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Early days Ohio fishing

By DICK MARTIN • Sep 23, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Most outdoor oriented readers are very familiar with Lake Erie, and know well the excellent fishing for walleye and perch, and at least decent action on smallmouths.

They're equally familiar with fishing at Charles Mill, Clear Fork, and other area lakes and streams. But did you ever wonder what fishing was like in 1808, and before and after? It was far different from the sport we enjoy now.

Huron County pioneers who could make their way to Lake Erie, either by wagon or on tributary streams like the Sandusky by boat could make unbelievable catches there, taking enough fillets that when dried or salted would last for months.

Catches were so good on Erie in those days (and before) that tribes like the Eries lived along its shores and made most of their living by fishing from canoes with seine and gill nets. It was also so good that tribes from as far south as the Ohio River came to the lake over portage-and-paddle routes up the Miami and down the Maumee.

Some fish were more important than others. Dr. Milton B. Trautman in his book, Fishes of Ohio, went into the history of Lake Erie fishes as well as offering modern day information, On the subject of walleye, he noted that it was an important food source for early pioneers and local Indians, and that great quantities were caught in the Maumee River in seines, fish that reached 18 to 20 pounds.

Yellow perch, a real delicacy these days, were a big surprise. Trautman quotes Klippart (1877) as saying "its flesh is soft, rather coarse, and insipid, and at best it is nothing more than a third-rate panfish." It was only after 1900 that perch became esteemed as food. I wander if it wasn't lack of ice that caused their earlier poor quality?

Smallmouth bass fishing was amazing along Lake Erie in early days, The fish were so thick that they could be caught with spears, gigs, bows, hook and line, nets, seines, weirs and even guns. The Bass Islands got their name from the fact that around 1877 several tons of black basses were taken daily with hook and line. That's a lot of bass.

Inland, anglers in 1808 found fishing a far different proposition than it is today. Streams and rivers and natural lakes, just as in Lake Erie, were teeming with fish. Channel cats, for example, were found in many larger streams, and were fished for extensively by pioneers since they were considered excellent food. They were caught by hook and line and by nets which often came in bursting with fish, and not only channel cats.

Muskies were a frequent catch in many of the larger rivers, and were often speared at night by the light of torches as they migrated over shallows on spring spawning runs. Some of these reached 60 pounds or better. Smallmouth bass were nearly as plentiful in streams and rivers as along Lake Erie, and weighed up to seven or eight pounds. They were a valued food source for both Indians and pioneers, particularly during years when crops were poor and game became scarce.

Men captured these bass in the rivers with spears, gigs, bows and arrows, with jacklights in a boat or canoe at night, and with hook and line, weirs, seines, and nets. Their numbers fell quickly under such pressure until by mid-century they had grown fairly scarce, but smallmouths saved many a pioneer family from starvation when they were caught in numbers, cleaned, and salted down into barrels for winter use.

There were other fish waiting to be caught by early anglers. Huge shovelhead catfish lived in holes along the larger rivers, and were occasionally caught by hook and line. Largemouth bass were believed to be present too, in the early 1800's, present in the glacial lakes of the middle third of the state and in the weedy, prairie streams into which they drained. And, of course, there were numerous smaller fish, bluegill, crappie, suckers and others waiting to make a meal for some hungry family. It all made for far different fishing from today. I wish I could have seen it.

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• Despite windy and rainy weather this past summer, workers have a large percentage of the cleaning completed on the memorial column at Perry's Victory and International Peach Memorial. Construction manager Jeff Ashton said the restoration project is on schedule with 20 percent of the work removing the caulking complete and workers currently replacing the mortar in areas where caulking has been removed. It should be finished by January and will hopefully reopen by next May.

• U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Berhnardt with the National Park Service recently announced $592,496 in Historic Preservation Grants to Ohio. "These grants highlight the Department's and the National Park Service commitment to preserving our national history and heritage," Bernhardt said. "Through valuable partnerships, we are able to help communities and protect the diverse historic places, culture, and traditions unique to our country for future generations." A worthwhile use for the money. 

• Ohio's ginseng season opened Sept. 1 and will remain open until Dec. 31. The highly prized roots are worth up to $400 per pound to Asian buyers and about 3,200 pounds of the dried root are harvested from the state each year. But there are numerous regulations attached to the hunting and digging season, and seekers must read them closely. They're available on Page 42 of the Ohio Hunting & Trapping Regulations 2017-18 booklet.

Dick Martin is a free-lance writer from Shelby. Reach him at [email protected] You can also visit his blog at outdoorswithmartin.com.

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