Commercial fishing is more than a job. It's a way of life.
Fishing has always been traditionally important to the Native population of northern Saskatchewan. During the fur trade era, fishing contributed significantly to the Native economy. Indians not only traded furs at the Hudson's Bay Company Posts, but also brought their fish here. Fish brought to the posts was either consumed by the post residents, or shipped to nearby markets.
Due to the large influx of European immigrants during the late 1800's and early 1900's, settlements rapidly grew and developed in southern Saskatchewan. This development allowed the commercial fishing industry to locate new and larger markets. The industry gained in importance during the early 1900's and fish was being exported to other provinces and the United States.
With the outbreak of WWI in 1914, a major expansion occurred in the commercial fishing industry as countries secured their export markets to increase their economic stability during the war years.
Since 1914 there was a continuous growth in markets, the quantity and value of production, and areas exploited. Expansion of the fishing industry, especially in the north, was facilitated by improvements in transportation, supply and demand of markets, and new facilities for handling and processing fish. Today, most of the catch is exported to the mid-western and eastern United States.
The Early Years.
There were many European groups that immigrated to western Canada at the turn of the century; British, Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Scandinavians, French and Russians. The Scandinavians were the fourth largest immigrant group, with a population of 33, 991, to settle in Saskatchewan. With the rapid development of the commercial fishing industry during the war years, a demand was created for skilled fishermen. Of all the ethnic groups to settle in southern Saskatchewan, It was mainly Scandinavians and Icelanders, who moved north to pioneer the commercial fishing industry.
One can only speculate, as to why these people were attracted to the northern wilderness. It appears that the Scandinavians and Icelanders found a similarity between their environment in the "old country" and the Canadian north. They adapted easily to the cold climate and rugged bush, and possessed the knowledge of survival needed to cope in these conditions. Furthermore, the traditional occupation of these people since the days of their forefathers, the Vikings, was fishing. Together, the Native population, Scandinavians and Icelanders, pioneered the commercial fishing industry in northern Saskatchewan. Both cultures possessed a rich knowledge of the fishing trade, which they co-operatively shared.
In 1908 the railway was constructed to Big River, which allowed for easier access into north western Saskatchewan lakes. The first Scandinavian and Icelandic fishermen arrived at Big River in the fall of 1908. Familiar names such as Johnson, Stefansson, Erickson, Olsen, Swanson, Skivik, Anderson, and Arison, are just a few of the men who arrived during this time. Many were homesteaders from southern Saskatchewan, seeking a few extra dollars during the winter months to supplement their income.
The first commercial fishing camps in north western Saskatchewan, were established on Stoney Lake. A Metis, by the name of Alex Delaronde, was hired as a guide by those first pioneers. Alex Delaronde eventually constructed a stopping place at the south end of Stoney Lake. Later the lake was named in his honour.
The following winter, roads were cut into the surrounding smaller lakes allowing more fishing camps to be established.
Historical records indicate that a commercial fishing industry existed on Dore Lake before 1911. Apparently, the fishermen around Big River had heard of the abundance of whitefish to be caught at Dore. Therefore in the spring of 1909, it was decided that a winter trail be cut into Dore Lake. At this time the area was relatively unexploited.
There was only one inhabitant known to have resided on Dore Lake prior to the influx of the first Scandinavian fisherman. He was a Metis, by the name of Michael Durocher, who resided at the East Bay of Dore Lake. Nels Edson and Eric Erickson, two of the earliest fishermen, and Gaudoise Trembley, a freighter, described Michael Durocher as being a generous man and a skilled hunter. Michael often provided food and shelter to these first fishermen, as well as acting as their guide. Later, the point at which he lived on was named in his honour.
One of the first men to commercial fish Dore Lake in 1909 was Joe Stefansson, an Icelandic farmer, from Kandahar, Saskatchewan. By 1911-12 there were twenty-three licensed fishermen on the Lake.
This rapid expansion of the fishing industry on Dore Lake and other surrounding lakes, such as Stoney and Ile-a-la-Crosse, created the need for a fish company. The fishermen needed a market to bring their fish, to be sold. Big River was the closest market with a railroad, therefore it was logical that a fish company should develop here.
