Fishing has long been an important source of income for the people of Buffalo Narrows, but even before the first permanent residents settled in the area, the transient Indian groups of the area had come to "the narrows" to catch and dry fish in the summer. One of the first companies to come to the lakes adjacent to Buffalo Narrows, to catch fish and buy fish in the winter, was the McInnes Fish Company of Edmonton in 1916. This company fished on Big Peter Pond (Big Buffalo Lake) establishing it's "Headquarters" on the west side of the lake. McInnes had bunkhouses for the men and barns for the horses at this headquarters. Men were employed by this company to gut the fish that McInnes bought on the lake. Horses were used to transport the fish from the lake to the headquarters, and freight the product out to the railroad at Cheecham, Alberta. Later, trucks were used for this trip over the winter road. According to Maglaire Morin of Buffalo Narrows, this company bought only whitefish and paid four cents a pound.
In 1920, at age fourteen, Blanche MacDonald recalls babysitting for the wife of Gilly Sigurder who had a fishing camp on the west side of Big Peter Pond Lake. This operation employed sixty men and was based in Edmonton, Alberta.
Fresh fish shack on Mason Lake. (left)
Winter fishing at Whitson Lake.
(Courtesy of John and Mary Hansen)
Other early fish buyers were George Rizer (est. 1911) and later called Big River Consolidated Fisheries in the late 1930's, Clarke's from Meadow Lake and Waite Fisheries Ltd. (established in 1930) from Big River.
During the 1933 season, the fish business was so bad that many buyers ceased business as "prices dropped so low that it wasn't worth the cost of freight and boxes" to buy and ship fish.
Winter fishing was a hard, cold affair. The equipment consisted of a horse (later replaced by "cats" and trucks) and sleigh, hay for the horses to eat, nets, floats, an ice chisel, a needle bar, axes, a shovel and grub. Fishermen usually worked in pairs, often living out of a caboose that they had dragged onto the ice. Fishing began in early December, and consisted of getting up early in the morning to dig a two foot hole in the ice. The jigger was then run out one hundred yards. Another hole was then cut directly behind the far end of the jigger. The line was hauled through the hole by means of a wooden hook. Posts were then weighted down and frozen into each hole in the ice. Nets were strung in series of not more than twenty in a row. The nets were lifted through the basin hole. Two men could handle about thirty-five nets for winter fishing.
In these early days, nets were set at night and pulled out to dry in the daytime (for summer fishing). Commercial fishing in the summer was limited because the nets were made of cotton which tended to rot very quickly in hot weather. In addition, prior to 1943, the fishermen had no way to preserve the fresh fish. The summer was the time for the commercial fisherman to mend and dry his nets, oil the wooden floats with linseed oil and make homemade beer. During the 1930's, people came to Buffalo Narrows from Beauval, Ile-A-La-Crosse, and other nearby places to catch fish in the summer for their own use. These people dried fish and made fish oil for cooking. They camped out in tents at the site of the present day ball diamond, (Tinkers' Park). Racks were constructed to dry fish.
Local fishing was begun in Buffalo Narrows in 1918 by an enterprising Norwegian, Tom Pederson (left). He was later joined by three others from the same village in Norway. As operations grew, other local people started fishing as well. Some of the early fishermen in Buffalo Narrows were Jacob Halvorsen, Reider Pedersen and John Swanvick.
Celina and Tom Pedersen with Bill Publicover drinking home-made beer.
(Courtesy of John and Mary Hansen).
Waites Fisheries Ltd.
In 1943, Waites Fisheries constructed a filleting plant in Buffalo Narrows near the present site of Athabasca Airways. This marks the beginning of commercial fishing in the summer in the Buffalo Narrows region. Waite pioneered the filleting of fish as a method of processing fish in Saskatchewan in this plant. A hotel and cafe run by Tom Der, a duplex, several individual houses and bunkhouses were constructed at the same time as the fish plant, to house and feed the skilled employees (brought in from Big River and Canwood to run the fish plant). Etta Clark was in charge of filleting at this time. Lumber to build these structures was brought in from the Big River sawmill on barges made of lumber which were torn apart and used for lumber after the trip was over. This plant was destroyed by fire in January of 1951.
Waites old fish plant, built in 1942 and burned in 1950 (left).
(Courtesy of John and Mary Hansen).
Waites Filleting Plant, 1943 (right).
(Courtesy of the Sask. Archives Board: Star-Phoenix Collection).
Some of the independent fishermen who sold fish to Waites in these early days were Alfred Tinker, Bjarne Fjelldal, Tom Pedersen, Reider Pedersen, John Swanvick, Gene Chartier, Richard Gallant, Tony Ericson, Evan Bakken, Pierre McCallum, and Frank Nordstrom.
In 1951, Len Waite built a new fish plant at a cost of over one hundred thousand dollars. It was at this point that Richard Waite (the son of Len Waite and the present owner of Waite Fisheries) came to Buffalo Narrows to lend a hand with the family business.
In 1969, the Freshwater Fish Marketing Board was established to market fish in some Canadian Provinces. Waite Fisheries became an agent for this Winnipeg based crown corporation in that year. Prior to 1969 Waites had sold their fish to "brokers" in Montreal, New York, and Chicago or to meat packing plants such as Burns, Swifts, and Canada Packers.
