Early fishing on Lake Winnipeg — an important resource serving aboriginals and settlers

by Bruce Cherney

Since its formation from the remnants of glacial Lake Agassiz some 7,500 years ago, Lake Winnipeg has been a haven for fishers. First Nations people caught fish using weirs, harpoons, hooks and nets at the mouths of its many tributaries or in the lake’s shallows. 

The arrival of spring meant that spawning runs of millions of fish entered tributaries along the lake, including Grand Rapids where the Saskatchewan River enters Lake Winnipeg. The earliest evidence of fishing in the boreal forest of Manitoba is found at this site, represented by bone harpoons, and dates to between 3,000 BC and 1,000 BC. That nets were used is determined by archaeological evidence of stone net-sinkers and net impressions in their pottery.

People of the Laurel Culture, which commenced about 2,000 years ago and ended around 900 AD, built weirs to trap and then spear fish. Fish were also caught with dip and gill nets, basket traps and snares. Others travelled the shallows in birch-bark canoes and speared fish. 

Fishing was so important to First Nations people that, of the seven clans of the Ojibway, members of the Fish clan were called the intellectuals, and were sometimes referred to as “star-gazers.” Because of their perceived intelligence, they were often counted upon to resolve disputes within the tribe. 

John Fleming described aboriginal people fishing on the Dauphin River, which flows from Lake St. Martin into Lake Winnipeg, about four miles from its mouth, on August 30, 1858. 

He said the native people were at the rapids, “scooping large numbers of excellent white-fish from the eddies ... enclosures were constructed, beside which an Indian stood with a large scoop-net attached to a pole ... he scooped them from eddies in his vicinity ... The Indians were curing the fish without salt, splitting them very thin and drying them in the sun.”

Henry Houle Hind, appointed by the government of Upper and Lower Canada to explore the region as a geologist and naturalist, described a variation of the practice several days later on the Pike, or Jack-Fish, River, which is now called the Fisher River and enters Lake Winnipeg’s Fisher Bay near the community of Koostatak: “The Indians catch fish by means of these weirs or traps in large numbers ... the traps varying in construction ... The one by which we were fortunately enabled to procure a supply of fish at the Pike River consisted of a fence of poles, stretching from one side of the river to the other; they were sloping in the direction of the current ... and allowed the water to pass through but not the fish ...  there was an opening in the weir about a yard in width to allow the fish descending the river to pass into a rectangular box, with a grated bottom sloping upwards, through which the water flowed and left the fish dry. 

“... an Indian sits beside it all night with a wooden mallet in his hand, with which he strikes the larger fish on the head to prevent them from jumping out. He is kept busily employed pitching them out on the bank, and in the morning there is a large heap for the women to clean and cut up.”

With the arrival of Europeans and the establishment of fur trading posts and communities, fishing for commercial purposes emerged on the lake. In the beginning, native people were primarily engaged in this trade — fish were still predominately for local consumption. The fishery was of such importance that many bands in their treaty agreements of the early 1870s selected reserves that were located near water. For example, the Ojibway selected St. Peter’s Reserve, near present-day East Selkirk, because of its access to fishing grounds in the Red River and Lake Winnipeg.

Alexander Ross (1783-1856), a fur trader and local historian, said that during periods of famine in the Red River Settlement, fish commanded a high price. He wrote that in 1822, “a Swiss” (presumably one of the des Meuron soldiers brought to protect the settlement by Lord Selkirk) on the verge of starvation, gave five shillings — a tidy sum at the time — for six very small goldeye.

W.T. Urquhart, a clerk with the North West Council of Winnipeg, in 1872 estimated that the catch for whitefish — known to native people as Titameg — on Lake Winnipeg was 40,000 to 50,000 fish in that year. Their value was 16 shillings per hundred fish for local consumption, which works out to four cents per fish that weighed on average four pounds.

“In these great fresh-water seas there is an unlimited quantity of rich and finely flavoured whitefish, or Titameg, besides other fish,” wrote R.M. Ballantyne (1825-1894) in his book The Buffalo Runners. “But Titameg are only to be caught in large quantities during autumn, and of course much of the success of fishing depends on weather — one gale sometimes visiting the fishermen with ruin — ruin all the more complete that the nets which may be carried away have in many cases to be paid for out of the produce of the season’s fishing.”

It was reported in 1890 that about 100,000 pounds of whitefish were sold in Winnipeg, and that whitefish sold in Selkirk cost five cents a pound.

