FISHING has always been
a precarious occupation. The fact that it is Oscar Peterson’s livelihood
is almost incidental: Oscar does not fish merely to make a living; he
fishes in order to live in the bush. So. if the whitefish spawn is not
as long or as heavy as he hopes for. or if frequent fall storms make it
difficult to reach and lift the walleye nets, Oscar’s livelihood may be
made more marginal but it can somehow be reconciled.
Oscar Peterson is a man
on whom 65 years has had a honing effect. Most of the time, his spare
frame and wispy, white hair are well camouflaged beneath multiple layers
of jackets, heavy fishing slickers and an assortment of headgear. He
handles 100-pound tubs of fish, 45-gallon gas drums and all the other
attendant burdens of commercial fishing with an ease belying his age. He
is a soft-spoken, gentle man, something of a rarity among the breed of
bush men to which he belongs.
Oscar has been commercial fishing on Birch Lake, 90 miles north of Sioux
Lookout, Ontario, since the 1940s and, after 30 years, a man tends to
develop a system. Oscar’s fishing season boils down to August, September
and October although he has, on occasion, set nets earlier or later. His
old friend and one-time fishing partner of the 40s and 50s, Fred Rodman,
used to take half his catch in the spring and half in the fall.
‘You can fish the summer' Oscar says, ‘but the fish are deep and you
need twice the amount of ice to keep them.’ When he has set nets early,
Oscar has had to carry ice in the boat. Fall is also the season of the
spawn for the whitefish, which comprises 70 per cent of the allotment on
Oscar’s licence. During the spawn, the whitefish habits and locations
become increasingly predictable. But September and October in Northwest
Ontario can cut two ways: in exchange for the spawn and the absence of
bugs and blowflies, you might receive days on end of spitting rain or
snow and wind and cloud cover that make net-lifting and planelanding
arduous, if not treacherous. The nearest limited access road to Birch
Lake is some 45 miles and three to five portages removed by water. Human
enterprise in the region, once restricted to the canoe, now glides on
the more costly and temperamental wings of aircraft.
I fished with Oscar last fall on a schedule which called for a Norseman
every four days, weather permitting The Norseman is that single-prop,
canvas-covered craft of distinction, a work-horse of almost heroic
proportions for its role in countless bush ‘campaigns’. Its payload is
1,600 pounds. For three men. Oscar, Bruce Smith and myself, working
eight to ten 100-yard gill nets. 400 pounds per day would be an easy
catch in most years. But last season was not like most.
Sunday night, September 18 . . . Bedded down and trying to relax into
sleep but rolling instead to the rhythm of the surf drumming the beach
not 15 yards to the east of my cabin. The six compact log cabins that
comprise the living quarters of Oscar's camp are strung out only 20-30
feet apart on a narrow, sandy spit which juts northward into the
easternmost bay of Birch Lake. Fully exposed to both the east and the
west, the camp becomes the recipient of all the glories of the sun's
daily entrance and exit, as well as the brunt of North-west Ontario's
About seven years ago. Percy, a Cat Lake Indian who was guiding for
tourist fishermen on the lake, left three pups with Oscar in the fall
with the instructions thut they should be shot. Oscar, not even
possessing a gun, was hardly capable of shooting a trio of helpless
animals that he'd been feeding and enjoying all summer. So. the dogs
remained, and multiplied. Many generations and drownmgs later. Oscar now
has seven intimately related, undisciplined canines who control his life
at least as much as he does theirs. All seven sleep with Oscar in his
one-room log cabin. He keeps a mattress on the floor for some and the
others arrange themselves, according to status, around him on the bed.
The open door policy is in effect during all seasons but winter. The
dogs come and go as they please. In winter, Oscar spends a fair portion
of his time shuffling back and forth the 10 feet from the bed to the
door and doling out charitable hunks of canned meat to his favourites
from the mountains of canned goods stacked on the floor between the
airtight heater and the dogs’ mattress. When he leaves the lake in
winter, which he does perhaps two or three times for rarely more than
one or two days and a night at a time, he, of course, leaves the door to
his cabin propped open (40° below notwithstanding). There will be plenty
of food in the pot and the radio left on full volume. ‘It makes the
puppies feel less lonesome, you know.’ They know he won't be gone for
very long. In Oscar’s 30 years on Birch lake, he has shot only one
moose. That was to feed the dogs.
