Fish Tugs of the Greatest Lake
The Squatter Goes To Canada
By Walter B. Krackowski
It was just less than a week before the first of June 1952, when I went to work on the Squatter. She was around forty years old, but still had a good, sound, white oak hull and a cypress house. She had a starboard lifter powered by a Wisconsin air-cooled engine, and, of course, that new Chrysler Crown marine engine for power. Her ships wheel was on the star-board side of her pilothouse, which was about two feet higher than the top of her house, and extended forward about ten feet from her flat transom. He gait was ten knots, which translated to eleven miles per hour plus. She could go almost twice as fast as the Preble.
We fished three hundred leads to the box, fourteen boxes to the gang. We fished mainly east, off the mouth of the Two Hearted River, Deer Park, Perry's Landing, and Randolph Lake. We did all of our fishing with gill nets. We were catching our share of lake trout, but 1952 was one of the starting years of the infestation of sea lamprey in Lake Superior. About all of the trout were carrying one or more, deep, eel marks. Some of the eels wouldn't release their hold on the fish until we pulled them off in the boat. We'd throw them in a pail and bring them in to the dock to give to the game wardens, as they were doing a survey on them. Some days we'd have as many as thirty lampreys in that pail.
Most of the fish weighed between four to ten pounds. Bill and Russ used to say that the lampreys had killed off the big trout first, because they were slower. And now they were attacking the smaller fish. After a storm, large pieces of unrecognizable fish would come up in the nets. Some of them weighed at least twenty-five pounds. The pieces wouldn't fit in a five-gallon pail. They had light green hair growing on them, so they must have been lying on the bottom for a long time.
Most of the big spawner trout were gone, but not all of them. One day while lifting off Deer Park, we caught a forty-eight pound male lake trout, and that was dressed weight! Bill had seen it coming up in the net and knw he had to gaff it, because it was too big to come around the lifter. I was taking slack from the lifter and Russ was clearing fish, so I didn't see Bill gaff the fish, and horse it in through the gangway, until it hit the deck at my feet and started flopping around. I jumped when I saw its size, and the size of its eyes. They were almost as big as silver dollars! It looked like a big, gray-green log. It scared the heck out of me. I had never seen a fish that big! Bill said that Charley Ahlgrim had in 1951 when, while out fishing with Bob Miller, they caught a fifty-two pound trout. A lot of tourists had heard about it and had taken pictures of it.
We fished the aforementioned spots along the south bank until the last part of June. Then Bill decided that we should switch from gill nets to hooks and start fishing across the lake, around Caribou Island. Now, hooks are quite different than gill nets. First off, you have to catch your bait, which are small, deep-water chubs called "bloaters." They run in size from six to seven inches long, none larger or smaller. That is mainly due to the size of the bait nets' mesh. Bait nets have one-inch mesh, which is one half inch square. Each square of mesh when stretched diagonally measures one inch.
The nets are not very deep either. They are ninety-six meshes deep, measuring only four feet between the lead line and the cork line. A box of bait nets was one hundred leads long, twelve hundred sixty feet in length. You would normally just set four boxes, let them fish two nights, and then pull them out. This would assure you of having live, fresh bait.
Lake trout hooks were No.9 hooks, fastened at thirty-foot spacing by a nine-foot double snood, to a sixty meter, treated running line, commonly called a hook line. A box of hooks contained two hundred hooks, or six thousand feet. A hook box was a three-quarter inch by three-inch, open , wooden frame measuring three feet long by two feet wide and sixteen inches high. Stapled to the inside of the box frame was galvanized half-inch by half-inch hard-ware cloth, also known as rabbit pen wire. The reason for the wire mesh was to let the water drain from the wet line after lifting.
At the top of each end frame of the box, was an oblong hand hole. On one side of the box, two inches down from the top of the inside, fastened to the inside edge of each end corner, was the hook rack. The rack was one and a half-inch by one-half inch oak. The top was edges were radiused, and were sanded smooth and kept waxed. The smoothness and wax were very important because the hooks were racked tight to one another. While baiting and setting you'd have to fan out the hooks by catching for or five hooks with your thumbnail, then slide them apart while making sure you didn't get them out of progression.
Another thing you needed in order to set a gang of hooks was two, forty to fifty pound anchors, and a bunch of window sash weights. You'd start with an anchor tied to one end of the hook line and then every forty hooks you'd tie on a sash weight. The weight was for keeping the hook line on the bottom, as the bait had the ability to float the line up.