But, by the start of the 20th century, the whitefish industry was in trouble. A Royal commission report reached the conclusion that the lakes of Manitoba had been overfished, “and that some of valuable specie such as the whitefish and yellow pickerel have decreased very seriously in size and abundance in these waters, and that the sturgeon, the most value fish in these waters, is on the point of extinction.”

Johan Solmundson, a clergyman and secretary of the fishermen’s union, said: “The story of the whitefish is identical with the buffalo. The lake was filled with whitefish when the white man came here first, and it is through the white man’s work that it is gone ... this has all come about in thirty short years.”

Of course, whitefish didn’t go the way of the buffalo, but for a time their numbers had dropped to dangerously low numbers through the introduction of large-scale commercial fishing to satisfy the American market.

J.P. Skaptason, a former deputy-director of the federal fisheries department, said commercial fishing began on a small scale in 1872 when a few enterprising men in Winnipeg built a half-decked boat, equipped it with seine nets and journeyed to the Little Saskatchewan River to establish a fishing station to supply Winnipeg with fresh and salted fish — chiefly whitefish.

Commercial fishing on Lake Winnipeg intensified with the arrival of  the Icelandic settlers who had a tradition of fishing.

A report by John Taylor, Sigtryggur Jonasson and Einar Jonasson, sent ahead to scout for the location of the new colony, commented on the wealth of fish available in Lake Winnipeg. “Its waters are teeming with fish of various kinds. Indians fish with nets the year round, and though their equipment seemed poor to us — they are able to live off their catch ... The fish will undoubtedly prove a good trade item, and there are also several other common varieties including sturgeon, pike, goldeye, sunfish, pickerel, and sauger.”

Just days after 250 Icelanders landed at Willow Point, near present-day Gimli, on October 21, 1875, those who had brought nets with them tried their hand at fishing but to no success. Although skilled on the high seas of the North Atlantic, the nets they brought had too large a mesh and fish simply slipped through without becoming entangled.

As an incentive to keep trying, Canadian government agent John Taylor offered a prize of $5 to the first man who caught a fish. It was reported that Kristmundur Benjaminsson claimed the prize, catching a goldeye in his net, a species totally unfamiliar to the Icelanders. 

Goldeye, besides being the name of Winnipeg’s professional ball club, would later become a much-sought-after delicacy. But, that would only come when people outside the native communities discovered smoking it turned it into a savoury treat, otherwise the flesh is too soft and mushy to cook and eat. Despite their eventual conversion into a tasty delight, goldeye then sold for only one cent a pound. 

The Free Press reported that over one million pounds of goldeye were caught each year. The species is still plentiful but the numbers now caught pale in comparison to then.

The first known fish buyer in Gimli was Fridjon Fridrikson, who offered eight cents per whitefish during the winter of 1877-78. His bulk price in Winnipeg was 10 cents a fish — apparently neither weight nor the size of the fish had a bearing on the transaction. 

It was reported that in 1879-80, from 15,000 to 20,000 whitefish were sold by settlers from New Iceland at an average of 15 cents per fish.

Winter didn’t stop the trade. Three teams of horses owned by settlers were reported in Framfari, a New Iceland newspaper, to be kept busy between Grindstone, Gimli and Winnipeg hauling fish by sled.

The Canadian department of fisheries in 1887 reported that the major firms employed 80 whites, 185 Indians and 40 “half-breeds.”

The Logberg, an Icelandic-Canadian newspaper, reported that a few years later about 3,000 Icelanders and some 2,000 First Nations people were fishing on Lake Winnipeg.

Natives initially fished for both food and to make fish oil. When a commercial demand was established, they traded both fish and oil for “flour, bacon, tea tobacco, twine, clothing, &c., supplied from two stores doing a thriving trade in this locality,” wrote Fisheries inspector Alex McQueen in 1886.

It was said that a 50-pound sturgeon would yield a gallon of oil to burn in lamps and to soften homespun wool in handwoven blankets.

Sturgeon, a fish which can live for 150 years or more and is slow to reach sexual maturity, were considered so plentiful in Manitoba that they were used like cord wood to fuel steamboats — their oil content was so high that they readily burned. Of course, sturgeon put under such pressures soon began to disappear. 

In 1897, the value of sturgeon and its products, such as caviar, doubled and then tripled, according to Tupper.

Native fishers were reported to make a good living from selling sturgeon, receiving as much as $1 for a whole fish — even if only used to obtain caviar, sturgeon were always sold round, that is, whole. In 1902, 5,200 sturgeon netted $5,200 for the First Nations people of Nelson River, but this also meant that a significant amount of food (sturgeons of the period averaged 26 pounds) was lost to them.

