Fishing along Lake Erie, in Howard, was for many years a thriving industry with at least four different fisheries in operation. One was at Morpeth known to most as Barker’s Fishery; to the east was a fishery run by Frank Rose; to the west were Colls’ Fishery at Antrim and Bates’ at Sandytown. All were pound net fishermen and many local people found employment with them.
The Bates name has always been common in the annals of the fishing industry. It was back in 1890 that the family came here to open up a fishery on Lake Erie. Those were the days before the automobile and the gasoline motors. All fishing operations then were restricted to sail and row boats. It is interesting to note that Leslie Bates, the last of the Bates to operate the fishery, remembers his father telling him that he saw his first automobile and his first motor boat on the same day while on a trip to Cleveland, Ohio.
The original Bates homestead was on Rondeau Park where four brothers carried on the business. However in 1905, in response to the demands of the government, they moved their business across the Howard-Harwich townline into Howard, having bought property there from a Mr. Mooney.
The pound nets, which all the fisheries along the lake in Howard used, consisted of two parts – the leader and the head. The leader was a net approximately 80 rods long, and was set in towards the shore, crossing the water current. It acted like a fence leading the fish to the head of the net. Here in attempting to swim around the obstacle, the fish would be led into the heart, a closed in area on each side of the leader. In this heart they could swim about, but in all likelihood they would pass through the funnel-shaped entrance into the crib or pound where they would be trapped until the fishermen came and lifted that net. The men pulled a rope shutting off the pound from the tunnel. The net would then be raised on one side and the fish gradually worked to one corner where they could be removed with a dip net. Every time the net was lifted it had to be reset – the net must be pulled down and the tunnel reopened. This method of fishing assured one of getting fresh fish since they were always taken from the net alive. The pound, which was a square net enclosure measuring about 28 feet on each side, was usually the only part visible above the water level.
All of the nets had to be anchored by stakes pounded down by a pile-driving hammer on the scow. The distance the stakes were driven down depended on the lake bottom. If it were sand you would probably go down about 10 feet., but on clay they could not be driven more than 6 feet. These poles used for stakes were up to 60 feet long and not much different from a hydro pole in diameter. They were usually a tamarack, a wood that would float, was tough, and was not too useful for anything else. In the Bate’s time most of these poles were from Sturgeon Falls, many coming from Indian reservations. One could buy a pole then for ten cents a running foot – a sixty foot pole costing only about $6.00. Each set of nets required thirty poles, fifteen for the leader and fifteen more for the head. A fisherman would have more than one set of nets.
They would start driving the stakes in late April. At the end of the fishing season these stakes were pulled and piled on the beaches to await the next season. The fishing license usually ran out December 15th, but the fishermen couldn’t take the chance of leaving them that late, bad weather would have set in before then. The stakes would be pulled in November regardless of the fact that it was still peak production time. More fish would be caught in October and November than all the rest of the year put together.
A never ending job for the fishermen was the keeping of the nets in good repair. At least three times a season the nets were changed. The used-nets would be brought to shore to be mended, dropped in huge vats of hot tar for further protection and then spread out on the ground for several days to dry. Storms often played havoc with the nets causing additional work and expense. In the fall it seemed that the Bates’ fishery suffered their greatest loss after the leaves had dropped, while on the trees the foliage seemed to slow down the velocity of the wind. Nets, prior to the war of 1939-45, were made of cotton, but then nylon replaced the cotton nets.