History of Fishing on the Great Lakes Part 1
Apr 19, 2019 | 7 minute read
Reading Time: 7 minutes

The Great Lakes are one of the world’s most impressive natural wonders. Together, Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario represent the largest freshwater surface in the world, and one-fifth of all the fresh water on the planet! The story of fishing in these remarkable waters spans thousands of years, and is equally awe inspiring. Over time, fishing on the Great Lakes evolved from a source of sustenance to a source of income and recreation. Today, we’re going to explore the history of fishing on the Great Lakes.

fishermen holding a commercial fishing net
Source: Freshwater and Marine Image Bank

Through its history, fishing on the Great Lakes has gone through three stages. There’s the earliest, tribal fishing stage, the most impactful, commercial fishing stage, and the newest and most lucrative, recreational fishing stage. In this part one of the Great Lakes’ fishing history, we’re going to explore the first two stages, and see how they affected the lakes, as well as the people who lived here.

In part two, we will explore how the recreational fishing industry saved the lakes’ ecosystem and, in turn, brought millions to the region.

Tribal Fishing on the Great Lakes

For over a thousand years before European settlers came to the Great Lakes, indigenous tribes employed spearfishing, angling, and netting techniques to hunt fish. They hunted for their own sustenance, as well as for inter-tribal trade. These were the Algonquian speaking Anishinaabe tribes, such as the Odawa, Saulteaux, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe (Chippewa).

Ojibwe cosmos CC BY-SA 3.0
Ojibwe depiction of the cosmos CC BY-SA 3.0

During those early days, fish were a major part of indigenous people’s diet and culture. The natives relied heavily on catching species like Whitefish, Lake Trout, Sturgeon, Walleye, Cisco, and Atlantic Salmon. Even though fishing was a year-round occupation, the native populations targeting them realized that fish were more abundant at certain times than at others.

In spring and autumn, when the fish crowded into shallow waters, the tribes settled around the shores of the Great Lakes. During these months, the fishermen would catch as many as several hundred fish a day. Autumn fishing was especially bountiful, because the tribes had to catch enough fish to last them through winter.

To preserve the fish for the cold months ahead, the tribal fishermen of the Great Lakes used smoking and drying techniques. In colder months, they could freeze the fish for later use. Some tribes, like the Anishinaabe of Sault Ste. Marie, continued to fish even through the cold winters.

Since catching fish was fundamental to their survival, the Anishinaabe became exceptionally proficient in a variety of fishing techniques.

Netting

One of the most effective fishing tools used by tribes living around the Great Lakes was the gill net. Using local materials like basswood and nettle, the women would fabricate meshes, onto which they would attach sinker stones.

The men worked the cedar trees into floats and canoes, from which they would cast these nets. They would position two canoes side by side, and cast the net in between the two. By the end of the day, the fishermen would have hundreds of fish in their boats.

Netting was particularly effective for catching Whitefish in the deeper waters of Lake Superior.

Spearfishing

The Anishinaabe didn’t just fish by day. They employed their hunting prowess after sundown, too. One ingenious night fishing tactic saw the use of pine resin and charcoal to make pitch torches. The natives would use these torches to attract fish at night, and spear them from their canoes with ease. To sharpen their weapons, the fishermen tipped their spears with animal bone or horn points.

Saulteaux native Americans torch light fishing

For tribes like the Odawa, spearing fish was a very effective technique for catching Walleye and Sturgeon on Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.

Trapping

Another fishing technique the Great Lakes tribes utilized was using stone weirs. The fishermen would stand in the shallows and pile up stones to form a V shape. These stones would make any passing fish come straight to the narrow opening where the hunters would catch them, either by hand, spear, or net.

Settling Down

Native tribes realized how important fishing was for their sustenance. They decided to settle around a few of the most productive spots around the lakes, birthing some of the first local fishing villages. Over time, some of these villages grew to become the largest cities in Canada and the U.S.

One such place is the town of Mississauga, Ontario. In old Anishinaabe, Mississauga means “Those at the Great River-mouth”. Today, with three-quarters of a million people, this place is the sixth most populous municipality in Canada.

areal view of Port Credit, Mississauga, Ontario
Port Credit, Mississauga

Things aren’t much different south of the border, either. Four of the first settlements on the Great Lakes are among the twelve largest cities in the States today.

Making Contact with the Europeans

The first recorded contact between Native American tribes and European settlers occurred between 1534 and 1542, when Jacques Cartier of France explored the St. Lawrence River. In the following years, the tribesmen would venture from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron through the Straits of Mackinac, to meet with European traders and sell their freshly caught fish.

