The Cree word for fish is Kinoosao. Any time you visit with a long-time northern dweller the talk includes, without fail, a discourse about fish. Henry Weitzel, Ab, and I sat on the front steps of Leon Sargent's store on a fine July evening in the town of Meadow Lake. We had chosen, that summer, to outfit there instead of Big River. Henry was there also to gather his supplies, as he did each year to stock his little trading post at Cree River which he operated with his two partners, Otto Okerberg and Pete Charlebois.
Henry had had a varied career that ranged from camel driver in the land near the delta of the Danube where he was born to blocking hats in a Winnipeg factory, plus many years of knocking about in the North. Henry was, above all else an accomplished teller of stories. He held forth in the long evening twilight at some length on the peculiarities of camels, their miserable dispositions, and filthy habits. Then he talked of his years in Winnipeg. Then he began to speak of the North. I recognized in him a veritable walking encyclopedia of facts and figures about northern Saskatchewan. He was wise as an old owl in the ways of the wilderness and there was no doubt that he was an authority on the Chipewyan Indians with whom he traded.
Then said Henry, "Where the Cree River runs out of Cree Lake, there are swarms of grayling's."
Then followed in detail many facts about the appearance, habits, and peculiarities of the grayling and that he will rise to a fly. At this time I had already been in the country for a few years, yet had never heard of graylings. We had never caught any and as far as we knew they did not frequent the waters in our trapping area. We, therefore, knew nothing of the species. At any rate, we assumed that there was none of these game fish in the area where we fished. The outside world was apparently as generally ignorant as I of the existence of graylings in northern Saskatchewan. It was at least a decade later before the presence of grayling was "discovered" in northern Canada by the American sports fisherman. Stories about them were published in such magazines as Sports Afield and the Saturday Evening Post. As a result, the fly-in fishing camps were established. To these, a steady stream of American sports fishermen has been flown in each summer ever since, to fish in northern waters for grayling, pike, pickerel, lake trout, and Arctic char in a sprawling green and blue panorama that extends from the last roads all the way to the Arctic islands.
Incongruously, the average Saskatchewan resident could not care less about flying into the wilderness to fish. Of course, there are exceptions. The Indian eats fish only when there is no meat. Much of the time there is no meat. Indians hate the constant fishing for dog food. The latter-day Indian is interested in guiding sports fishermen at the fly-in camps and will feign a delight for pan-fried fish to impress his affluent customers.
No one will argue the fact that there are lots of fish in the North. Elsewhere in this book, I have mentioned the numbers of jackfish and pickerel that swarmed up Rat Creek to spawn-numbers that staggered the imagination. If this phenomenon took place simultaneously throughout the land, the numbers of fish in the country could only add up to a figure of astronomical proportions.
Places like Big River boosted their economy as a result of the fish industry. The hauling industry, using horse teams and sleighs, transported the frozen winter catch to town from widely scattered winter fish camps hundreds of miles away from such places as Buffalo Lake, Snake Lake (later named Pinehouse for the benefit of tourists), and Lac La Ronge. Old-timers in the North today will tell you anecdotes that describe hundreds of teams strung out over the lake ice when the fish haul was in full swing and the tremendous catch was being moved south.
On our first trip to Cree Lake when we entered Crooked River we saw hundreds of suckers which darted away from our boats as we passed over shoals and rocks. On entering the Beaver River, we found the water to be so murky that fish were not seen. We had known for some time that Ile-a-la-Crosse Lake was loaded with fish: the Indians congregated there in summer and are present only at good fishing grounds. On this trip, we were not aware of great numbers of fish until we reached the quiet waters below Drum Rapid. Here the air had the unmistakable odour of fresh fish and we assumed that swarms of pickerel and pike were there but we did not take time to fish, for we had to travel. The same odour existed below Leaf Rapid, but here also we did not bother to wet a line.
On another canoe trip when we had our dogs with us, we camped overnight on lower Deer River, at one of the many sharp bends of the river where the current eddied back upstream while the main water movement was a millrace towards the wide Churchill River. We had a piece of fishnet about fifty feet long which we set at night to obtain dog food. I set it where the water moved in small circles and boiled up from the riverbed so that the net was not strung against the current but hung more or less stationary in the uncertain eddies and crosscurrents just out from shore. From the canoe I hammered a spruce pole firmly into the riverbed and from it strung out my net, anchoring the other end to a stout willow that grew at the water's edge.
At dawn I looked out at the mist-covered river surface. All the net floats were underwater, indicating that fish had been caught. Then we hauled in the net loaded with fifty-four jumbo whitefish. We had not thought it possible to catch so many large fish in our small net.