The only changes needed to change the boat from a gill net boat to a hook boat were the sash weights and a setting pan. A setting pan is a heavy gauge, galvanized metal constructed, special purpose devise. It is ten feet long, twelve inches wide, ten inches high, sided, flat bottomed pan, wherein three feet of one end fans out to a width of three feet. The pan is set up on the boat at a comfortable working height, with the wide fan end inside the boat and the twelve-inch wide end barely reaching out the stern doors.
A box of hooks is set up with its top edge just below the top edge of the fan end of the pan. A box of iced bait lay within hand's reach. After the buoy is let out and the anchor is let down, with the buoy line attached to it and the anchor attached to the hook line, you are ready to start setting.
Now, I never got to bait any hooks, but I sure learned a lot by watching Bill and Russ bait the hooks. They were both right handed, so they would have the bait box set up to their left, andhave the hook box set up so that the hook rack side of the box was toward the mouth of the fan end of the setting pan. They would stand with the side of the hook box that was opposite the hook rack, at lap height, with the hooks facing away from them. They would pick up a bait with their left hand, holding it with its back and its head facing away. With their right hand, they would pick a hook off the rack, and run the hook through the fish's back, while pulling about three inches of slack snood with it. Then back over the back, and under the snood on the entry side, then through the gill, and out the mouth. Next they'd pull the slack back, leaving just just the curved, barbed point of the hook, hooked over the fish's mouth. Then they'd throw the baited hook on the setting pan and with their left hand pick up another bait and repeat the procedure.
They could bait a hook in six or seven seconds. Watching them baiting, I saw that they had a noticeable rhythn to their every move. They had to, as the speed of the boat while setting, was a constant six to seven miles per hour.
Well, the exact date I can't recall, but it was one of the last days of June 1952, when we lifted four boxes of bait nets on the bait net grounds, northeast of the harbor. We iced the bait and set a course for Caribou Island. For this trip we had on board a four-man crew. Bill had talked his brother-in-law, John Nyman, into coming along for the ride. (So he said!) John just thought we were going to lift bait and set a gang of hooks on one of the south bank fishing sites. He didn't become aware of Bill's intentions until half an hour of running, when he happened to notice that we were on a northerly heading.
John wasn't even a fisherman. He was a log sawyer who was drawing unemployment compensation at the time. He started complaining to Bill that he didn't think it was very funny, to be tricked like that. He said he had to be back in three days to collect his check. And, if he wasn't there in person to report in, he would lose his compensation for the last two weeks. Bill laughed and said, "Don't worry! We'll have you back in plenty time."
Well, we arrived at the south bank off of Caribou light and set back our four boxes of wet bait nets. The site was in American waters. The territorial line is two miles south of Caribou lighthouse. The Caribou lighthouse and keeper's residence sits on a separate, smaller island about one-half acre in size, and about one-quarter mile south of the main island. The island has a natural bay, protected from westerly winds by a rocky shoal that extends out to the lighthouse island.
After setting our bait nets, we ran around to the east end of the main island to the northeast bank, which was at least six miles into Canadian waters. We sounded for depth, set out the buoy, let down the hook line anchor, and started setting hooks. From the northeast bank of Caribou Island we could see Michipicoten Island, at a distance of thirty-five miles. Russ and Bill had me steer, and write in the logbook. We started by logging a range back to Caribou Island from out the stern doors. This meaning, to read the compass heading and log the compass reading directly across from the heading.
Now, I remember that the northeast corner of the island had a long shoal at a depth of thirty feet, for at least two miles. At the top of the bank, the depth was around fifty feet, then gradually increased to one hundred and fifty feet. We started setting at fifty feet and ran down the bank a distance of fifty hooks (fifteen hundred feet,) from a compass range on Michipicoten Island. We then tied a sash weight and came about to an angle that was thirty compass degrees away from the first fifty hook run. I logged that compass bearing on Caribou Island into the logbook. Then we did a run of fifty hooks on another thirty degree bearing, tied on a sash weight, came about another thirty degrees, and so on. We zigzagged up and down the bank, westerly around the north side of Caribou Island, for three boxes worth of hooks, eighteen thousand feet of hook line. We didn't mark the western end of the gang with a buoy. We ran back around the east end of the island and pulled into the little bay by the lighthouse and anchored the Squatter for the night.
Now, the keeper of the Caribou light was a Canadian whose last name was Hurley. He had been a friend of the American fishermen for years. Shortly after anchoring, Hurley rowed out to the Squatter in his small rowboat. He brought with him a Canadian newspaper and showed us an article. The article stated that the new Canadian patrol boat, named "Haywood," had just been commissioned, and that its captain had told the paper that he was going to be very aggressive in patrolling Canada's territorial boundary line on Lake Superior. After visiting for a while Hurley left for the lighthouse.
