Fishing in Lake Superior – April 1946

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By William E. Scott

Commercial Fishing is one of those occupations which is accompanied by dull routine and severe hardships. However, there is a certain glamor and romance connected with it such as is accompanied by few other occupations. Fishing on Lake Superior is especially fascinating and hazardous because of the treacherous character of the lake. Sudden storms, dangerous off-shore winds, fogs, shoals and spring ice floes are elements with which the Lake Superior fisherman is constantly fighting.


Tourists along the North Shore of Lake Superior are greatly interested in its fisheries. The usual question they ask is “What kinds of fish are there in the lake?” Those found in greatest abundance are herring and trout. The tonnage of herring greatly exceeds that of trout. It is estimated that almost 5,000,000 pounds of herring are taken annually from the Minnesota shore of Lake Superior while the trout catch is about 1,000,000 pounds. There are about five times as many men fishing herring as there are trout fishermen. The herring belongs to the whitefish family, members of which include the herring, whitefish, menomonee (round whitefish), cisco, and bluefin. The more common native species of lake trout are redfin, Mackinaw, “salmon” (red-fleshed), black, speckled, and rainbow trout. The latter two species, together with the pike, are game fish which come into the lake from inland lakes and streams. These are caught occasion


ally in nets near the mouths of rivers and in harbors although sometimes they are found two or three miles away from the mouths of streams. There are also a number of “introduced” salmonoids which are thriving, including brown trout, Lock Levans, steelheads, and Pacific coast salmon. Ciscoette trout, suckers, and lawyers are also occasionally caught.

In general, the members of the whitefish family live near the surface of the lake while members of the trout family live on or towards the lake bottom. All of these fish are on the bottom during the spawning season. The fish that live towards the surface may be called “top fish” while those that live towards the bottom may be called “bottom fish.” Both the herring and trout are caught with nets, although the trout, when they live in upper intermediate water levels, are caught with set lines.

In certain circles, there is a belief that herring and bluefin are the same fish. That is not true. The bluefin is a larger fish, almost twice the size of the herring. It is generally 1 ½ to 2 pounds heavier and is shorter and wider, especially through the back. It is named from the color of the fins which are a pretty blue. This species of fish is fast disappearing. There are three or four common kinds of herring classified according to the colors of their backs, as, brown-backs, blue-backs, and green­backs.  The bluefin and also the whitefish, cisco, and menomonee have the appearance and look like herring, although they differ from them in their habits in that they all live towards the bottom of the lake. The ciscoette trout is not like the ordinary lake trout. Neither is it like a cisco. It is not a scale fish and is full of oil. It grows to be as heavy as thirty or forty pounds. It should be smoked or salted before eaten.

A friend of mine, although he lives on the North Shore, had a sad but interesting experience with a ciscoette trout. He had invited guests from another region of the state to a fish dinner and went to a fisherman to buy some fresh trout. There was none to be had that day, but the fisherman said he had a ciscoette trout. That sounded all right to my friend. The fish looked good to him and over the protests of the fisherman, who said the fish wasn’t any good to serve for dinner, he bought it and took it home to be prepared for the meal.  The fish seemed full of grease and oil, but looked very appetizing, although his wife did say: “My, John, that thing is terribly fat.” However, it was put on the table and all the guests remarked about the fine looking fish and whetted their appetites for the coming sumptuous repast.  John, at the head of the table, proudly felt the fish with his fork. Then he jabbed it into the fish. Immediately, he thought he had struck an oil well because the oil from the fish squirted up to the ceiling. He then opened the fish and found there was not enough meat in it to serve one person; all the rest was oil. The guests finished their dinner with pork chops.

Herring are caught by using floating nets about 300 feet long and 11 feet wide. There are lead weights at intervals at the bottom of these nets to keep them down in the water. The tops of the nets are attached to floaters so the nets really float at all times. In other words, herring are caught by top nets.

Trout, on the other hand, are caught sometimes with nets, and sometimes with lines set near the bottom. The ordinary trout nets are set on reefs and in shallow water. The nets for ciscoette trout, which are valuable commercially, are set in very deep water – 300 to 800 feet in depth. A trout line has baited hooks on it about every 60 feet and above each hook is a floater.

Fishermen Mending Nets

The Johnson brothers, well-known fishermen along the North Shore, for example, fish during the spring and summer at Isle Royale.  For trout they go out on the lake from one to twenty-five miles to fish. Even on dull and foggy days when they can see only 100 feet ahead, they go to their trout lines twenty-five miles away. They use an oil compass, know the running time and run their course out to their lines. It was mentioned before that ordinary herring nets are only about 300 feet long. How then can a fisherman find his trout lines when they are twenty-five miles out on the lake? The answer is that these set lines are often ten miles or more in length and therefore by changing their course occasionally, fishermen can pick up their lines when they get in the vicinity. Sometimes, large ships pass over the lines, but little damage is done because only the floaters are on the surface.  The average depth of the lines is about 65 feet. The boats slip over the top line, so only a few floaters are ruined.

