For Great Lakes Indians, fishing was a year-round occupation.
With plenty of streams and lakes to draw from, they depended on fish for a great part of their diet. Among the Ojibwe, women did most of the fishing, except for ice fishing in the winter and spear fishing in the spring. A wide variety of methods were used, including line and fishhooks, nets, spears, traps, lures, bait, and a line for trolling.
On large lakes, seine nets were used, for they made it relatively easy to garner large numbers and a great variety of fish. Traditionally, nets were made of bark-fiber cord and nettle-stalk twine. However, for many years, manufactured twine has been used and was even issued by the U.S. government as a part of yearly annuities to tribes. After being thoroughly washed, nets were sometimes dipped in a liquid made of sumac leaves to kill any odor still clinging to the cord. Indian people felt that no fish would come near a net with the slightest odor on it. "Medicine" was also placed on the nets to insure a good catch.
Spears with wooden shafts and single points were used for spearing sturgeon, while a trident or three-pronged spear tip was used for smaller fish. There were two methods of spearing: one was done at night with the use of a torch (similar to shining deer at night), and the other in the winter through the ice. For the latter, a wooden lure shaped like a minnow or a frog was lowered though a hole in the ice. The fisherman lay flat on his stomach and covered his head with a blanket, sometimes fashioned over a small frame to create a miniature tent. This blocked out the light and allowed him to see the fish as it came up to strike at the lure. The Indian, holding his lure at the end of a stick, jiggled it up and down to give it a swimming motion. In his other hand, he held his spear ready to strike at the proper moment.
Fishing with Hook and Line
Bait was also fastened to a hook at the end of a string and then let down into the water. Hooks were usually made of deer bone, native copper, and later wire. Trolling was done from the canoe. The line was twisted around the paddler's wrist and then around the paddle itself. The action of the paddle moving through the water wiggled the line and attracted the fish.
Traps were fashioned from twigs and branches of trees and were used for both large and small fish. Sturgeon in Lake Superior were often caught in this manner. In the spring, a framework was built across the mouth of the river after the fish had gone up to spawn. Heavy timbers were set into the ground across the river and poles fastened to them so the traps were heavy enough for men to sit on. The poles were connected with a basswood-fiber netting. After spawning, as the fish tried to return to the lake, Indian men sitting just above the water caught and killed them with clubs. Another method was to build a V of rocks across a stream, with a runway at the center over which the fish would be directed and then clubbed.
Cooking and Preserving Fish
Fish were cooked in a variety of ways: boiled, roasted on spits, or dried on scaffolds in the sun or over a slow fire. Brook trout and other small fish were smoked whole. Larger fish were split and drawn, then grilled, smoked, or dried. Often the fry or smoked fish were pounded before being boiled, or pulverized and then added to cornmeal mush. Fish was also added to wild rice. Sturgeon roe (caviar) was highly regarded, and was eaten fresh or dried for later use. In winter, fresh fish were frozen without being cleaned. Some fish were split down the back and laid flat in a birchbark container. When they were cooked, the skin was peeled off before being eaten.