Inter-tribal trade aside, you could say that this was the start of tribal commercial fishing.

Surrendering the Land

Between 1781 and 1854, local Native American tribes signed a series of treaties ceding lands and waters of the Great Lakes to the British, the Canadians, and the U.S. For example, the treaties of 1836, 1842, and 1854 surrendered lands and waters of the Great Lakes region to the U.S. federal government, while establishing tribal fishing rights in large areas of U.S. Great Lakes waters.

In 1836, the Saugeen Ojibwe signed the Surrender of Southern Saugeen and Nawash Territories (present day Ontario) with the British. And in 1854, they signed the Surrender of the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula with the Canadian government.

While the three non-native sides saw the treaties as legal surrender of territories, “owning land” was somewhat of a foreign concept for the natives. So removed were the Native Americans from the idea of fencing off lands as private property, that they assumed that they were simply granting permission for sharing and occupation of the land. For this reason, the interpretation of the treaties by the two signatory sides was wildly different.

Be that as it may, the land-ceding treaties proved extremely important for Native American fishing today. The documents stipulate that signatory Native American tribes and First Nation communities could continue to hunt, fish, trap, and gather resources on lands and water ceded to foreign governments until the land was required for settlement.

Present-day regulations on native American fishing rights are heavily based on these very treaties.

Commercial Fishing on the Great Lakes

Dating back to the mid 1800s, the Great Lakes commercial fishery is one of the oldest in this part of the world. It didn’t take long for the industry to become a giant part of the economy, both in Canada and the U.S.

Weaving fishing nets – Credit: Schoolcraft County Historical Society photo, Thunder Bay Sanctuary Research Collection

Before, and even after fishing on the Great Lakes started being regulated, commercial fishers harvested pretty much any fish they could sell. These included Lake Trout, Walleye, Yellow Perch, Lake Herring, Sturgeon, Atlantic Salmon, and Whitefish.

The early commercial fishing industry did create a large number of jobs in the local Great Lakes communities. It significantly contributed to the development of numerous towns on the lakes. But this growth came with a price. Thanks to the breakneck pace of fish harvesting, many of the native species came close, or became completely extinct.

It’s not difficult to see why. By 1895, more than 12 million yards of gill nets were licensed in Ontario alone. From the mid-1800s up until the 1940s, Lake Trout fishers used trotlines, with upwards of 2,000 baited hooks per boat!

The Fish Trade

With no way of preserving freshly caught fish, fishers mainly sold their catch to local markets. Fish intended for more distant markets were typically packed in barrels of salt brine. Sailing vessels transported such barrels from the Great Lakes to the eastern United States.

The following decades brought a few key developments, allowing commercial fishing in the Great Lakes to grow tremendously:

  • Openings of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the Ohio Canal in 1832 created new trading avenues, after which East-Coast-bound shipments skyrocketed.
  • A new salt mine opened at Goderich, Ontario during the 1870s, allowing a sustainable supply of salt for fish preservation.
  • Railways opened up 1830s in the United States and the 1850s in Canada, creating even better delivery routes.
  • The end of the 19th century saw the use of the first ice machines. By 1900, shipments of salted fish were rare.

Early Fishing Regulations

Both Canada and the U.S. were quick to recognize the need for regulation, establishing fishing rules through federal, provincial, and state legislature. However, during these early days, only one of the two countries approached the issue with conservation in mind.

Great Lakes shipping. Credit: Thunder Bay Sanctuary Research Collection

For example, the Province of Ontario passed a law providing for fish passage over mill dams and regulation of fishing techniques, seasons, and locations for Atlantic Salmon in Lake Ontario tributaries as early as 1828. By 1885, the province had a mandatory licensing system.

On the other hand, the first commercial fishing laws in Michigan from 1865 were more focused on bringing money into state coffers through fees, taxes, and revenues. However, by 1929, the number of individuals generating income from commercial fishing numbered in the tens of thousands. That year, the state passed a law establishing minimum size limits for fish, season closures, and legal types of commercial fishing gear.

Many other states followed suit and people thought things were starting to look up for the Great Lakes. But only on the surface. The greatest freshwater fishery was only about to enter its most dire days.

Join us again in History of Fishing on the Great Lakes Part 2, as we cover how the recreational fishing industry saved the region’s fisheries. In the meantime, feel free to share your favorite Great Lakes fishing story in the comments below.

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