Old Kenosha: A February fishing adventure

Old Kenosha: A February fishing adventure

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Editor’s note: This is the first part of two-part series. The second part will appear in Monday’s edition.

Sometimes in my research I find rabbit holes. And like a determined terrier, I dig deep into them.

This usually is a distraction and I find I have to refocus back to the subject at hand.

In researching this month’s column, I fell right into a rabbit hole, but this one led to another story with a firm Kenosha connection.

Both stories took place on Lake Michigan in the deep of winter during the 1930s. The common denominator is a ship: the Marold II.

On the chilly lake

Can you imagine spending 15 hours out on Lake Michigan on a day like today? Me neither.

But many commercial fishermen here did just that in the mid-20th century, if they could maneuver through the ice floes.

Tucked away in the archives of the Kenosha History Center is a letter written by Kenoshan LeRoy Nohling, dated Feb. 14, 1931.

LeRoy, 24, related his experience of that week:

“Nathan, my cousin, called up about midnight the night before to suggest that as long as neither of us were working, we might as well take a trip on one of the fishing boats here in the harbor. At six in the morning, we were down at the pier looking ‘em over.

“As the lake is often rough at this time of the year, and my stomach (thanks to a party the night before) was in no shape to stand too much bobbing around, we passed up the little 40- and 50-footers and decided on the largest fish tug there, the Marold.”

In truth, the ship was called the Marold II. It was 110 feet long by about 20 feet wide and cut the water easily at high speeds with very little wave-making.

The ship had already survived one disaster after catching fire and sinking. The steel hull was all that was left, and the new owners got it for a song.

They enclosed the entire deck all around with a steel wall about 6 feet high and a steel roof.

“She is not designed for fishing and only does that in the winter months...” wrote LeRoy.

Off to the fishing grounds

The waves were only 4-5 feet high on that day, but the sight of the smaller boats rolling around compared to the smooth even roll of the Marold made LeRoy and Nathan glad they chose the larger boat.

Their destination — the net buoy — was 12 miles out.

“How they can navigate for miles out of sight of anything and tell just to the minute when they are going to run across the buoy, a fence post with a bamboo fish pole standing up on it, is more than I can see, but they do it. The buoy is fastened to the bait nets, which lay near the bottom in 30 fathoms of water.”

The boat was equipped with a “lifter,” a steam-driven machine which grips a rope, line or edge of a net and deposits it in a box “slick as a whistle.”

These bait or gill nets hung vertically in the water with floats on the top edge and sinkers on the bottom. The target fish are bloater chubs, a freshwater whitefish, which are used for bait. The smaller bloaters go through the net and the larger bump into the net and turn back.

“The bloaters are 6 to 8 inches long, looking much like a perch; they die soon after being caught and swell up due to the large amount of air that collects in their air blatter (sic). Thus when the nets are lifted, the fish have swelled into the mesh, and it takes skill to get them out without breaking them. If they are squeezed or stepped on, they pop like a firecracker.”

They took in 800 pounds of bait that day.

Then came stage two: the hook line. This enabled the fishermen to get what they were really after: lake trout!

They attached the bloaters to hooks, through the back and then through the gills because a trout always takes them head first. As they worked, the boat headed to even deeper water.

The hooks were fastened to lighter lines tied to a long, weighted cord. The line was then played out into the water through a chute in the stern.

Here come the trout!

After a few hours, the fishermen took up the hook line, and the lifting began. As the lifter pulls in the line at the bow, the boat moves forward about 2 mph.

“A man baits another line as it moves out the chute at the rear end, so that when they are through taking in one line, another has been laid in its place. Trout taken average about 4 pounds and are from 14 to 24 inches long.”

The trout are good eating, being that they come from cold, deep water and have plenty of fat.

“One of the crew taught me a new one in cookery. He took a nice fresh trout, cleaned it and cut the head off, but left fins, skin, etc. on, stuffed it with chopped onions, salt and pepper, wrapped it in a half dozen layers of brown paper and laid it on top of the steam boiler with a bunch of old rags and a block of wood over it. Four hours later I ate the best prepared fish I had ever tasted.”

LeRoy, Nathan and the crew lifted 11.5 miles of line, but the catch was small, only worth about $80, equal to $1,314 in 2020 dollars.

“For some reason this winter has been poor for the fishermen; I guess they (the fish) know about the depression and are holding out for higher prices.

“It took a little over five hours to make the 50-mile run home and the seas were a little bit higher, so I felt almost sick. One of the crew waved some smokes in front of me as a final test; when I took one and smoked it, he gave up waiting for me to get sick and the test was over.

“At 10 o’clock at night we were home again.”

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