All of us in the North learned to be fishermen at least part of the time. There was always the need to put up fish for winter dog feed. It would be hard to estimate how many fish were used for this purpose alone. As an indication of the number of dogs in harness in those days, a Hudson's Bay Company trader once told me that seventy-five dog trains came into his outpost at Christmas time, bringing natives to attend the midnight mass! So many dog teams meant a lot of fishing. Then there were the commercial outfits as well.
After that brush with starvation in the winter of no caribou, my partner and I made up our minds never again to let cold weather find us without a generous supply of dog feed on hand. This meant setting aside a few days in October, right after we had got our moose and our bear, to set out nets. I chose a good fishing ground in the narrows, imitating natives and also men of the Hudson's Bay Company which always put up fish for its chain of trappers. I would wait for spawning to start, which always took place after dark. Then I would put in my fifty yards of net. It was simple to catch a thousand whitefish by one o'clock in the morning, and that is what I did. If I had wanted to stay at it all night, I could have netted two thousand.
Next morning it was my job to take care of the fish I'd caught. This was another procedure that I learned from observing what went on in the Hudson's Bay Company posts. It was the northern custom to hang fish high on scaffolds out of reach of dogs. Thousands of fish were hung at the outposts, ten fish to a stick run through a slit in their tails. One fish -- a day's rations for a sled dog -- sold for ten cents. Since they were caught in October before freeze-up, the fish got a little high as they hung there, but in that condition the dogs preferred them, and they made better bait for the traps too.
I would build my scaffold near the shore, and on it, I would hang my fish on two-foot sticks that I had previously gathered and prepared -- ten fish to a stick run through a slit in their tails as I had seen the Hudson's Bay Company people do. Sometimes I would build a few rounds of logs to make the scaffold high enough so the fish wouldn't touch the ground, then build the scaffold up a couple of rounds at a time. I continued fishing until I figured I had plenty to feed my dogs until spring. What I caught were whitefish which are abundant in the Churchill and other rivers. In the clear, cold lakes of the North where a man can see down twenty feet to the rocks below, there is less food for whitefish and there they grow much smaller. It is lake trout that abound there.
Commercial fishing was another matter, and when the commercial fishermen came, we began to have problems of waste and depletion of stocks. Great quantities of the catch -- classed as rough fish -- were discarded on the ice and left there to be devoured by birds and animals. Everything in the North would eat fish as a matter of survival -- not only the normally carnivorous animals like mink and bear but caribou and horses as well. I fed my horse on both fish and hay when I lived at Ile-a-la-Crosse, occasionally on oats that I had specially shipped in.
The catching and discarding of fish came about because of the market in the South and because of the cost of transportation. Airplanes would take only lake trout since no other kind would pay the freight. Whitefish were freighted overland. Commercial fishing provided a livelihood for many natives and white men as well.
Several white fishermen were living with their families in the North in my day, and although the original fishermen are long gone, their names survive in their descendants there to this day.
One winter they started to fish Cree Lake with diesel Caterpillar outfits, bringing in cabooses and fishnets and the men to use them.
That lake had never been fished except by trappers and Indians for their personal use. In the beginning, these commercial outfits would get a hundred trout to the net, and some of those fishermen would have a hundred nets in the water. I know of one man who had a hundred boxes of trout, over thirty-five pounds to the box. He had to haul them out in a rack with a cat swing.
That first winter, the commercial outfits fished under the ice. Then they began summer fishing, hauling the catch by plane to a big plant at Buffalo Narrows where the fish were filleted and frozen. On the return trip, the planes could bring in supplies like lumber, motors and gasoline for the boats.
All this was a new thing for Cree Lake where formerly the natives had fished sparingly and only in summer, reserving the wintertime for trapping. We used to be able to throw in a spoon hook and have a dozen trout after it every time. After the commercial outfits were at work for a few years, a man couldn't catch trout there at all. Even the spawning grounds had been cleaned out.