A SPECIAL "WEEKS AGO" FEATURE:
A look at fishing in years gone by
Bv Mel Robertson
NOW THAT THE TROUT SEASON is open anyone travelling along the several roads that cross Whiteman's Creek will see parked cars and men loading, or unloading, fishing tackle They are, of course, the many fishermen who are seeking to capture the fabulous brown trout that now inhabit the stream. Whiteman's creek has become well known in recent years for its brown trout but there was a time when fishing in the creek was considerably different.
The reason for the difference was that prior to the 1940s the creek was divided into sections by mill dams that barred fish from coming up stream from the Grand River. There was the dam at Apps Mill, the Mt. Vernon dam, the Red Mill Dam (Jack Whitehead's property) and the dam at the Hathaway Mill one mile north of the village. These dams did not have fish ladders and whereas fish could go downstream over the dams or sluices, they could not come upstream. As a result each section of the stream tended to have its own aura and to attract fishermen who would not cast their lines elsewhere.
It is hard to determine what kind of fish the early settlers caught in Whiteman's Creek for the few who kept diaries did not mention them. Fish, like any other wild food, were caught and eaten and unless there was something strange about them no one bothered to note it.
The first printed references to Burford fish are found in the 1886 Burford "Times" and these consist of editorial jibes at men who took time to fish when they should have been engaged in useful labour and to sarcastic comment about the size of the fish they caught. From the number of newspaper items about local fishing it is obvious that it must have been good.
In the early days pike abounded in Whiteman's creek and its tributaries. In the spring these fish came up the drain west of Burford in great numbers. Catching them by hand became a local sport and there are stories of how crowds of men would line the drain, leaping in to "rassle" the fish ashore. The water in the drain was much higher than it is now so the fish had a fairly good chance of escaping.
No large picnic was without its fisherman and there are a number of old photos of Methodist choir picnics where, among the fashionable-dressed ladies, are men in 3-piece business suits proudly display-
ing strings of large pike they had caught while the ladies were preparing tea.
How were these fish captured? Picnic dress in the late 1800s and early 1900s tended to be rather formal. Casual summer attire such as we know it, was not available and consequently people went to picnics in the same clotnes they wore to church. Men never doffed their celluloid collars and heavy ties, and hesitated to roll up their sleeves. Yet each of these picnic pictures show at least a dozen pike from 36 to 40 inches long weighing down the shoulders of well dressed gentlemen. Examination of the fish does not reveal and evidence of snaring or spearing so fimust be assumed that they were taken with live bait such as minnows or frogs. Chasing the fish into shallow water could have taken place but it is doubtful if these formally attired gentlemen would have risked the embarrassment they would have caused if any of the fashionably dressed ladies had caught them with their sleeves or pant legs rolled up. Other photos such as those with this article show local fishermen posing in front of the Armoury cannon with large strings of big pike.
Pike were harvested in such numbers that by the 1920s, when I became a fisherman, it was a rare thing to see a pike in the creek. When one was spotted it was quickly snared by someone adept at this form of fishing. A few large bass (and many small ones) could be found but the main fish population consisted of two kinds of "suckers" (mullet), lots of "shiners", a funny little fish we called a "Horned dace" and a rather oriental-looking thing that hugged the bottom and was reputed to carry stones on its snout. We called this a "Stone-carrier". Suckers, like shad, were full of bones but had sweet flesh that could be eaten by people patient enough to pick through the bones. "Shiners" were form six to eight inches long and if you look the trouble to scale and prepare a dozen, made a good meal. No one thought of eating a "Stone-carrier" and if caught they were quickly cast aside.
The large bass in the creek could be numbered on both hands and kids knew the location of every one. When I was about 12 I caught one of these fabulous bass. It weighed a couple of pounds and would not be considered large today. I was very proud of my achievement and was showing my catch to everyone until a man with more wisdom than I told me I should eat or hid it, as the season was not yet open.
In the 1930s, for some unknown reason, large carp began to appear in the creek. It was thought at the time that they had come upstream.£Qrir4.the Grand but when we consider the clay and rock shelf below Apps dam one would wonder how any fish could have got up it. It is more likely that they came down from some upper part of the stream. However, there they were and I can recall the disgust that boys showed when they caught one of these sluggish fish. Carp turned up in strange places and can recall a stagnant pool on the Stuart flats that was about 40 feet wide and a couple of feet deep. It was edged with reeds and water lilies, and looked uninhabited to all intents and purposes. But if you threw a stone among the reeds a very large carp would glide out to look things over. It must have weighed six or seven pounds and I suspect that it had been trapped in the pool during some Spring freshet. I often wondered what became of this carp as no kid would have thought twice about trying to catch it.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s rumours went about that the creek had been stocked with trout but as far as we boys were concerned it could have been tuna or sharks as we never noticed any change in the fish population. Later stocking with brown trout has been successful and now good sized fish can be taken. I cannot comment on later developments as my fishing days are long past.
