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Oscar Peterson, Fisherman


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 weather.

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 respective nets.

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 replied ‘Both’.

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 together.

'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 sorting fish.

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 modification.

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, reef-spawning beds.

‘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 forty-five.'

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 given away.

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 line.

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?


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