We then ate supper and sat around talking about the good set we had made, due to the perfect, calm weather. It was just turning dark when we saw this boat coming around the west end of the island. It came around the lighthouse, pulled into the bay, and came right up to the Squatter. It was the Haywood!
She was about sixty feet long, painted a dark gray or black. They wanted to know where we were from, and what we were doing there. Bill told them that we were from the United States and that we had set nets on the southwest bank, which was in U.S. waters. He also told that we had some minor problems with our engine, so we'd decided to lie overnight in the protection of the island!
The young Captain asked permission to come aboard, and Bill granted it. He brought with him another man that didn't look like, or act like, an official. The Captain looked the boat over quite thoroughly. He paused and examined the empty hook boxes, then went back to the pilothouse. He noticed our logbook, left out in plain view, still open to the page where I had recorded our coordinates on the hook set. He scrutinized the page very carefully and said for us to be out of Canadian waters by morning.
The Haywood then pulled out of the bay, and as we watched, went around the east end of the island, heading for the northeast bank to where we had set the gang of hooks. At that point, Russ said to Bill, "Lets get the hell out of here! They are going right to the hooks." Bill said, "Naw, they'll never find them in the dark! We'll sneak out at first light, run to the south-east over the boundary line, and see if we can see our buoy with the binoculars." Even John told Bill that he was foolish to wait.
Sometime around midnight, we could hear a thumping noise. Russ and John both said that it sounded like the patrol boat sneaking around the east end of the island. Bill listened, and said again, "Naw, it's just one of those new diesel powered freighters going up the Port Arthur course. On a calm, dead-still night like this, you can hear them drumming.!" So much for arguing with Bill Traeger.
I had made up a place to sleep just forward of the lifter on the starboard side by putting the empty hook boxes upside down, and end to end, on the deck. I'd then put my sleeping pad on top of them. With a pillow under my head and a blanket covering me, I fell asleep.
Now, the Squatter ad two, small, six-inch glass portholes on each side of the house, forward of the lifter. I had made up my bunk, and had my head on my pillow directly under the porthole closest to the lifter. Some time around twelve-thirty, something slammed into us, right at the point where the porthole was over my head. I awoke with a start¸ picking glass off me and hearing loud voices.
The Haywood had cut their engine a little ways away from us and had let their forward momentum carry them in until they collided with us. Immediately, three men from the Haywood boarded us. The Captain of the Haywood was one of them, and he stated that we were all under arrest. The captain had Russ and I go aboard the patrol boat, leaving the other two men aboard the Squatter. They instructed Bill to follow the Haywood.
Russ and I could see out the after, and side, portholes of the patrol boat. Although the night was pitch black, we could see the flashing light of the lighthouse. We could also see the running lights of the Squatter following behind us. We didn't know where they were taking us. We came out of the bay and turned to starboard, going around the west end of the island. We then set a northerly course. After what seemed like a long time, we passed a light/bell buoy off of our port side, and continued in the same direction for about five minutes. Then we turned to the east. By this time the sky was starting to get light in the east. Soon the patrol boat was checking down its speed. Then we stopped altogether.
We had stopped and tied up to a quay. The Squatter was tying up behind us. We were in Quebec Harbor, Michipicoten Island. As we departed the patrol boat, we could see that we were at a commercial fishing dock. There were two huge fish tugs tied up, one in front of the other, in front of the patrol boat. I tell this so you can visualize the length of the quay. A quay is a boat dockage that is built directly off of the land, paralleling it.
We found out later that this was the summer fishing base for Purvis Fisheries, out of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and that those fish tugs were each ninety-feet long, over twice the length of the Squatter. Abreast of these two tugs, on land, was a net shed that was at least two hundred feet long and forty feet wide. On land across from where the Squatter was tied, was an hicehouse and a packing shed. Next to that, to the north, was a cookhouse and eating hall. That was all that consisted of any man made facilities on Michipicoten Island.
The Captain of the Haywood put us under house arrest and gave orders to the Purvis's fishermen that we were to be kept from leaving. He told them that another boat would be coming for us and would take us to Sault Ste. Marie. We stayed at the Purvis camp for four days. We slept on the Squatter, but ate with the Purvis crew in the eating hall. They had a short, stocky, woman cook that was really exceptional. Every meal was different. I still remember a vegetable that she served with roast beef, mashed potatoes, and gravy. It was baby creamed-onions. Outstanding!