6:00 a.m., September 22. . . A knock on the door of my cabin and a
whispered ‘Good morning'informs me that Oscar is up and we are about to
get rolling. There’s the barest hint of dawn in my east window. I make
my way to the kitchen with the Coleman lantern. Inside, Bruce and Oscar
are at the table, wood cookstove humming, coffee on, tea water boiling.
Oscar has brewed up his favourite crew’s breakfast: oatmeal with eggs
porridge (‘egg foo gruel'). He sits, mostly silent, or quietly
discussing who will move which nets where, and gradually waking up.
Generally. Oscar is off first — a solitary outboard whining into the
calm of pre-dawn — he’ll try to reach his most exposed nets before the
wind stacks up the water around them, before the gulls get at them if
they are shallow, before the tourist boats chew them up if they are in
well-travelled passages, before the plane comes if it’s plane day.
These days, with a load of fish on ice. Oscar relaxes his pace. We all
leave together in the big boat, the 20-foot square-stern canoe with an
18-horse Evinrude kicker. It’s a half-hour ride to the protected reefs
and boulder beds behind Iron Island at the entryway to Birch Narrows.
There we disperse into three smaller freighter canoes to tend our
So resumes the eternal whitefish vigil. Oscar the supreme optimist and
whitefish logician shrugs his shoulders. He has been juggling nets
around the lake in myriad formations and directions, like a football
coach trying to crack an elusive offense. And. in this ballpark, it
sometimes feels as if we are on the defense; the fish call the shots and
we try to be there When I raised the question ‘Who runs whose lives, we,
the whitefish or they. ours?' Oscar did not have to pause when he
We’ve fished the weeds, we’ve tried the boulder beds, the mud bays, the
‘holes’ — now it's to the reef (the last resort Oscar warns). There the
nets will remain until the whitefish come. Bruce pulled half a tub (50
pounds) of whites from five nets this morning. Oscar declared they were
’getting sharp’, referring to the spots on the head and the bumps on the
flank which indicate a readiness to spawn. So we returned to the Narrows
this afternoon to reset for whitefish in a solid string of nine nets
(900 yards of uninterrupted fishnet). There they’ll remain and here
we'll wait weather watching (the cold apparently enhances the spawn) and
fish waiting, pulling in our meagre 100-200 pounds of whitefish a day.
Oscar recalls when he and Fred Rodman and Otto Young used to fish
'Lots of times we had two men gutting and Fred running the nets. Keep
two men in the fish house busy all morning Sure. It was nothing to get
1.000 pounds of fish in a morning, you know.'
Lifting nets can take anywhere from two hours to all morning, depending
on the size of the catch, the wind and the condition of the nets. On the
rare occasions when the weather has been so dirty that a net has been
untended for a couple of days, the resulting tangle of dead and
sometimes rotting fish and logs with the boulders of an uneven bottom
can cause time-consuming and irreparable damage to the nets. But, more
often, net lifting is a straightforward routine. Beginning at one end of
the net, marked by a bobbing line of plastic floats which disappear in a
string towards the depths, and seated in the bow of the boat, the
fisherman passes the net over the gunwales and his lap, picking out and
Whitefish and pickerel (walleyes) are the principal harvest with
northern pike and occasional lake trout as a by-product. Other, less
saleable by-products: sucker (mullet), ling (burbot) and tullibee (cisco,
lake herring), which are harvested in a volume approximately equal to
that of the more desirable species, are set aside to be unceremoniously
dumped with the fish guts. One quickly becomes inured to this obvious
waste as one becomes embroiled in the practical realities of the trade.
These realities are. in fishing, as in any other business, closely
linked with time, money and the facility of production. Actually, these
fish are not unmarketable and efforts to utilize them are periodically
put forth by the marketing agency. Such efforts tend to fall flat. In an
isolated area, where freight costs are about equal to the
value-to-the-fisherman of northern pike, a commonly desirable fish,
those other species whose values are not even that marginal, are clearly
not worth the effort. They become ’coarse' fish, a commodity to be
avoided or dispatched with haste.