Commercial sturgeon fishing peaked in the period from 1900 to 1906 with over 600,000 pounds caught each year. By 1910, the catch had tumbled to less than 100,000 pounds.

Today, Manitoba sturgeon are considered endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife. Terry Dick, a University of Manitoba zoologist, wrote a report urging that the federal government protect sturgeon.

The inspector for Indian Agencies, E. McColl, said in 1881 that: “The reckless and improvident destruction of (white) fish by Indians during the spawning season, more especially for the manufacture of oil for traffic, is gradually exhausting the supply, and will eventually deprive them (at lake St. Martin) of their principal source of subsistence ...”

But, there was plenty of blame for the demise of fish to go around. In 1884, the Indian agent at Berens River, said that natives resented the encroachment of fishermen from Winnipeg, “who if allowed to continue the destruction of whitefish and sturgeon at the present rate, will eventually exhaust the supply and deprive them of their principle source of subsistence.”

Inspector McColl reported in 1884 that the chief at Fairford was complaining about restrictions “prohibiting Indians from fishing on the Little Saskatchewan River, whereas speculators form Winnipeg had been scooping and dragging whitefish by thousands daily ... before they ascend to the upper lakes and rivers to spawn.”

Yet, while the natives continued to oppose the white fishermen, they still sold vast quantities of fish to traders. Brokenhead at the south end of Lake Winnipeg, according to the fisheries department report for 1884, thrived because of the trade, “as the fishing was good, men from Winnipeg came and bought the fish from them at their doors, giving fair prices, they were therefore comfortable throughout the year.” 

In 1884, the quantity of whitefish exported from Manitoba was 359,000 pounds at a little less than four cents a pound. Surprisingly, the cost in Winnipeg for whitefish was eight cents a pound, 10 cents a pound for sturgeon and three cents a pound for pickerel.

“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,” said McQueen in 1884.

The fisheries department said in 1890 that natives in the south basin set long gangs of nets but “only caught from one hundred to eight hundred apiece of small whitefish; whereas, the previous year they caught with two nets of equal length from ten thousand to twenty thousand each for the winter’s supply.”

McColl told Indian Affairs in 1889 that the commercial fishery and the depletion of the fish stock was having a grave social impact on aboriginals. “Since the commencement of those fisheries their reserves are not properly cultivated, their gardens are frequently neglected and their houses are often deserted. At the approach of winter, when the fishing season is over, they return to their homes empty-handed and heavy-hearted, to wander about in search of food to keep themselves and families from starving.”

Eventually, the bands surrounding the lake came to the realization that the trend could not continue and began to ask for some checks on the fishery. They at first requested exclusive fishing reserves, but, the fisheries department supported the commercial industry to the detriment of natives fishing for their own consumption.

Alex McQueen, the inspector for fisheries, argued that lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba were large enough to support commercial fishing and that because 2,000 native people were directly and indirectly dependent on the fishery, it was a valuable industry for First Nations people. But, his views were not held outside the department.

“In consequence of the enormous quantities of whitefish exported annually from lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba to the United States and the wanton destruction of other varieties of fish which are caught in large numbers along with the others in the nets and dumped in huge piles on the shores in the vicinities of the fisheries and left there to putrefy ... the commercial fishery wasted resources,” said McColl.

Wilmot set out in 1890 to investigate fishing conditions on Lake Winnipeg and determine if a massive depletion of the resource was taking place. He came to agree with the natives that commercial practices were the cause of the decline and recommended closing off Sturgeon Bay at the mouth of the Saskatchewan River and other parts of the lake to commercial fishing. He said that the government should enter into a compromise that benefitted the requirement of “the Indian, settler and the fish trader” because “each have their rights and are entitled to full consideration as inhabitants of the country.”

He agreed that there should be exclusive First Nations fishing grounds, but said it was undesirable that the government provide them with larger nets and boats to seek fish in distant and deeper areas of the lake because they would be in competition with non-native fishermen. If they wanted to fish in other areas, they would have to find their own means to do so, he added.

The companies were not encumbered by such considerations. They had steam-powered tugs and could move to another part of the lake whenever the fish of one area became scarce.

In 1881, Daniel F. Reid and Dave Clark, two young easterners, operated one sailboat on Lake Winnipeg, bringing their catch to Winnipeg.

An article in the New Iceland-based newspaper Heimskringla, written by Stefan Sigurdsson of Hnausa, who grew up in Hecla, said that the two men had  started off fishing near Hecla Island that summer though they had fared poorly. 

