Another IAGenWeb Project





PERHAPS a few words regarding the fishing and the interests connected with it may not be wholly uninteresting. Fabulous stories have been told first and last of the Spirit Lake and Okoboji fishing, but no ordinary report has been given out that exceeded the truth as it was in the early days. These conditions remained in force until near the close of the seventies, when it began to be noticed that the fish were beginning to thin out or get scarce. This was due to two principal causes. In the first place no restrictions had ever been placed on the number of fish taken, or the manner of taking them, and the result was that fish were taken away in enormous quantities. Parties would come from long distances in every direction, bringing their seines and spears and a boat, and barrels for packing fish and salt for putting them down, and going into camp would remain as long as they cared to, and then give way to some other party.


In this way hundreds of tons were taken. In many instances, where parties didn't understand putting them down properly, they spoiled before reaching home and had to be thrown away. This class was never popular here and soon won the appellation "swill barrel fishermen." In the second place, during the high water of the ten years following 1874, vast numbers went down stream that never found their way back. The two mills on the outlet were built before the legislature passed the act requiring the owners of waterpowers to put fishways in their dams, consequently neither of the dams on the outlet were provided with fishways. It was an easy matter for fish to go downs stream, but impossible for them to get back. It is probable that more fish went down stream and failed to find their way back during those years of high water than have ever been caught out of the lakes since fishing first began. In view of these facts it soon began to be talked that measures must be devised to prevent their too rapid destruction, and also to replenish the diminishing supply.


To meet the emergency the Seventeenth General Assembly, in the spring of 1878, passed an act requiring the owners of dams "to construct and maintain fishways of suitable capacity and facility to afford a free passage for fish up and down through such water course when the water of said stream is running over said dam." In the same act all dams or obstructions not provided with fishways were declared nuisances, to be abated under the law relating to nuisances. This section of the law was afterwards declared unconstitutional so far as it related to dawns built previous to the passage of the law, and as both of the dams on the outlet to the lakes were built prior to that time no fishways were ever erected in them.


In the spring of 1880, the state legislature enacted a law providing for an additional fish hatchery at Spirit Lake, and the appointment of an assistant fish commissioner. Previous to this time the state had erected a hatchery near Anamosa, in Jones County, and Mr. Shaw, the fish commissioner, used occasionally to send to the lakes quantities of small fish, but the distance was so great and the means of transportation so inadequate that the amount of replenishing done through that channel was of little if any benefit.


A. A. Mosher, of Spirit Lake, was appointed assistant commissioner. He at once went to work with the limited appropriation at his disposal, and erected on the isthmus an establishment by which he was to supplement the work of the state hatchery, by securing from there spawn and young fish, and caring for them until they acquired sufficient vitality to be placed in the lakes. The experiment was not as successful as it might have been had the appropriation been more liberal. In 1886 the legislature decided to discontinue the state hatchery in Jones County and move the whole affair to Spirit Lake.


William Larrabee was governor at the time and he appointed E. D. Carlton, of Spirit Lake, fish commissioner. The office of assistant commissioner was discontinued. Governor Larrabee himself selected the new location, or rather intimated what location he would approve, and Mr. Carlton proceeded at once to move up such of the state's property as was worth moving and commenced the work of rebuilding the hatchery in its new location. Mr. Carlton at once proceeded to business and as rapidly as he could with the limited appropriation at his command, he constructed the necessary vats and tanks and such other appliances as were understood to be the proper thing in enterprizes of this kind, and during the four years of his incumbency made a fair start in the work of fish culture. Mr. Carlton retained the position until the spring of 1890, when he was superseded by Mr. R. K. Soper of Emmet County.


During Mr. Soper's incumbency the legislature failed to make any appropriation for contingent expenses, consequently he was handicapped by lack of funds. There was a little left over from the former appropriation and when that was exhausted he had no funds to work with, so that about all he could do was to draw his salary which he did with commendable regularity.


In 1892 Mr. Soper was succeeded by Jut Griggs of O'Brien County. Mr. Griggs didn't make much of a success of propagating fish but he was a holy terror after the violators of the law against fishing out of season. Measures for the protection and preservation of the fish have been adopted by the state as follows: First, the Code of 1873 prohibited the taking of fish "with any net, seine, wire basket, trap, or any other device whatsoever, except with a hook and line, snare, gun, or spear." March 20, 1884, the General Assembly passed a law with the following provisions: "That no person shall take by spearing with a gaff, spear or other device any fish from any of the permanent lakes or ponds or outlets or inlets thereto within the state of Iowa between the first day of November and the thirty-first day of May next following." Another section of this act made it "unlawful for any person, company or corporation knowingly to buy, sell or offer for sale, or have in their possession any fish taken in violation of the foregoing section."


In 1890 the Twenty-third General Assembly repealed all former restrictions and enacted as follows: "It shall be unlawful for any person to take from any waters of the state any fish in any manner except by hook and line, except minnows for bait. Also that it shall be lawful to spear buffalo fish and suckers between the first day of November and the first day of March following." This latter clause was repealed in 1894. The reason for this repeal was that too many of the fishermen, if allowed to spear at all, took everything that came in sight whether of buffalo or game fish, and then could usually so cover up their tracks that it was impossible to get any evidence against them.