Whether lifting or setting nets. Oscar exudes concentrated energy.
Retrieving his eyeglasses from beneath folds of clothing, and fortified
with a pinch of snuff, he will patiently settle down to the toughest of
‘spinners’ large jackfish (pike) present the greatest problem due to
their tendency to roll enormous quantities of net. leads and floats
around their long, thin bodies. Oscar complains that when you've been
working on such a badly rolled jack ‘sometimes you can't even find the
fish by the time you're through’ for all the slime they excrete But a
fisherman’s catch isn’t always fish. Ducks, seagulls and even otters
have surfaced in the nets Oscar worked for 45 minutes the other day to
extricate a baby merganser which had become enmeshed in a walleye net.
The duck pecked furiously at his arm throughout the entire ordeal.
Setting a net off the south point of Canoe Island. Oscar kept catching
the cuff buttons of his shirt in the mesh. (It was warm and he had shed
his customary slicker). He finally whipped out his fish knife and cut
them off. ‘There! That'll teach you!’
After all nets have been lifted, we head directly back to the fish house
Greeted on the dock by the full regiment of Oscar's pups, we unload and
begin gutting and icing down as quickly as possible to ensure quality
fish. Prior to the advent of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation (FFMC).
the fish were cleaned whichever way the buyers wanted them: round
(untouched), gutted and gilled or headless-dressed. Now. the caprices of
the world market are all funnelled through the one agency whose
responsibility it is to advise the fisherman of any changing preferences
in fish handling.
Two years ago. after sending out about 2.000 pounds of walleyes to Red
Lake and receiving a succession of receipts indicating that the vast
majority-had been labelled ‘cutter’. Oscar began to worry. He prides
himself on the quality of his fish, their size, cleaning, icing and
overall handling. But this meant not only a blow to his pride but a loss
of 7c a pound or S140.00. He chartered a plane and sent Bruce out to
investigate only to discover that the processers were no longer paying
premium prices for pickerel whose body cavities had been scraped. No
warning was ever given him beforehand to prepare him for this
Only after the day’s catch has been safely packed in the cooler and
layered with shaved lake ice (the product of Oscar’s March activity),
will we knock off for lunch. If it is plane day, we'll probably pack the
day’s catch, along with all of the remaining fish in the cooler, into
the tubs in which they’ll be loaded into the plane on the odd chance
that the plane arrives early. When the plane does arrive, no time is
lost in getting it loaded and on its way back to town.
After lunch there's always something that needs doing, motor repair,
gas-mixing, pulling, straightening or moving nets. In setting nets,
there’s a fine line between a good and a bad set. If it’s too tight the
fish will hit it and back off rather than attempt to swim through, if
it’s too loose when they hit. they spin and roll the net into endless
tangles or. without the fish, simply wind-rolls. Perhaps the net is too
deep and the whitefish are up. Or it’s too shallow and the whites are
still down. Or too many boulders which means too many trout, which are
also beginning their spawn and are, as of 15 September, illegal catch
unless dead in the net. And boulders mean rough snags on the bottom. Or
it is too smooth and the whites are beginning to hit the shallow,
‘You can't set a net just anywhere, you know. Some places just won't
catch fish' Oscar says. He knows this lake as if he'd been given a
privileged peek at it drained of water: where the holes are. the reefs,
the channels, the spawning beds. But even so. much of fishing is trial
and error. We set a net. Try it twice, maybe three times, and then move
it if it doesn't fish.
When Oscar arrived by immigrant boat at Halifax in 1932. he was 19 years
old and. By his own admission, a little wet behind the ears.