It may seem strange in 1990 that so many men spent so much time fishing, but we must remember that in those days, apart form work, there was not much else to do. Gardening took up some spare time and there was football or baseball to watch and Burford Band concerts in front of what is now the Township office. However, to fill in the intervals men went fishing. Some men became well known for their fishing skill and could be seen on any sunny summer day "wheeling" toward the creek with a fishing pole attached to their bikes. Some were admired for their sporting instincts while others were despised by those who felt that fishing did not constitute daily toil. Fishing could involve certain other skills for it was frsupr? Toneafhemnst ardent of afternoon fishermen was not really a fisherman but was using his fish pole to disguise that fact that he went to the creek to meet his lady friend among the bushes. I cannot speculate on how successful he was in this line of endeavour but there is a Latin phrase which loosely translated means "Love Conquers All" so I guess that love sure beat fishing as an afternoon activity.
Fishing equipment in the 1920s was simple. None of the kids had steel rods or reels or anything like that. Neither did they have the traditional willow pole cut by horny pioneer hands from a willow tree. No they all had bamboo poles of oriental extraction. These lasted for years and if one happened to break you went to any local store. There, by the front door, would be a bundle of bamboo poles of various sizes and lengths. You eyed them with pretended skill whipping them back and forth and wondering what length and strength would suit your ability. While you did this the store proprietor would stand by yawning and urging you to make up your mind. Finally after the pole had been selected you took it home, cut off the thin upper end and wodfol your "fishing line" on what was left. This varied in length and strength and was capable of landing almost anything. Sinkers of great weight were added and
hooks capable of landing Jonah's swallower. Floats were despised as useless things that old men used when fishing from Port Dover pier. Only earthworms or "fish-worms" were acceptable bait and any kid who tried to used a minnow or a grasshopper was thought to be cruel to animals. Other fishing equipment was minimal. A jackknife was essential for if you caught fish you cut a branched piece of a a tree and strung the catch on it.
Another big problem about fishing was the lack of drinking water. No one thought of drinking water from the creek even though in the 1920s it was probably as pure as some of the water that Bur-ford people drank from their open wells. Little springs of water were sought and cherished. The best area for springs was the Scott or Unk flats one mile north. There, with a bit of hand-work, little drinking places could be made and a thirsty kid could enjoy ice-cold spring water. One some occasions we went to the pump on the Bridge property (now Havens). Mr. & Mrs. Bridge were always happy to welcome little fishermen but when the property changed the new owner (whose name I cannot remember) told us in no uncertain terms that if any kids came for a drink at his pump he would boot them off his property.
A day's fishing in the 1920s could involve travel over at least 10 miles of land. Walking was easy for cattle were pastured on the flats and the grass was short and park-like. Consequently it was not uncommon for kids to go as far east as Apps dam and as far west as the "High Banks". When this was added to the two miles getting to and front the creek it can be seen that a lot of land was covered.
As far as I can determine fishing in Whiteman's Creek is now an adult sport that is not "awesome" enough for kids. The pleasure of stalking and catching a fish and enjoying Nature in the process is quiet when compared with computers, trail bikes, heavy metal and books on how to "make out" with girls. Since we lacked these marvellous inventions in the 1920s we had nothing better to do than go fishing and swimming. We didn't learn much from these activities that was useful to us in later life, although I dare say if we had come upon the local lover and his lass among the willows we might have learned a few facts of life. They were simple times and we were simple kids who made our own fun. If we had complained to our parents that "There's nothing to do" they would have given us some onerous job like shelling peas. To avoid this we went fishing and I can still recall how my mother hid her weariness when faced with a string of 8-inch "shiners" that she was expected to cook for me.
Local fishing has received little publicity in recent years except when someone lands a record-making trout. This is nice to see but it cannot match the public outrage that local people expressed in old Burford "Times" and "Advance" papers whenever the local editor (an ardent fisherman) failed to report that one of the local mill ponds was to be drained for repairs. Fishing and fish were so popular that everyone felt that scrambling about in the mud for trapped fish was one of their civic rights.
And so fish come and go. We brag about the big ones we caught and the bigger ones that got away. These are the thoughts that fade but let us hope that the thoughts that do not fade are of the beautiful scenery and things we experienced while we sought the elusive fish.