In the upper Deer River, Frank Fisher cast his lure into an eddy. A ten-pound pike struck on the first cast and was landed without difficulty. As it was time for our noon meal he proceeded at once to fillet the fish while standing on a great rock that tilted into the river. All went well until Frank's feet began to slip on the slime-covered rock so that he slowly slid into ten feet of fast water. He exhibited some fancy swimming, the big fish in one hand, his hunting knife in the other, finally slinging one after the other on the shore where I retrieved them. Outside of an affront to Frank's dignity, no damage was done and much merriment was made out of the incident.
On our arrival at our cabin site at Cree Lake, we began at once to fish so that our diet could be supplemented for we had no meat. We found big pike along the edges of the water lily beds that grew in the little lake below the cabin. The water was so clear that on windless days we could look into the water and see pike so large that they looked like a section of log. On closer examination, they were seen to be fish that looked up at us with eyes as large as our own. Then we stopped the boat and cast our lure toward the individual fish and we saw it strike and become hooked. Sometimes, the fish would just lie there and after several casts take the lure. These pike, we estimated, ran as high as twenty-five pounds. We did not think it essential to own a scale.
Where the river poured into Cree Lake, we saw a big pike stationed at a spot in an eddy near the north bank in deep water. I tossed the lure toward it and the fish struck on the first cast. We dragged it over the gunwale and into the boat. After a few days, another big fellow was seen lying there and was also caught. Always another took its place after a few days so that if we wanted a pike it was a reliable spot at which to fish.
A big pike when hooked, puts up a lively fight but tires soon enough. It was brought alongside the boat and as soon as the big head broke water, it was struck with a short, heavy club just where the head joins the body, and the tension on the line was simultaneously released so that the hook would not tear-out. This rendered the creature docile enough to be boated easily. Then the fish was picked up by the eyes-as you pick up a bowling ball-taking care not to get the fingers near the mouth and the thousands of sharp teeth that slant inward.
Cree Lake proper is a haven for lake trout. After we had acquired sleigh dogs, I spent many an hour each summer day fishing from the boat to obtain food for the dogs. Generally, I met with much success, yet some days they were not anxious to take my lure. There were certain locations on the lake where the fishing was much better. Long-Haired Cree told us that from where he had sat on a rock slab that hung over the deep water, somewhere on the south shore, he had in a single day landed more than three hundred trout. I had no reason to doubt his story. He had lived on the lake all his life and had learned from his father the best fishing locations on the lake.
The Chipewyans from Cree Lake were camped one autumn near the northeast extremity of the lake for a time. On returning to Cree River, they told Henry Weitzel about a giant lake trout that they had caught in a net. Henry asked some questions about its length, depth, girth, and general appearance. The Chips said it took them a week to eat it all. Henry sifted the information and decided that the fish had weighed 100 pounds. I did not take the story seriously at the time, but in the years that have flown since I heard the story, commercial fishermen on Lake Athabasca netted a lake trout that weighed 102 pounds. This specimen was mounted and hangs today in Saskatchewan's Museum of Natural History in Regina.
Our handline equipment was primitive but effective. Starting with a sturgeon hook, we fastened it to a heavy wire leader and swivel and above the hook attached a bent piece of a baking powder tin with the red label paint on one side. We used a heavy green line or even the sideline used in making fish nets. The lure was cast by twirling it around and around the head like cowboy twirls a lasso before he throws it. We became so adept, that we could cast in any spot we chose to place the lure even while standing in the boat. This equipment was built to land a fish that might weigh as much as a fair-sized dog or occasionally a large dog. The largest lake trout I ever hooked we estimated at forty pounds. Once in a while, we hooked a whopper from the depths. The ensuing tussle was always quite a thrill and the fish actually was seen to tow the canoe on occasion. We were sometimes a little awed when such a big fish broke water. There were, of course, many smaller fish caught for each big one.
Neither Ab nor I liked to eat fish. Although there were times when fresh fish was eaten with relish for a meal or two after a while the taste of fish became unappetizing. After many months of eating meat, I recall the pleasure of eating tasty trout filets roasted with butter. When we had to eat fish in summer because there was no meat, the thought of eating fish became repulsive. We considered the prolonged eating of fish to be the diet of a poor hunter and strove to obtain fresh meat at such times.
Cree Lake fish were infested with parasites. We used big pike for food because there were no yellow pockets of infection in the meat, although tapeworms were seen to be present in the alimentary canal. Trout and whitefish were full of parasitic infection so that we must cut out all infected pockets in the meat before cooking. We could not get too
enthused about fish as food for this reason. We used fish primarily for bait and for dog food.