But, “1893 was an excellent year — a single boat getting as much as 900 fish per day, which is the best possible anywhere on the lake. The catch was very poor again in 1884, however, so this company pulled up stakes and moved further north on the lake. It was barely possible to catch enough whitefish for home use from 1884 to 1886, but numbers have increased steadily since that time ...”

The advent of a rail line from Selkirk to Winnipeg hailed a new era in the commercial fishing industry, allowing direct transportation to the American market which Reid and Clark took advance of.

In 1887, there were 65 sailboats and seven tugs and barges operating on the lake. According to the fisheries branch of the Manitoba government, 2.5 million pounds of fish were taken from the lake in that year which was worth $114,000.

Some of Wilmot’s recommendations became regulations on the lakes. A commercial and domestic licensing system was imposed and restrictions were placed on where commercial companies could operate. 

But, an article in Heimskringla called the Wilmot rules that resulted from his recommendations “the most stupid regulations ever enacted.” The newspaper reported that Wilmot had only made a brief trip north on the lake and then only with representatives of one of the major companies.

The resulting closure of the south basin was obviously a blow to the Icelanders, many of whom relied upon fishing to supplement their food supply. Letters of protest were sent to Ottawa which resulted in the restoration of the settlers’ right to fish for local use.

Whatever the regulations, the total commercialization of the fishery did not stop and those who purchased local fish were increasingly becoming foreign-based.

“When a (local) firm starts business as a rule they go to some firm in the United States, as there is no market in this country,” said Captain Robinson in a 1893 interview with fisheries officials, “and they make arrangements, probably in the beginning, to get a certain amount of money, and as to the price of fish.”

A Winnipeg fishmonger said catering to a foreign market meant that the best quality fish was leaving the country and local people were paying exorbitant prices for poorer quality fish. 

In 1896, inspector R. La Touche Tupper reported to Ottawa that 10 commercial fishing licences had been issued for Lake Winnipeg. He said one firm took 104,000 pounds of fish out the lake in one haul.

It was reported that two brothers named Adam and Hugh Black from Selkirk were fishing on the lake in 1879-80 and freighting their catch south.

Booth Fisheries of Chicago began to take notice of the new source of whitefish (the Great Lakes fishery was in decline) and set up a number of smaller companies that were to sell only to Booth — the creation of a monopoly on the lake. Under this system, the parent company sent capital to the subsidiaries operating on the lake which in turn advanced money to outfit fishermen with sailboats and nets for the season. 

This was a type of feudal servitude whereby the fishermen were indebted to the smaller subsidiary companies which were indebted to the parent company. All fishermen’s labour was subordinated to American capital, according to the book, As Their Natural Resources Fail: Native People and the Economic History of Northern Manitoba (1996), by Frank Tough.

The smaller companies and the fishermen were forced to make due with the money given by Booth regardless of production costs, according to Nelson S. Gerrard’s book, Icelandic River Saga. As a result, the smaller companies usually went broke after a few years, but Booth encouraged other companies to step in and take their place — most of these companies were based in Selkirk. 

Fishermen in need of jobs were forced into serving the company and made little fuss, except in the instance of Robinson Fish Co. of Selkirk which was forced by a group of Icelanders to make reparations as reported in Heimskringla on May 1, 1895. The men were hired to fish in the north basin of Lake Winnipeg with the understanding that if they voluntarily left the job within three months they were to pay the company $5 in compensation for each month they did not work. After a month and a half, 12 men were laid off without notification and were sent to Selkirk.

“We then demanded, upon receiving our wages,” wrote Bjorn Gudmundsson, “that the company pay us for at least two full months — but to no avail.”

The men then filed a claim against the company which was upheld and the company was ordered to pay them full wages for “the three months, including a sum for board and travelling expenses, and we have now all received our share ...”

In the winter of 1898, to combat the hold the companies had over the fishermen, the Fishermen’s Protective Union of Lake Winnipeg was formed at Gimli. For a brief period of time, the union was able to market their own fish and received better terms from the companies, but the entrenched nature of the companies’ power meant there was a return to the old ways.

Next, George M. Bradley of Selkirk laid the case against the American-based companies before the federal government in 1909, and a Royal commission was established. Fishermen were actually in a difficult position, wrote Gerrard, and found it awkward to testify against the companies which were often their creditors. The final report was filed away and forgotten.

A strike was organized in 1914, but this was broken when the companies began to hire fishermen from the Great Lakes. Without a prospect of better terms and conditions, the fishermen returned to work for the companies.

