Preserving the Catch: How Tradition May Save Door County’s Fresh Water Harvest
By Jessica Luhning | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
Nets cast to a depth of one hundred feet are pulled hand over hand into the wooden 26-foot Mackinaw boat. Hands, now raw and bloodied, grip the oars seven miles and four hours from shore on a night so black only the stars and lit lanterns provide safe passage home. The wooden boat, heavy with 600 pounds of net and the day’s harvest, glides steady upon the smooth surface of the water. Once home there is time for a quick hot meal before dressing and salting the day’s catch, which is placed in the cooper’s oak barrels for storage. Tomorrow is much the same, up before sun-rise, dry nets loaded, shoulders dug in and hands to the oars. A westerly breeze may quicken the journey or, possibly, a galeforce squall at sunset, far from home. Such was the life of a Lake Michigan fisherman in the 1860s. (Account adapted from Trygvie Jensen’s Wooden Boats and Iron Men, 2007.)
As the largest body of freshwater in the world, the Great Lakes have shaped a culture rich with tradition in commercial fishing. Lake Michigan, the third largest of the Great Lakes, has produced the greatest harvest of freshwater fish with its cold water and granite bedrock islands— the perfect grounds for lake trout, whitefish, herring and chub.
Prior to 1830, most fish caught were sold or bartered within a single community. It wasn’t until the 1840s that improvements in transportation allowed for an expansion in markets, with fish being transported throughout the Great Lakes from Chicago east to Buffalo and New York City. The industry continued to grow, hitting its peak in the 1880s when over 1,500 fishermen were employed on Lake Michigan, boasting the largest fishery of all the Great Lakes.
After the turn of the 20th century, Door County fisheries faced a number of threats including over fishing, environmental pollution and invasive species. Lake trout and herring had all but disappeared, and the fisheries that remained were only able to sustain themselves and keep harvests consistent by marketing different species of fish and relying on federally-funded restocking programs.
With the fisheries struggling, a handful of the peninsula’s bustling towns transitioned from fishing communities to summer tourist destinations. One such community is Fish Creek, located on the northern, Green Bay side of the peninsula.