In the early 1940's Waites boated their processed fish from Buffalo Narrows to Fort Black or Beauval in the summer, on a freezer barge built by Frank Nordstrom. The frozen fish was then trucked to Big River where it was placed in railway cars for shipment to market. In the winter, the trucks came to Buffalo Narrows on the summer road to pick up the fish. Since the completion of the all-weather road in 1957, all of the processed fish has been shipped out in refrigerated trucks.
Fish plant equipment (1956)
Courtesy of Sask. Archives Board: Star Phoenix Collection).
Fish pilot Jim Barber, flies from Buffalo Narrows to Big River.
Courtesy of the Sask. Archives Board: Star-Phoenix Collection).
In the late 1940's, fresh fish were brought to the plant in skiffs or canoes locally, and by pilots such as Jim Barber, George Greening, Tom McCloy, and Cal Finlayson from outlying areas. In more recent times, John Midgett has flown fish in from up north.
In 1954-55, Jack Abbey built a small filleting plant on the site of Norton's old mink ranch. This plant operated for approximately one year before it was flooded out. Waite Fisheries bought the equipment when it closed down.
The adjacent lakes that are fished by the local fishermen are Big Peter Pond (Big Buffalo), Little Peter Pond (Little Buffalo), Churchill Lake (Clear Lake) and Frobisher Lake (Island Lake). Maglaire Morin recalls that a limit of five hundred thousand pounds of whitefish was taken on Big Peter Pond Lake in as little as a week in the early days. From 1941 to 1950, the average production of Big Peter Pond (excluding mink ranchers) was nearly seven hundred thousand pounds, while Churchill Lake averaged five hundred and sixty-six thousand pounds. The present limit on both Big Peter Pond and Little Peter Pond is three hundred thousand pounds, while the limit on Churchill lake is four hundred thousand pounds.
In 1951, the net revenue from fishing on the four adjacent lakes totalled eighty-seven thousand dollars. Wages from the fish plant that same year approximated thirty-four thousand dollars.
In the 1930's whitefish and jackfish were in the greatest demand. In the 1940's, the demand for pickerel increased. Since 1950, the Waite plant has been processing more jackfish than anything else. In the 1930's and 1940's the prices varied (according to the demand and quality of fish), with two to four cents per pound being common prices. At the present time, the Freshwater Fish Marketing Board lists Export Whitefish at twenty-one to forty-seven cents per pound. Continental Whitefish at seventeen to twenty-eight cents per pound, Round Pickerel from forty-eight to sixty-two cents per pound, Headless Pickerel from seventy-one to ninety cents per pound, Round Jackfish at sixteen cents per pound and Headless Jackfish at twenty cents per pound. (The price range for these fish is dependent on size).
Each year the Freshwater Fish Marketing Board classifies lakes according to the quality (severity of cysts) of fish in the lakes. At present, Churchill Lake is classified as a Continental Lake while Big Peter Pond and Frobisher are all Export Lakes. These classifications can change from year to year depending on the severity of cysts found in the fish. Export fish have fewer cysts and can be sold in the United States, While Continental fish have more cysts and are acceptable only for the Canadian Market.
The Waite plant processes about two million pounds of fish per year at the present time. Jackfish make up about half of this total, while whitefish account for about twenty-five percent, and pickerel twenty percent. The remainder is made up of lake trout and mullet.
The period of peak production for the Waite plant in Buffalo Narrows was during the late 1960's and early 1970's. At that time, there were as many as two hundred and fifty to three hundred men who made their living as fishermen. At present there are one hundred and seventy-five fishermen in the area. During this peak period, the plant employed as many as forty to fifty people.
In 1975-76, the Waite Filleting Plant ceased filleting due to increased operating costs. At the present time, the plant employs eight to ten people packing, weighing and packaging fish.
Hugh McKay Ross, Barbara Kirk and pilot Rene Baudais at Buffalo Narrows.
In the background is the Waites Fisheries plant (1950's).
(Courtesy of J. Gordon Schillingford Publishing).
The Operation of the 1951 Waite Fisheries Plant
When the fishermen brought the fish to the plant, the fish were weighed and the fishermen was given his slip. The catch was then put on ice to await processing. Immediately prior to processing, the fish were washed in a machine to remove slime and bacteria. The fish were then split in half (filleted). Whitefish were ribbed, skinned and candled (to locate cysts). The cysts (if present) were then removed. The fillets were weighed and divided into one-pound or five-pound portions depending on market demands.
Weighing and wrapping fillets at the Waite plant.
(L- R): Carol Sernes, Germaine Pedersen, and Dorothy Petit.
Marcel McKay packaging fish.
(Courtesy of the Sask. Archive Board: Star-Phoenix Collection).
The next step was to wrap the fillets before placing the wrapped fillet package into the Amerio-Contact Plate Freezer for one to three hours. The packages were then packed into master cartons of forty-eight or fifty pounds. At this point, the master cartons were stapled and put in cold storage to await shipment.
The fishermen were paid in cash (in the early days) and by cheque in later years. If Waites had advanced the fisherman a grubstake (a common practice) of food, gas, and/or equipment, this would be deducted from his payment.
Fish plant equipment (1956) (left).
(Courtesy of the Sask. Archives Board: Star-Phoenix Collection)
The Fishermen's Association
The Fishermen's Association of Buffalo Narrows was started in 1965-66, although fishermen had been holding meetings for several years prior to this date. The objectives of the association were to help the D.N.R. to set quotas for fishermen, set open seasons for fishing, set lake limits, set net sizes, grant licenses to fishermen and to provide a collective voice when dealing with government. Fishermen, a D.N.R. official and a representative of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Board usually attended the meetings.