The Twenty-sixth General Assembly in 1896 prohibited fish shanties and also prohibited any person from using more than two lines with one hook on each line. Perhaps a little explanation is due right here. Much of the early winter fishing was done in small shanties. These shanties were from five to eight feet long, from three to six feet wide, and from four to seven feet high. They had floors through which was a trap door, usually across one end. They were made of the lightest material obtainable so as to be easily moved from place to place. They were set on runners in order to make the work of moving as light as possible. A small sheetiron stove usually occupied one corner. When properly banked up they could be made warm and comfortable. It was customary to cut a hole through the ice the full size of the trap door and possibly a little larger and then move the shanty over the hole and bank it up snug and tight. The darker the shanty can be made the plainer objects can be seen on the bottom of the lake. It is a surprise to the uninitiated the distinctness with which objects can be seen on the bottom of the lake to the depth of from twenty to thirty feet.


The number of fish taken in those shanties was very considerable but not so large as has been popularly supposed, and had the spearing been confined to buffalo fish and suckers, as was the intention of the law of 1890, it would have been a benefit to the other fish rather than a damage. The buffalo are very destructive to the spawn of other fish, and it is an open question whether the prohibition of spearing is a benefit or a damage to the fishing interests. Most of the fish taken in the shanties were buffalo anyway and it is claimed by those who have studied the subject carefully that the number of small fish taken with spears bears no comparison to the amount of spawn destroyed by the rapacious buffalo. The fish taken in this way were usually sold to buyers who peddled them through the adjacent country and in neighboring towns.


In locating the hatchery on the isthmus the question of the rise and fall of water in the lakes was not considered. This afterwards proved a very important factor and the one on which the ultimate success or failure of the scheme largely depended. In times of high water the tanks were flooded by backwater and it was impossible to clean them and they became foul to an extent that endangered the life of the spawn and young fish. On the other hand, in times of low water the supply was shut off, the water in Spirit Lake being lower than the tanks. Either extreme was fatal to the success of the hatchery. Had the tanks been set high enough to be absolutely secure against backwater, and then a storage tank and power pump put in to secure a supply in times of low water, possibly the propagation of native fish might have been made a success. But this was not done and the hatchery was allowed to go into disuse before it could be fairly demonstrated whether it was of any practical value or not.


Mr. Griggs, during his term of office, worked hard to enforce the law and prevent illegal fishing in which he was reasonably successful. He was succeeded in 1894 by George E. Delevan of Estherville. Mr. Delevan made no attempt in the direction of collecting spawn and propagating fish for the purpose of restocking the lakes, but gave his attention principally to enforcing the laws and protecting the fish already here. In April, 1896, the legislature made provision for erecting a dam across the outlet for the purpose of holding the water back except in times of high water, thereby raising the average level of the lakes. This dam was built in the summer of 1896 under Mr. Delevan's direction. It was built of stone and cement and was calculated to be of sufficient height to hold the water in the lake to about its medium level before any was allowed to escape. On the top of this dam it is proposed to have a system of screens and racks of sufficient capacity to allow a free flow of water over the dam, but to prevent the passage of fish. This is a move in the right direction, and if the dam stands the test of high water, the most important one so far made. The water was very low the summer the dam was built and has not since been high enough to run out of the lake.


Another project which Mr. Delevan has worked with a good degree of success is the taking of fish in the bayous of the Mississippi River and shipping them to the inland lakes and streams. The Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railroad Company offered the state an old superintendent's car on condition that they would remodel it and fit it up for a fish car. Mr. Delevan presented the subject to the legislature and succeeded in securing an appropriation for this purpose and he soon had his fish car ready for business. It is a well known fact that the Mississippi River, through its entire length, is lined with bays, inlets and bayous and that in times of freshet these are flooded with water from the river, and as the water goes down they become land locked ponds with neither inlet nor outlet. These ponds are often well stocked with fish from the river, and as the water becomes stagnant they die in great numbers. Mr. Delevan's scheme was, as soon as possible after the spring overflow, to seine out the more prolific of these ponds and ship the fish thus obtained to the inland waters, and it was for this purpose that the car was fitted up. So far the experiment has been attended with a good degree of success, and if intelligently and energetically continued, bids fair to be of material advantage to the fishing interests.


In 1896 the legislature changed the name from "fish commissioner" to "fish and game warden," thus indicating that in the future there would be added to the already multifarious duties of the position that of hunting down and securing the punishment of violators of the laws against illegal hunting and fishing. The original idea of propagating and rearing our native fish for the purpose of restocking the lakes or keeping up the supply seems to have been abandoned. As to whether this is good policy or not there is a wide difference of opinion. Those who are cognizant of the degree of success which attended the efforts of the state of New York and some others to restock their depleted lakes, are of the opinion that it was a mistake to allow the old hatchery to go into disuse and would like to see it rebuilt, enlarged and placed in the hands of a competent naturalist with the understanding that it should be worked to its fullest capacity. In 1898 the legislature passed an act prohibiting winter fishing altogether and fixing the closed season from the first of November to the fifteenth of May following.