Sheboygan County, Wisconsin Genealogy & History

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Abundant Catches*

The fishing industry in Sheboygan had its beginnings hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of years ago. Native Americans from central Wisconsin and as far away as the Mississippi River made annual pilgrimages to the mouth of the Sheboygan River to harvest fish from the cool clear waters of Lake Michigan.

These Native Americans used spears (or bows and arrows to which strings were attached) to harvest and retrieve their catch. At night, they would paddle out into the lake, and, by the light of pine-knot torches held aloft, they would spear (or shoot with arrows) fish attracted to the light. When the whitefish were spawning, they schooled close to shore, making it easy for the early fishermen to wade into the lake, form a line, and drive the fish toward shore. When the fish reached shallow water, the men scooped them up and tossed them on shore where the women and children picked them up and processed them. These fish were dried in great quantities either in the sun or over an open fire.

When early settlers to Sheboygan discovered the abundance of fish in Lake Michigan, they began to fish commercially. They caught large quantities of whitefish, sturgeon by the thousands, and a few lake trout. At the time, sturgeon, some weighing as much as 200 pounds, were considered a rough fish, and most were discarded.

By 1845, at least four commercial fisheries were in operation in the Sheboygan area. The following year, commercial fishermen began exporting whitefish usually dried or salted prior to shipment from the Sheboygan area.

For many years, the fishing industry flourished, and thousands of fish were caught. At times, the nets of the fishermen held more fish than could be brought on board their small sailboats, and fish had to be spilled from the nets before the catch could be hauled in.

In the 1860s, Sheboygan fishermen began exporting smoked fish to the Chicago area with great success. In the 1870s, commercial fishermen began using steam-powered fish tugs. The tugs were sturdy and highly seaworthy little boats and could carry fishermen out to their nets in any kind of weather.

Sheboygan still has one of the more active fishing fleets on the Great Lakes even though the fish population has greatly diminished. Over-fishing, pollution, and the invasion of the lamprey eel have greatly reduced the fish available in the lake.

For a time, the lamprey nearly wiped out the lake-trout fishing industry on the Great Lakes. Today, due to a large-scale eradication program, the predatory lamprey eel has nearly disappeared from the Great Lakes.

Commercial fishermen still head out into Lake Michigan during all seasons and in almost any kind of weather. It is not uncommon to see the hardy crews in their sturdy crafts battering through the ice and braving bone-chilling winds and crashing surf to reach their nets. [Most other times, you will find them nursing a hot cup of coffee at Jume's Cafe. -ent-]

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