For Lake Michigan fishermen the basics remain unchanged

Echoes of our past
William & Joy Wangemann • for The Review

There are few professions that are more demanding, and at times as dangerous, as that of a commercial fisherman. Much like a farmer, a fisherman’s livelihood depends on the weather. Neither cold nor a stormy lake prevents these tough men from plying their trade.

At one time a large fleet of fishing boats daily sailed out of Sheboygan into Lake Michigan to harvest a daily catch of fish that came to many hundreds of pounds. The first commercial fishing vessels to sail from this port were just that, sailing boats.

The boats known as Mackinaw boats varied in length from to 15 feet to 50 feet and had a tremendous cargo carrying capacity. Some of the large Mackinaw boats could carry more than a ton when necessary.

These boats were totally open to the weather and offered no protection to the crew of two to four men from sun, wind and waves. The Mackinaw boats generally carried two masts and were rigged very simply.

Once the fishermen reached their fishing area the masts were taken down and set aside to make it easier to work their nets. A few fishermen still used sail as late as the early 1940’s.

In the early 1900’S the Mackinaw boats evolved into the fish tugs we know today. Most early tugs were built of wood and powered by steam. These extremely sea-worthy little craft were completely enclosed with sliding doors in there sides through which the fishermen could work their nets.

The all metal tugs which appear in the harbor today vary little from the wooden steam tugs of the past.

With all her sliding hatches closed these tough little vessels could survive all but the very worst of storms.

In the bitter cold of winter on the lake each wave that breaks over the boat leaves another sheet of ice covering the hull. If the ice were to build up too thickly it could capsize a tug.

Even today it is not uncommon for the fish tugs now powered mostly by diesel engines to have to smash through a heavy layer of river ice early in the day to get into the lake.

Later in the day when they return the tugs, coated with a heavy layer of ice, have to smash through the same ice to get back to their dock. It does make one wonder as to why the fishermen venture out into the lake in the dead of winter.

When this question was put to Richard Mass a retired fisherman he simply stated “that’s when the fishing is the best, and the demand for fish is greater in the winter than the summer”.

According to Maas, a fisherman’s day starts early and would go something like this: At about 5 or 6 am on a cold winter morning the crew would arrive at the tug.

In the days of steam the fire would have to be lit and as soon as steam pressure was up the tug would be rocked back and forth to break it loose from the ice that held it captive.

Once free of the dock the tug began to break through the river ice until she found open water. The tug then ran out into the lake for two hours or more, perhaps twenty or thirty miles from port.

Once at the fishing grounds they located the buoys that were attached to their nets. The nets themselves were about 5 or 6 feet wide and 4 ½ miles long, or nearly 24,000 feet! Along the bottom of the nets lead weights were attached at 8 1/2 foot intervals. Along the top of the nets floats were attached.

When the nets were dropped in the water the weights took the net to the bottom, the floats then pulled the net upright which then had the appearance of a fence on the lake bottom. The buoys were attached at several places along the nets by means of a line.

Once the nets were set the buoys floated to the surface. After a net was set it was left in place for 5 nights during which time fish would swim into the nets and become snared in the nets known as gill nets. When the fishermen located their buoys they would haul up their nets, remove the fish and set dry nets which would be pulled up again, 5 nights later.

Today’s tugs are equipped with cell phones, radios and radar, but the actual job is little different from the tough seamen who ventured out into the lake in open sail boats over a 150 years ago.

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