Fishing History at the Heart of Erie Stories, Almost Isle
PFBC steelhead nets in Trout Run of Erie County for hatchery use
CBFP officials and a group of volunteers spent rainbow trout at an Erie County nursery in November to be used for spawning in a hatchery.
Jeff Kirik, Erie Times-News
Lake Erie and Almost Isle Bay have long been an angler’s paradise. However, from 1850 to the mid-1920s, fishing was also a major industry in Erie.
While some of the fish caught at the time have all but disappeared from this area, the fishing is still excellent today. From 1850 to 1910, whitefish, herring, sturgeon, and northern pike were the most fished in Lake Erie and Almost Isle Bay. Fish caught today include lake trout, walleye, bass and yellow perch. Around 1923, more than 140 fishing boats were working the Erie waterfront.
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In 1850, Erie’s population was about 5,900, and by 1860 it had grown to 9,500. It would take only 10 more years to add 10,000 new residents. The importance of the Port of Erie and the continued development of the city have become major areas of economic interest. In the early 1900s, Erie became the “Freshwater Fishing Capital of the World”. It was great for the economic life of Erie. Tugboats meant jobs in shipyards, janitors, fuel docks, ice manufacturing and storage companies, deckhands, and parts and equipment suppliers. All of these new jobs and the families they have brought have spurred growth.
Erie’s place in the fishing world reached its peak in the early 1920s, when approximately 3,500 people were employed full-time on the boats and in the fish processing plants located in the port of Erie. . In addition to the Erie-based tugs, when the fish started serious “runs”, tugs from as far away as Lake Huron and Michigan made the trip to Erie.
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Old stories say that Native Americans taught a loner named McKinney how to fish. The elders believed he traded metal knives for an old, worn out canoe. He lived in the Head area of Près Isle Bay, which was much larger and contained a huge pond. Many days McKinney went door to door selling fish.
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Winter at Almost Isle State Park
Watch the video of winter highlights at Près Isle State Park near Erie, PA.
The first fishermen ashore or in small boats were pleased with any passing fish and took their bait. Their catches included herring, bass, perch, crappie, catfish, and the occasional Lake Erie whitefish. If they could get out on the lake, whitefish, blue pike and yellow pike (now called walleye) became the fish of choice.
Early settlers in the area fished in large log canoes. The logs were picked up on Almost Isle or south of town and built by local craftsmen. They usually fished in the bay; however, they stayed close to shore as they emerged onto the waters of Lake Erie. The characteristic 5-6 foot waves on the lake could quickly sink their canoes or small craft.
The park’s elderly hermit, Joe Root, learned to be a commercial fisherman as a child. But he soon realized that fishing was not “his glass of beer”. Joe did most of his fishing from the lighthouse keeper’s boathouse on Misery Bay. He caught way more fish than he could eat. He was usually able to beg ice from his friends on the fishing boats and keeping the fish on ice he saved them for the weekends as he knew many of the townspeople would come to Près Isle on those days -the. He always said they came to “Cut a little and eat his fried fish”.
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Joe found three old frying pans and had a good supply of raccoon, duck or goose fat. He would light a fire and prepare a batch of fried fish. He always wrapped his fried fish in newspaper.
Fishing has always been part of the histories of Erie and Près Isle.
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See you at the park!
Gene Ware is the author of 10 books. He sits on the board of directors of the Près Isle Light Station and has served as chairman of the boards of the Tom Ridge Center Foundation and the Près Isle Partnership. Email him at [email protected]