Martin Olsen immigrated from Denmark to Dauphin, Manitoba in 1909. In the autumn of 1910, Martin Olsen arrived at Big River as a representative of Boothe Fisheries of Winnipeg. He realized the need for a fish company and seized upon the opportunity of establishing a fish exporting business. He began his business with one hundred dollars in his pocket. Mr. Olsen's newly formed establishment became known as the Ile-a-la-Crosse Fish Company, or the I.C. Fish Company. A warehouse was built at Big River and another one at Ile-a-la-Crosse. Fishermen from Dore Lake and lakes surrounding Big River, would haul their fish by horses and sleigh to the warehouse in Big River. The fish was then loaded on the freight trains and shipped to national and foreign export markets.
A survey report of the Dore Lake area compiled in 1913-14, describes how the I.C. Fish Company operated in Dore Lake.
"Fish abound Dore...whitefish and lake trout are netted during the winter. In this connection it may be said that winter commercial fishing is quite an important industry on Dore Lake. The fish are bought on the ice by the I.C. Fish Company, who freight them to the railway at Big River. Last winter there were thirty-three fishermen employed. The total catch amounted to 864,000 pounds (the limit), at two and one half cents per pound (the price paid on the Lake). This amounted to $21,600.00."
The I.C. Fish Company ceased to operate after 1914.
While Martin Olsen was establishing his fish company in 1910, another group of men were attempting the same project. In 1909, Dave Overly, came from Chicago to Saskatchewan to go big game hunting. He met a Mr. Brownfield in Prince Albert. Mr. Brownfield talked to him about the lakes further north, their fishing potential, and the opportunities available for the establishment of a fish company.
In 1910 Dave Overly persuaded his uncle, George Rizer, to come to Saskatchewan and inquire into the fishing potential of the northern lakes. The two men established a camp on Smoothstone lake (east of Dore Lake) that winter. The fishing expedition was not successful and George Rizer returned to Chicago.
George B. Rizer (left) and Dave Overly
(right), winter of 1911-12.
George Rizer's fishing camp on Dore Lake.
In 1913, George Rizer and Dave Overly again heard of the economic potential of Saskatchewan's northern lakes. They heard of the successful fishing operations being conducted on Dore Lake by the I.C. Fish Company. With the idea of hoping to establish a fish business, George Rizer and Dave Overly established a camp on Dore Lake with an experienced fisherman by the name of Ari Arinson. By 1913-14, there were already thirty-three licensed fishermen operating on the Lake, including such men as, Helga Johnson, Eric Erickson, Joe Stefansson, Ole Skivik, Ragwal Anderson and George Saunders.
Mrs. C. Rizer, describes her husband's first fishing
expedition at Dore Lake.
"They went up to Dore in the fall and built a cabin. They set their nets when the season opened. Before they got all the nets set, Dave Overly stated that perhaps it might be a good idea to lift some of the first nets set, to see if they had any fish. Well, there were so many fish in them, that they never did get all the nets set that winter."
"It soon became apparent that arrangements would have to be made to get these fish to Big River. So my husband walked back to Big River, which was seventy miles, and got Alex Lamone. They got a few teams of horses together, to go after the fish on Dore Lake. In due time they arrived back in Big River. The fish was shipped by rail to Chicago for Boothe Fisheries to inspect. The fish passed Boothe's standards. This was the beginning of a long business association between Boothe Fisheries and George's future fish company."
Martin Olsen's I.C. Fish Company had been dissolved only a short while, when George Rizer decided to form his company. Martin Olsen was still enthusiastic about the successful prospects of a fish company in Big River. In that winter of 1914, Martin Olsen joined George Rizer, Dave Overly and Ari Arinson in forming the Big River Consolidated Fisheries.
The commercial fishing industry expanded at a rapid pace on the northern Saskatchewan lakes. Over the next thirty years, Big River Consolidated Fisheries opened up fishing operations on Dore lake, Lac La Ronge, Ile-a-la-Crosse, Smoothstone Lake, Dogback Lake, Stoney lake, Wolfe Lake, Deep River and Big Buffalo Lake.
