miles west of Erie, a long run. Finally we had to move back nearer Erie. Never did get a whole net full since the herring moved too fast westward for us to catch up with them.
A lot of folks think the currents in the Lake run one way like in rivers, but lake currents generally run one way on the top and the opposite way near the bottom. Canned nets had to be pulled a certain way that is out of the bow, inside the curve caused by the currents. A strong current made quite a bow or curve in a string of nets, between anchors; if the nets were pulled the other way the net webbing would come up wrapped around the lead line. This would always make a lot of work for the crew, sometimes hours, to clear this off before resetting the nets. So the captain had to see when he got to the nets which way they were bowed and if down the Lake he would have to go to the north end and pull out of the bow. So this also took a lot of time with canned nets. But sometimes, if not fishing in one long string, we would be fishing off bars and reefs where water depth changed several fathoms in a few boxes of nets. If fish were feeding and traveling within a short distance along the edge of the bar, we fished in pieces, 4 boxes starting each section or piece, 4 boxes on the shallow edge of the bar and sometimes we used the same can lines in all depths of water. Again we would lengthen can lines as water deepened, as sometimes the fish would travel just so far off the bottom, so we had to regulate the can line accordingly. To do all this line adjusting was a job so we had a special crew member we called the “can man” to just handle line lengths.
The captain would keep track of the depth of each box of nets and tell the can man what length of line he wanted for each box. This was a very important part of fishing canned nets as any error would put the nets out of the fish. This would show up in the next lift. This canned net fishing took a lot of care and pain for the captain and the crew, too.
Sometimes the fish would travel close along bars and reefs, and other times they would reach out into more distant areas and depths of waters. The captain had to decide about all this when pulling his nets, can line depth, water, etc., as where the fish would be at the next setting. This mostly applied to whitefish. The herring were a little different. They, as a rule, did not work around bars so much, but mostly in varied depths, out in deeper water generally. With canned nets we sometimes fished in 20 or 30 fathoms of water for weeks at a time, and used the same can line length for months or longer, generally using two line lengths like 10 and 12 fathoms, alternating in every other box.
I remember when we were on a ton limit a day for each tug. We fished down below Erie, one hour and 30 to 40 minutes in deep water, and we never moved our nets in a month, never using more than six boxes of nets. No other tugs were near us. The captains never liked to fish in this deep water. They always tried to talk me out of it saying “you will get caught down there some day in bad weather and not make it back.” But I kept at it and made money there lots of the time, when the others came in with light catches like fishing over the boundary line. Nets there were in 20 to 30 fathoms of water. We had to use very long stretch lines on the anchors so they would hold in the deep water.
I have not said anything about the use of canned nets for pike. With these fish it is different for they traveled near the surface so we had to use very short can lines, 2 to 3 fathoms, etc. We had to use cans on each net bridle to keep the nets near the surface and in the fish. We used some nets with small mesh such as 3” or smaller according to the law. The blue pike were generally lower from the surface, 3 to 4 fathoms. The yellow pike were large fish and large mesh nets 4¾” mesh same as whitefish were used for these, but the yellow pike were mostly near the surface and quite close to shore as a rule, on the edge of reefs and bars. As many as a ton or more at one lift was taken. With the short can lines we had to keep out of steamboat lanes as they would run through the nets and part them with a lot of damage so this was a hazard. I have known of nets so near the surface having lots of fish in them, that windy weather with a sea running would cause the fish to come to the surface. This would really create some work. This did not happen often but I have seen it. We seldom used this method for blue pike but the Canadians did, quite extensively. As I think back now, I don’t really believe these canned nets should have been allowed, legally, as in a few years the yellow pike was practically extinct. They are now getting quite plentiful with the pollution clearing and a lot of hatching and restocking for some years. Of course, most of the yellow pike taken in large mesh nets were of several pounds per fish size. I have seen some around three feet long which was an exceptionally large one, but taking that size fish out of the Lake surely took a large amount of spawn away as these fish would lay large quantities of eggs. I suppose the reason for them traveling so near the surface was the food they wanted there.
