Fishing lore: Officials present history of commercial fishing

ESCANABA – The Escanaba City Council Chambers were filled Wednesday night as Tom Elegeert and Dave Rivard told stories about commercial fishing in Delta County from the late 1930s to the mid ’60s. The presentation was a collaboration between the Delta County Historical Society and the Escanaba Public Library.

Elegeert showed videos his uncle, Llewellyn Bramer, had taken in Nahma in 1939 and 1940 depicting ice cutting equipment, boats, and fishermen using various styles of nets.

One popular style of net still used today is the trap net. The nets sit near the bottom of the lake and have long runners that form a triangular trough which funnels fish towards the “trap.”

“The fish are forced down a kind of triangle down to a point, and that’s where the opening is to the net. The fish go into the net and they don’t know how to get out,” said Elegeert.

Because materials like nylon were uncommon even into the ’50s, keeping nets in good condition was a challenge.

“All nets were cotton back in those days, but the trap nets were actually soaked in a tar because they stayed in the water so long they needed something to keep them preserved.”

Damaged nets were not only ineffective but were costly to replace because each net had to be woven by hand.

“That was a talent, because this thing can be well over 100 feet long maybe 8 feet hight or 6 feet high and that’s all woven into little diamonds,” said Rivard.

Unlike the nylon nets which replaced them, cotton nets allowed some fish to escape. Some former commercial fishermen believe the nylon nets were the beginning of the decline of commercial fishing in the area.

“They (cotton nets) caught half of them and half of them got through. It wasn’t until nylon nets came that things changed dramatically. Nylon let nothing go,” said Elegeert, adding if a net broke loose it would travel around the lake catching fish indefinitely.

Because there was no refrigeration in the ’30s and ’40s, fish were loaded into wooden boxes – which were frequently built by the fishermen themselves – kept cold with ice. However, even on ice the fish could easily rot. To combat spoilage, fish were frequently packed into the crates whole, with scales, heads, and intestines intact.

The boats that fishermen used were also frequently built by fishermen.

“My uncle Ed said they made their own boats, they made them out of pine, two inch pine during the wintertime. They were very strong boats; they were very heavy. Nobody was going to steal those boats,” said Elegeert.

Fishermen used lumber for more than just boats and boxes. During the winter months fishermen developed a system using short boards nailed together to stretch their nets under the ice.

“They would push it and that net would keep coming out of the box,” said Rivard.

According to Elegeert, commercial fishermen began to lose their licenses in the mid to late ’60s, largely do to the results of overfishing, nylon nets, and changes in tribal fishing laws.

“There’s no question that there’s certainly a lot more then than there are now,” added Rivard.