Finally, a Canadian government boat came to pick us up. Surprising all of us, it looked like a cabin cruiser trolling boat. She was about a twenty-six feet long, wooden boat, with a white painted hull and a green painted superstructure. That boat hadn't come from Sault Ste. Marie, but rather from Montreal River, Ontario. So, after about five hours, we were delivered to the custody of four Canadian Provincial Police officers in two cars.
They drove us to the jail in Sault Ste. Marie. It was late in the evening when we got to the jail and we hadn't eaten anything since breakfast at Michipicoten Island. They didn't put us in jail cells, but instead locked all four of us up in a corridor that had bars for walls, nothing else!
There was just the a bare floor and bare bar walls. We complained about being hungry. At first they just told us to shut up. Then later, they brought us each a plain, bologna sandwich. There was nothing on it, just a slice of bologna between two slices of bread. That night we slept in our clothes on the corridor's cement floor.
They woke us up at six o'clock the next morning. Around seven o'clock they brought us each a hard-boiled egg, a piece of plain, dry toast, and a tin cup of strong, black tea, without sugar. (I still can't stand strong tea, and I hate it without sugar.) At about ten o'clock they took us to Her Magesties Magistrate Court.
One at a time they had us stand, kiss the good book in the name of the Queen, and answer, "Guilty or not guilty" to the charge leveled against us. Bill, Russ, and I all answered to the charge of fishing in Canadian waters without permission. John Nyman, when asked what his answer was, said, "I wasn't fishing! I came along for the ride!" The magistrate said to John, "Alright, the court then charges you with illegal entry into Canada!" John quickly said, "No, no, I was just joking. I was fishing!"
The court found us all guilty as charged, and fined us each sixty-five dollars. Then he told Bill if he paid a fine of six hundred dollars on the Squatter, within thirty days, that he could have her back. Bill shrugged his shoulders and turned away from the magistrate.
Bill called a fish buyer from St. Ignace named Kolby, and asked him if he'd come to Canada and pay our personal fines, and then get us out of Canada. Kolby took us from the Canadian courthouse to Newberry's Department of Conservation office.(At Newberry, Mich.)
Ervin Olli of Grand Marais met us there with his 1950 Ford two-door. He brought us back to Grand Marais the back way, which is now known as H-58.
One thing that sticks in my mind is the ride with Kolby. From about Dafter all the way to Newberry, the army worms were so thick that driving on M-28 was like driving on grease. Kolby had to drive with one wheel on the gravel shoulder.
I kept thinking about my shotgun that was left on the Squatter. Before we had left the dock at Grand Marais, Bill had asked if I would bring my gun along in order to scare off the seagulls while we were setting the hooks. (Before the hook line would settle, pulling the baited hooks under water, the seagulls would dive and steal the bait.) I was really upset about losing that gun. It had belonged to my now dead father. We had brought it with us from New Jersey when we moved to Michigan. It was an Eastern Arms, single-shot, twelve gauge. Not an expensive gun, but to me it had much sentimental value.
I felt at this time that John Nyman must have been upset, also. The "ride" he took had cost him his unemployment check.
On the way back from Newberry to Grand Marais, Bill said, "To hell with the Squatter! I'm going to buy a chainsaw and go sawing logs." Bill never did pay the fine releasing the Squatter from the Canadian courts, nor did he ever go sawing logs. He left Grand Marais and went to Muskegon to fish for someone else on Lake Michigan.
We heard later that fall that the Canadian courts had sold the Squatter to some Indian fishermen out of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and that they had sunk her.
In March 1974, my uncle, Bob Masse, stopped me on Main Street in Grand Marais and told me he had something I might be interested in. He handed me a copy of the Great Lakes Fisherman, a commercial fishing magazine. In the magazine was an article about an old fish tug that was at Mamainse Point, Ontario. Fishermen folklore had it that the Canadian government, in the early fifties, had seized this boat, named H.M. Squatter. They seized it from poachers who had come from the United States. The article concluded that her remains would be burned in the spring.
Upon reading this, I knew I wanted to see her one more time. It had now been twenty-two years since we left her at Quebec Harbor. I was now thirty-eight years old. I had been sixteen when I last saw the Squatter.
On Sunday, April 7th, 1974, My wife, Joan, and our two daughters, Becky and Patty, drove to Mamainse Point and took pictures of the Squatter. She was pulled up on land in the back of a fish dockyard. She had had her machinery and ship's wheel removed. She sat there looking old, tired, and forlorn. I looked up through the stern doors and saw my initials that I had carved into the side of the pilothouse where the ship's wheel used to be. As we left for home, I felt as though I was leaving a funeral. But I was glad that someone had come in remembrance of the old girl.
Posted to the Web on May 4, 2008, for educational purposes only.