‘The old man paid the fare to get rid of me I guess’ he grins. Raised on
a family farm in Sweden with too much family and not enough farm, he and
a friend struck out from Gftteborg to see a piece of the world. ‘I told
them I'd be back in four to five years' he recalls. 'I've been here
But the only piece of the world he saw for a full two years after his
voyage and train ride west from Halifax, was the panorama a man might
receive while working on a Canadian National Railways section gang in
Y-Cliff, a bush camp cast of Sioux Lookout, Ontario. Two years (at 38c
an hour) and countless lay-offs and ‘bumpings' later, he changed scenery
and came to Birch Lake to cut cordwood for the Jason-Casey Mountain gold
mine (Casummit Lake Mine). He moved around the area during the 30s,
worked underground at Central Pat (Pickle Crow) Mine, on surface claims,
hand-steeling and trenching at Springpole Lake, manned a fire tower on
Uchi Lake and went underground again until he finally quit in 1939 to
dabble in prospecting, trapping, diamond drilling and wood-cutting
through the 40s.
Gradually. Oscar was drawn to Birch Lake. In 1948. he opened his sawmill
there to supply the Casummit Lake Mine with lumber. He sawed the 24’
12“x12” timber for the head frame, cribbing for the stopes, ties,
everything from 1” to timbers. He used a 40-horse tractor to power the
mill and a much-loved horse to haul logs and lumber. He managed to keep
a crew of four to five men employed when times were good. But those
times were short-lived Jason Mine began cutting back production in 1950.
when it was already closed as far as lumber was concerned. By 1952. it
was closed completely. Oscar leans forward in his chair, with his hands
clenched tightly together over his knees and continues:
’I bet you it would’ve been going today if they'd've had some way . . .
everything was too expensive. Air and tractor-train was all we had. Gold
was low — only S35.OO an ounce.’ With the clarity of 30 years of
hindsight, he enjoys sawing even more than fishing ‘It's a little more
clean. No suckers, jackfish. It’s interesting. Everything goes good.
Nobody got hurt.' But, when the mine closed, there was nobody to saw for
on Birch Lake and it somehow never seemed worth while to leave the bush
to pursue the livelihood. So, fishing grew to fill the void. Oscar had
put everything into the mill and lost it all much faster. Even his
horse, that he must have loved and pampered as he does his dogs now, was
Oscar first fished on Birch Lake in the late 1940s. He learned the trade
from and along with his Finlander friend. Fred Rodman. who began fishing
just a few weeks earlier. Fred was not Canadian and so was not able to
hold his own licence at the time. Robert A Cooley held it for him and.
in the early 1950s. took it over himself. With Fred and Otto Young,
Oscar fished for Cooley for seven to eight years. Fishing was different
in those days. Oscar remembered normal catches two or three times as
large as today’s. He recalls getting two to three tubs (200-300 pounds)
of fish on a single net instead of the one tub which we hope for now.
When Rodman began fishing there were no limits. A limit was imposed by
the time Cooley was fishing at 20.000 pounds per year. It’s been the
same ever since. Oscar’s limit includes 14,000 pounds of whitefish.
6,000 pounds of walleyes and a token 500 pounds of lake trout to account
for the inevitable trout in the nets.
As strongly as many tourist fishermen point their finger at him, Oscar
considers sport fishing to be at the root of the decline. "They keep all
the little ones' he claims and his nets, with a 4¼”-5” mesh, selectively
extract only the larger fish. He claims, also, that fishing never
diminished until the 1960s when tourists first arrived in numbers.
"You take walleyes and northern and trout [the sportfish] and no
whitefish, sucker and ling [the commercial fishing products]" he points
out. ‘it’d be a funny lake. You gotta keep’em levelled off. you know."
When Oscar feels his fishing tenure on Birch Lake endangered, he
retreats to a stance of extreme caution. Fishing is his bread and butter
and fish management is as important to him as holding a job is to
someone else. In these times of stretched resources, there are changes
taking place in the regulations surrounding commercial fishing that even
an experienced bureaucrat must struggle to keep abreast of. For a man
raised in a foreign country who has lived all of his adult life in the
bush, such changes and the legions of bureaucrats needed to implement
them, are more to be avoided than courted, on the instinctive principle
that 'no news is good news'. So. when conservation officers made five
separate flights to Oscar's dock last summer, 'intimidated' might be a
mild description of his response.
Legally, Oscar is permitted to sell whitefish anywhere, while northern
pike and walleyes because of marginally dangerous levels of mercury,
must be sold only to the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation (FFMC).