Small locally-based companies did try to break into the business. The brothers Hannes and Johannes in the mid-1880s started a company in Gimli. Jon Jonsson along with his son Jon Johnson and Stefan Jonsson and his son Kjartan Stefansson started a business at Gull Harbour on Hecla Island, eventually building an ice house and a ship called the Ida.

The Sigurdsson brothers of Hecla, Stefan and Johannes, started out as fish buyers, and relocated their business to Hnausa where they succeeded in getting a government dock built in 1895 and then acquired a large boat called Lady of the Lake in 1897.

Riverton also became a centre of fishing on the lake with companies setting up their sheds, including companies from Selkirk. Sigurdson Fisheries moved from Hnausa and started operating out of Riverton in 1921. This company rapidly expanded to become one of the largest fishing outfitters on the lake. They had stations at Black Bear, Berens River, Catfish Creek, Spider Island, Kinwow Bay and George’s Island.

The stations served as bases for the fishing season. During the 1913 season, Gudmundur (Jim) Peterson said in the book Gimli Saga that they set out for their north basin fish station aboard the Wolverine from Gimli with stops at Little Bullhead, Berens River, Warren’s Landing and finally to Horse Island.

Sailboats were towed out to where the nets would be set. Even the tug fished that summer, said Peterson, adding that fishing was poor regardless of where they set their nets.

“As a rule the sailboats came in late in the afternoon,” said Peterson. “Then the fish were dressed and put in bins to be iced and chilled, then taken out and put in a large wooden trough, from which they were scooped out and pan frozen. This work was mostly done at supper. In the morning the fish were frozen solid and when taken out of the pans they were dipped in water and and had a nice glaze on, then put in boxes in the freezer. The ice and salt used to freeze these fish was used to charge up the freezer, which was cold enough to keep the fish frozen — a big freezer which held hundreds of boxes. Every time the Wolverine came in, it was emptied.”

Peterson said that beside the lack of fish, the price offered was poor. “Towards the end of June the fishermen knew they couldn’t possibly get enough fish to pay their expenses, so they were going to stop fishing unless the company would guarantee the wages for the men.” 

The manager of the Winnipeg Fish Company, Tom Jones, came out on the next boat and had a meeting with the fishermen. He guaranteed wages for the hired men and for the boat runners so they kept on fishing.

The summer whitefish season was from June 1 to August 15 with a basin-wide limit allotted among the company-owned fish stations. This limit was then portioned out to the foremen (skippers) of the boats. These foremen applied to the companies to fish for them, according to the Gimli Saga, “and if accepted received a license to fish, and engaged their own hired men, generally two to a boat.”

The fish companies supplied the foremen with everything that was needed. “Some had no supplies of their own; others might have some corks, nets, or a boat, and would order what they needed in addition. The foreman received so much per pound from his catch, from which all the cost of supplies furnished was deducted. His receipts varied enormously ... sometimes he might even find himself in debt to the company.”

The large fish companies ruled the lake until the advent of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, a federal Crown corporation with headquarters in Winnipeg, which was formed in  1969. The FFMC’s mandate is to establish new markets and increase returns to the fishers on all the waterways across Western Canada and the northern territories that are used for commercial fishing.

Manitoba is one of the largest producers of freshwater fish in Canada. Nearly 3,500 Manitobans obtain a living from the commercial fishing and the industry contributes nearly $24.5 million annually directly to the province’s economy and another $50 million in value-added fish products.

Today, fishermen in the south basin mostly fish for pickerel and sauger — a bycatch is tulibee and goldeye for smoking — in the open water (summer and fall) and winter seasons. Those in the north basin still predominately go after whitefish in the summer, but in the summer and fall also catch other fish such as sauger, pickerel and jacks (northern pike). Pickerel accounts for 47 per cent of the paid value in Manitoba due to its high market price. 

Annually established quotas on Lake Winnipeg determine the amount of fish each licence holder can catch each season.

Lake Winnipeg has been continually in the news in recent weeks, especially with the threat of the Devils Lake outlet — potential to introduce destructive foreign biota — and the appearance of massive algae blooms brought on by pollution from municipal and agricultural sources on both sides of the border. 

If changes aren’t made to curb the influx of phosphates and nitrates which feed the algae, it is predicted that the lake will soon be depleted of oxygen and die and a multi-million dollar recreational and commercial fishery will be lost. In addition, millions of dollars worth of resort property along the shores of the lake will be significantly devalued.