Bull Nets: These nets were 100 mesh deep, of 3” mesh or what was required by law. They had a vertical center line every 50 mesh so if the net tore it would be easier to repair. These nets would be 16 to 18 feet deep, the floats and leads much closer together-3 to 4 feet-and were fished four nets to the box. Most of the time, due to heavy catches of herring, a ton to 2,500 pounds limit was the rule. We fished 4 to 6 boxes to get this limit. These nets were never used on the bottom, always canned. Bull nets were started in use by Barcelona, New York fishermen with small gasoline tugs. Later they were used by all tugs. After the herring were depleted, quite a few states, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania began to outlaw this type of net in late 1920 or early 1930. They were legally discontinued. We would have all been better off if these nets had never been allowed in the first place. I said this at the start of it all. We would have better prices and not so many fish would have been taken out of the Lake, and sometimes a lot were wasted or ruined with this overproduction, Lots of tugs, in order to be sure of their limit, each day would fish more nets than necessary and catch over their limit, so these extra fish were dumped overboard. This was complete destruction and waste. Of course, not all tugs did this but some did. As the company only paid for the limit each day per tug, some adjustment was made by some companies by taking the over limit and giving to the tugs that were short of the limit. This helped a lot.
Bull nets were so deep that cans were used on each bridle so as to keep them up more evenly in the right place. Net length was somewhat shorter, I believe 36 corks long, but a lot closer together. Their reaching so far up and down in the Lake was the reason they caught so many fish. There is a lot of difference between 6 feet and 18 feet in net depth.
The distance between corks and leads varied according to the captain’s preference. Each one had his own ideas regarding length of nets and space between corks and leads. We used 4 to 6-foot depths on bottom nets so if the lead line snagged and parted there would not be so much damage to repair.
If I had been in charge I would not have allowed the gill net mesh size to grow smaller and smaller as the fish stock diminished in the Lake. While some of the fish depletion was caused by over fishing with smaller mesh nets, the smaller fish taken caused less spawn eggs to be produced as the small fish do not contain near as much spawn as the large fish.
I also would never have allowed the bull nets to be used for taking herring as there was just too much overproduction and a lot of fish were destroyed that way. Also, I would not have allowed the use of canned nets to catch large yellow pike.
But I believe the greatest destroyer of fish in the Lakes was the fact that pollution was getting worse, which caused the fish food plankton to decrease. I believe this is the reason why fishing for years in Canada was much better than on this side. What was needed, and it took a half a century of wonderous fishing to prove it, was comprehensive, reasonable, and factual control of the catches and pollution to maintain the almost magical fish production in our glorious Lake Erie. I don’t think I would have done more than that, and that I tried to do, but was considerably outnumbered by the “get-it-now” attitude which was so prevalent in that period. But I am thankful to have been a part of this great industry all those years with the Good Lord’s help.
So there it is, we have been fishing with Charlie Hoskins for 60 years with a stint in the U.S. Coast Guard as a firefighter. I feel as if I know enough to be a real commercial fisherman now! I know how to catch the various fish in Lake Erie, know where they hover in the water, how the bottom of the Lake is almost as if I could visually see it. Furthermore, I know the hard work and long hours required to make a living off the Lake, the feel of cold winds chilled from the lake ice and wet soggy twine pulled from the deeps; the fear of gale winds and mountainous seas piling up ahead in a fountain of spray as we make for home, tired, rolling our ears off and worrying about the engines- will they keep going? It’s a rugged and tough life, this fishing on the Great Lakes, but I am glad to have had the chance to go to sea with Captain Hoskins. It was an experience I would not have wanted to miss and yet I don’t believe I would have actually been able to cope with the reality of being a commercial fisherman!
And so, we have now run the gamut of a man’s life on Lake Erie, starting with a barefoot boy along the beach on a silent, frosty night, to an expert fisherman rolling home with a large catch aboard his tug, while the rumble of a diesel beats a rhythmic salute to the passing years.
George P. Wakefield