The best times of the year to fish trout are in the spring and in the fall. Every good fisherman knows the habits of lake trout and can tell where they are at any particular time of the year. In the spring, the trout are far out in the lake, as far as twenty-five miles, at least they are caught that far out. Towards the latter part of July, they come towards the shore and live on reefs. A little later they are ready to leave for their spawning grounds where they stay for a period of about two weeks. They generally start to spawn about September 20th and a succession of species may be found on the reefs near the shore from that date to the end of November.

Lake trout spawn in September, October and November, and at that time of the year they run very much in pairs. When fish are caught during that period, the fisherman strip into a pan the milt of the male fish and the spawn of the female. The eggs are left standing in the pan for four or five minutes after which water is poured on them. The milt is cleaned away from the spawn, and then the spawn is allowed to stand in a pail of water for four or five hours in order to give it a chance to toughen. The spawn is then placed in rows on trays made of screen. Finally, it is watered once a day until it is shipped to the fish hatchery where it is kept in running water till April. By that time the spawn has developed into small fry which are shipped back to be planted in the big lake.

After the trout are through spawning on the reefs, they leave and go back into deep water where, apparently, they stay all winter. After the danger of spring ice floes is past, the fishermen resume fishing for trout from one to twenty-five miles out at sea.

Herring Catch, 1918

The habits of the herring are somewhat different.  In the spring of the year, the herring will come into the harbors and along the shore where they remain until about July. They then disappear and the supposition is that they go far out into the lake. At that time of the year very few herring are caught. They come back in October and stay near shore until late November when they are through spawning. There seems to be some difference of opinion as to whether the herring or the trout is the cleaner fish, but the Johnson brothers maintain that the trout is the cleaner. They say that the trout seems to be more particular about the kind of water it lives in. It will not stay in muddy or roily water after a storm is over, for example, but will go out deep into the lake and will not return until the water is clear again. The habits of the herring are somewhat similar, but they are not quite as particular as the trout and will be found in more cloudy water.

At the bottom of some parts of Lake Superior is a certain type of blue clay. When the fishermen go far out into the lake they look for shoals or reefs. They search for them and must discover the depths of these reefs. They do so by sounding out with a piece of lead weighing five or six pounds in which is made a hole, and in this hole is put a piece of lard or butter. When this is dropped to the bottom of the lake, if it strikes clay, the clay will stick to it and will be brought to the surface. If the bottom is rocky, nothing will adhere to the lead.

The writer asked one well-versed fisherman what he thought would be the agricultural possibilities of the bottom of the lake were it to run dry. Would the bottom be mostly rock or would it be of the nature of clay? The fisherman thought the bottom of the lake was largely rock, although there is considerable clay between Duluth and Grand Marais. He was not optimistic.

The tourist naturally wants to know how he, himself, can catch fish. He can catch fish by trolling. The trolling season lasts from July until September 15th.  Very good trolling may be had during this period, and if an amateur goes out with an experienced fisherman he may be sure of getting a nice catch.

The dangers in Lake Superior are thrilling. A few years ago two men sailed a small boat forty-two feet in length from Norway to Duluth in honor of the Leif Erickson Celebration. The feat was heralded all through the country as a brave and daring one. The skipper of this little boat told a fisherman friend of mine that of all the journey, no part of the trip, including the crossing of the ocean, was nearly as dangerous as the last day they spent coming across Lake Superior to Duluth in a northeaster. The skipper remarked on the stamina and courage which a fisherman must have in order to fish in the Lake Superior waters.

During the winter, fishing is often done through the ice, and it is a common occurrence to have big ice floes cut off from the mainland carrying off some of these hardy fishermen. Sometimes rescues are effected and sometimes they are not.

Another source of danger during the summer months, especially towards evening, is the off-shore winds. It is impossible for a fisherman to make shore by rowing against a strong off-shore wind. Even motor boats have difficulty in making the shore. Sometimes fogs come up suddenly and when they do it is often disastrous for these hardy men, especially if they do not happen to be equipped with a compass. A U. S. Coast Guard is stationed at Two Harbors, and one of its common duties is to rescue fishermen who are being blown out toward the middle of the lake, or who have been lost in fog. The storms that come up often arise without warning. Many fishermen are lost annually through the terrible lashings given their boats by the angry storms of Lake Superior.

On one occasion off Knife River, two young men were putting out their nets for herring. Suddenly, one of the men was tangled in the anchor line of the nets and pulled overboard into the cold lake. The weights attached to the nets were pulling him down when he was caught by his companion, who had great difficulty in pulling him back into the boat, but finally did so at a great risk to his own life.

As one journeys up and down the North Shore Road, he is not only impressed with the beauties of the scenery and the moods of the lake, but he is also deeply impressed by the occupation of the hardy and valiant men who inhabit the little fishing houses along the shore.

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Author’s Note: This article is a result not only of the author’s own personal observation, but also of information received at various times from conversation with Lake Superior fishermen. To the Johnson brothers, Milford and Arnold, of  Isle Royale, and to Mr. R. E. Gale, Superintendent of the French  River Fish Hatchery, he is especially indebted for much of the information herein related.  (This article first appeared in Inland Seas in April 1946)

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