The company brought stability to the fishing trade. Fishermen received a guaranteed market to bring their fish, which then assured them of an income. This stability attracted many more men to the fishing occupation, especially those who held summer season jobs, such as mill workers and farmers. It gave these men the opportunity to collect a steady income during the winter months, as well as the summer months. The same farmers and mill workers from areas around Big River and southern Saskatchewan, would migrate north every winter to become the fishermen on Dore Lake and other northern lakes. Other ethnic groups such as Ukrainians and Russians also migrated north to fish on Dore Lake.
Commercial fishing operations on Dore Lake expanded quickly, with the formation of George Rizer's new company. By the 1920-21 season there were seventy fishing licenses held on Dore lake, compared to the thirty three licenses held in 1914. During the next twenty year period, the number of licenses held, fluctuated between seventy-seven in 1924 and forty-one in 1938.
The fishermen constructed camps at various places around Dore lake. During the early years, camps were usually occupied during the winter season and abandoned during the summer months. Commercial fishing operations did not operate in the summer months during these early years. Refrigeration methods had not been developed to preserve fish during the summer season. Secondly, nets were made of cotton and tended to rot quickly in hot weather.
There is little available evidence, as to where fish camps were located between 1909 and 1914. According to Eric Erickson's account, "My First Fishing Trip North", most camps were located on Big Island and Dore lake Island (Camp Four, Geir's Island). It wasn't until Big River Consolidated Fisheries was established in 1914, that more information was recorded as to where camps were located around the Lake.
By 1920, Big River Consolidated Fisheries had established four large fishing camps on Dore lake. One camp was situated on the northeast shore of Dore lake, six miles from what is known as the Smoothstone Portage. A second camp, with a 24 by 24 foot cabin, was constructed at the southeast end of Dore lake, commonly known as Smoothstone Bay. Ari Arinson, operated a third camp, five miles northeast of Smoothstone Bay. This camp contained an 18 by 24 foot log building with lumber roof and floors, and a 24 by 28 foot stable for horses and ponies. A fourth camp, with a 10 by 14 foot cabin, was set up two miles northeast of the Smoothstone Portage.
There were hundreds of men that came to Dore Lake to fish during the next thirty years. Many of them operated camps of their own, while others were hired helpers. The following is a list of some of the men, who fished Dore lake and the camps they were situated at around the Lake.
1909 to 1920.
1920 to 1930
1930 to 1940
In 1908, William Cowan built a sawmill on the southeastern shores of Big River. It was considered the largest mill in the British Empire at that time. The mill had the capacity of producing one million feet of lumber every twenty-four hours. On June 13th, 1913, the Big River Lumber Company suffered a fire and production at the mill was terminated. In 1914, the Winton Brothers, from the U.S.A., bought the establishment and renamed it the Ladder lake Lumber Company. In 1919, a forest fire broke out and destroyed the mill's most valuable timber from Big River to as far as Green lake. The mill was only able to operate until 1921, due to lack of quality timber. The Winton Brothers dismanttled the mill and moved it to The Pas, Manitoba. The loss of the mill left most of Big River's population unemployed. Some followed the mill to its new location, while others headed north. Those who headed north, chose the occupation of freighting and commercial fishing on Saskatchewan's northern lakes.
During the Depression years of the 1930's, Big River Consolidated Fisheries went bankrupt. During the 1933 season, the fish business was so bad that many buyers ceased business as "prices dropped so low that it wasn't worth the cost of freight and boxes" to buy and ship fish. Dave Overly, Martin Olsen and Ari Arinson no longer continued in the business. However George Rizer and his wife Carson, formed a new company called the Big River Fisheries and continued to operate until 1943. In 1943, George Rizer sold his entire establishment to Len Waite of Big River.
George Rizer had significantly contributed to the development of the commercial fishing industry in northern Saskatchewan. With lots of determination, good business sense, and foresight, he expanded his fishing industry to approximately fifteen northern Saskatchewan lakes, during the thirty years he operated. The industry provided a livelihood and economic stability to many northern residents.
Big River mill and burner.