We learned quite early that it was much easier to take fish with a gill net than with a handline. We made two nets, each of which stretched for one hundred yards when set in the lake. These were fashioned by hand from linen thread and net accessories purchased Outside. We used a wooden gauge and a wooden needle and spool combination tool to weave and tie the mesh. Once we had learned the knack of net making, the nets were made in a surprisingly short time. These we set out from shore and thereafter we removed the fish daily when the winds would permit. Our take was lake trout, whitefish, and pike.
We had some trouble in locating the best spots for the nets. We first tried to set where the sloping sand of the lake bed faded to the green of deep water. From the anchor pole, we laid out the net, drifting with offshore wind. When we tied a rock weight to the free end, we found the net to be hanging almost straight down from end to end! We realized then the tremendous depths that were found in the lake. The net was reset in shallower water where the bottom sloped gently and the deep end of the net was in thirty feet of water.
We caught no pickerel at all where we set the nets. Apparently, they did not frequent the waters where we fished, just as the grayling did not. I was disappointed in this for pickerel is my choice of Saskatchewan fish for eating. We were assured that pickerel did exist in other parts of the lake by Indians who talked of good pickerel fishing in certain areas of the lake.
We walked on a game trail that generally followed the shoreline of lake one, the first lake upstream from our main cabin, on a warm sunny afternoon in early autumn. We were trying to find a caribou whose fresh tracks we saw on a sandy beach. In a sheltered small bay just out from shore, we saw the white turned-up belly of a big pike. The fish was apparently dead, for it looked very bloated and blowflies crawled on the pike's belly and buzzed about it. We looked closer and saw the tail of a trout, about a foot long, hanging from the pike's jaws. Then we noticed the pike was still alive for its gills moved slightly. Suddenly, Ab recalled having read somewhere that a big pike will on occasion swallow a fish so large that all of it cannot be ingested into the gullet, whereupon it becomes torpid, rolls over onto its back so that the belly breaks water, and the warm sun assists in the digestion process. He grabbed the .22 rifle and shot the pike through the head. At once, the water was churned a frothy pink as the fish struggled in its death throes. We dragged it ashore. I pulled the partly digested trout from its mouth. The piece weighed three or four pounds.
Back among the hills the many lakes ranged in size from tiny potholes to some that were several miles in length. Many of these had no visible outlet but drained away by the filtration process through the sand into the next lake and so on until a small creek was formed to carry away the overflow. Apparently, all these lakes contained fish for dead specimens. were seen on the shore even in the landlocked lakes. I pondered how the fish happened to get into these lakes in the first place. The only solution I could reach was that fish eggs are probably carried from one lake to another by ducks. Ducks feed upon fish eggs and it is possible that these are carried, accidentally stuck to the duck's feathers or his bill, or possibly regurgitated on arrival at another lake. I heard tales of trappers who had set fishnets in some of these remote lakes and taken fish whose size and quality they had never seen taken from large lakes.
As I have stated before, Ab and I were not interested in fishing and never made a cast for fish in the many lesser lakes that we crossed in winter or skirted on our travels in autumn. Among the wild creatures that fished for food, none can match the otter, which seems to be as well adapted to water as the fish itself. They can wreak real havoc if entangled in a fishnet. Henry Weitzel told me of a mink he sat and watched. This mink had seized a big pike by the neck and after a stout battle almost succeeded in dragging the fish onto a rock ledge that sloped into the lake. The pike then gave a mighty flip which landed both mink and fish back into deep water. This process was repeated many times until, successful at last, the mink fell to the feast. The bald eagle is a formidable fisherman. I read the story of his fishing prowess upon a lonely beach of a secluded bay on Cree Lake. The bird had dived from a considerable height and taloned his prize-a ten-pound trout, according to the size of the fish head that lay upon the sand. It had to carry this fish some distance, for big trout normally do not come so near shallow water. From the size of the bird's tracks and the way that the fish had been dragged about, I was left with the impression that this bird is capable of great feats of strength.
The dead fish that were washed ashore were quickly disposed of by crows, foxes, coyotes, bears, and other carrion eaters. The rotting flesh had the odour and consistency of Limberger cheese.
We found that when heavily fished, the small lake below the cabin became fished out and some time elapsed before it was re-stocked from Cree Lake. We took this as a warning that even the big lakes could be fished out by over netting. It indicated something of the unproductiveness and infertility of this land where the soil grows only moss and jack pines, where there is no topsoil at all, and whatever grows, by some miracle grows from pure sand.