Friends and tourists have long been in the habit of buying fish from
Oscar in quantities to pack away in their freezers. But. early last
summer, one tourist, wanting to take home some extra walleyes, came to
Oscar. Oscar didn't have any nets in the lake at the time so the man
asked if Oscar would fill out a Fish slip of sale which would legitimize
the 15-30 extra pounds of pickerel he would then be able to catch
himself. Strictly speaking, this common practice is illegal because it
allows the sport fisherman to exceed his six walleye and six northern
per diem angling limit. In addition, since the introduction of the FFMC
‘fish blending program', the sale of contaminated walleyes had been
restricted to that agency.
‘Fish blending' is one of those elusive terms which people seem
hard-pressed to define. It conjures up visions of gargantuan hoppers
into which both mercury-contaminated and non-contaminated fish are
dumped, ground and processed into homogeneous fishcakes with acceptable
mercury levels. In reality, it appears that there is no attempt at
homogeneous blending of any description. Fish are considered to be
blended simply by virtue of the sheer quantities of fish which are
processed at the Winnipeg FFMC facility and the resultant averaging of
their mercury contents.
Leaving Birch Lake, the tourist proceeded to United States Customs where
he failed to declare his intended importation of the fish. When a search
revealed them, the entire episode backfired and the disturbance thus
created brought five trips by conservation and fish management officers
to Oscar’s dock. Because the tourist contested his apprehension, an
entire raft of questions and malpractices had been exposed including an
additional fish slip with a forged signature of Oscar Peterson.
Oscar, when accosted by this battery of officials, being unfamiliar with
and wary of the intricate and fluid legal responsibilities of his trade,
recoiled out of genuine fear for his livelihood. He now swears never to
sell another fish elsewhere than the FFMC. Not even a whitefish. Not
even to a friend. Never ‘If you ever see a fish slip with my name on it'
he swore to the Ministry of Natural Resources officers, ‘you can
confiscate the fish, because it won't be my signature.'
Wednesday, September We had rain again. Low ceiling and frequent C’s of
geese moving south.
Finally, the long-awaited plane came this afternoon, around 5 p.m. Just
under the wire of darkness, considering the hour flight back to town.
They sent a Beechcraft which, luckily, cleaned us out. We had over 2,000
pounds of fish in the cooler — some of it for six days — and Oscar was
getting nervous about the possibility of losing a good portion of the
load. To make matters worse, he'd been out of ‘snoose' for two days. He
chewed through Bruce's tin of pipe tobacco and has been working on my
last pouch. He admits to not being able to sleep and has been visibly
edgy for days. When the plane didn't bring our food order, which
included a couple of fresh rolls of snuff, he ordered a Cessna IMO for
tomorrow to bring it in. Although we were low on a couple of items, we
are far from starving; Oscar essentially called for a plane — to the
tune of about $140.00 — to bring in his snuff. Did a tally today and
we’re 7,000 pounds short on whitefish.
It's the time of year when everyone begins to look for signs: signs of
moose, signs of snow, signs of beaver feed-piles, signs of Fish spawning
and. ultimately, signs of freeze-up. Those who are not year-round
residents on the lake wait for the break between fall and winter when
they can fly to the safety of Red Lake and south. Oscar’s only full-time
neighbors are Karl and Polly Koezur, prospector and archaeologist, who
live four miles down the lake, and Bruce Smith, trapper on Otto Young's
Freeze-up to Oscar, spells the decisive end to fishing. And the
beginning of another quiet winter with the dogs reading, listening to
the radio, cutting poplar to feed his stove. By not putting up wood in
advance of winter, he forces himself to get outdoors and keep active.
There might be a couple of brief trips to town and perhaps a few
visitors to share a bottle, some tales of wolf activity, and an endless
game of cribbage. I asked Oscar what he thought he'd do if he ever had
to quit fishing. ‘Nothing’. Would he move to town? ‘Oh no! I’d stay
right here. Live in the bush. 1 could never live in the city. It’s no
place for a man to live.’ Has he ever considered finding a partner,
getting married? ‘Nope, Life's too short.' Was that a smile?