Big River around 1912.
A Fisherman's Day.
Fishing usually began shortly after the lake froze in mid-December and ended around mid-February. Winter fishing was always considered to be a strenuous and time consuming occupation. The fishermen had to contend with the bitter cold and the long hours of setting and lifting nets, and packing and loading fish.
A fisherman's day began, by arising early in the morning and collecting the supplies needed for the day on the Lake. Equipment consisted of a horse, (later replaced by "cats", trucks, and Bombardiers) sleigh, horse feed, nets, floats, an ice chisel, a needle bar, axes, shovel and grub.
During the early years of commercial fishing, dogs were used on the Lake to pull sleighs loaded with equipment and fish. Nels Edson, who once fished on Dore lake, cared for fifty to sixty dogs during the summer of 1916.
As the catch increased, over a short time, loads became too heavy for dogs to pull and soon were replaced by ponies. Nels Edson was the first fisherman on Dore Lake to use a small pony hooked to a sleigh, to pull loads. By the 1920's, loads became larger and horses replaced ponies, to transport fish and equipment.
Fishermen usually worked in pairs. They trekked out to the lake early in the morning in the bitter cold. Temperatures often registered fifty to sixty below zero. Andrew Boychuk, who fished on Dore Lake during the 1930's, describes those early mornings when the temperature dropped this low.
"Usually when it got this cold, there would never be any wind and the mirages' would be fantastic. Our nearest neighbours were about three and a half miles away, but when a mirage appeared, we would see each others camps, just as if they were about only ten feet apart. Just as fast as it came, it would be gone."
When the men arrived on the Lake, they would chisel a two foot hole in the ice. The jigger was then run out about one hundred yards. Another hole was then cut directly behind the far end of the jigger. The line was hauled through the hole by means of a wooden hook. Post were then weighted down and frozen into each hole, in the ice. Nets were strung in a series of not more than twenty in a row. The nets were lifted through the main basin hole. Two men could usually handle about thirty-five nets during the winter fishing.
Andrew Boychuk describes the daily
routine of a fisherman.
"We used to go out in the morning and fish all day long for about eight or nine hours and come home with hundreds of fish all neatly stacked like cordwood on a flat rack on the sleighs. Then as soon as we got home at night, we fed the animals. We would then proceed to assemble the fish boxes and pack the fish. we would put approximately one hundred pounds of fish in a box."
When the evening meal and chores were completed, men gathered together for conversation and entertainment. Eric Erickson, one of the first men to fish Dore lake, described a typical winter evening at camp.
"When our chores were done, at night for entertainment we had two remarkable characters at camp. One of them would recite "Rimur" by the hour. Rimur is a type of epic poetry delivered in a sing-song manner - it was much used in Icelandic entertainment in the long winter evenings. The other man entertained us by reciting from memory, Cals 12's exploits and wars."
The men also spent their evenings making fish boxes, washing and mending mitts and nets, oiling floats, as well as developing good conversations and lasting friendships.
Nels Edson bringing his nets back to his fish camp,
after the season is over.
Two fishermen on their way to a fish camp
at Dore Lake.
Warming up and eating dinner on the ice.
Fishing on the ice.
Stan Campbell with Geir Thorden's fishing outfit.
Two fishermen standing on top of boxed fish
at Camp Four Island.
Mrs. Alfred Swanson and her daughter Deanna,
at Whelan's Point in front of the fish camp.
All this fish in one day's catch.
The fish plant at Murry's Point, 1952.
Waite's cabins built to house workers at the fish plant.
Men seated on store step are waiting for the dinner bell.
From left to right:
Jack Olson, Lloyd Snell, Orlon Olson, Dawson Beckett,
Andrew Snell, Frank Johnson, Jake Belfrey.
Front left: Mrs. George Mirasty holding Geir Thorden's hand.
Back left: Verner Johnson beside Bob Roberts.
Back far right: Mary McBride beside Miss Crow.
In front of the cook shack at Waite's fish plant.
Bill of Sale (Yellow), May 26, 1939.
Wharehouse Receipt for 65 boxes of fish,
December 8, 1940.