Fishing for Carp with Reney Thomas

…Laura Tutlies

It took a few calls to several commercial fishermen before I connected with Reney Thomas. I was looking for a winter fisher who worked the East side of Lake Winnipeg between Victoria Beach the mouth of the Red River.
"In the winter, I just fish for carp y'know" said the voice on the phone. I could hear the apology in his voice and I understood. Any Canadian who knows fish, regard the Carp - a bottom feeder - to be one of the lowest ranking of the fish families. Of the 13 species harvested in Manitoba, pickerel (walleye) ranks first then whitefish and near the bottom of the cash harvest there is carp. In the eyes of a businessman, this has everything to do with money. Carp get sixty cents a pound. Whereas other species command as much as twice this amount.

Well before dawn, on a blustery Sunday morning in January, I met Reney Thomas at his home near Traverse Bay, I am offered coffee by his wife Laura but I abstain knowing the long morning ahead will not include washroom facilities. After picking up his helpers, Mike Bruyere and Bryce Thomas, I get a mini tour of the small "fish barn" that sits across the yard from the Thomas home. I notice three things. The building is cold, but is very tidy and very smelly. The cold is inevitable and certainly, the smell is to be expected when one is close to fish. However "the tidy" makes a good impression on me. As we stand among the neatly stacked fish crates, I learn that commercial fishing is actually a second career for Reney Thomas, who is nearly 60 years old. He had been a logger in the Berens River area for twenty-five years before moving to the Traverse Bay.

Mike Bruyere and I, with Reney at the wheel, climb into the Chevy 4X4 pickup that is our "home base" for the day. While we have the relative comfort of the warm truck, Bryce Thomas (a relative of Reneys) heads out right behind us with the snowmobile and large sleigh. Fishing has been good and Reney figures he'll need both the box of the truck and the large box behind the sleigh to bring home the catch. The goal today is to lift four of the eight nets that were set in December.

Later, as I watched Reney Thomas and his young helpers, pull up the eight to fifteen pound carp, often five fish at a time, it was abundantly clear this is no job for wimps. Winter fishing is cold, hard work and you have to know the reefs and barriers or your net will come up empty. Its not all science. It is experience, acute knowledge of the fishing ground and a whole lot of sixth sense. Reney's gift for planting his nets in just the right place for the desired species of fish is much like the gift of a diviner. Either you have it or you don't.

As my "ice fishing" adventure transpires I also realized how fortunate I was to have found a fisher, who after twenty years at his trade, is still passionate about his livelihood. He is both conscious and considerate of the environment. His actions throughout the day speak of this commitment. He has chosen hard work for a living and has earned every crease on his rugged face. Certainly, he is a rare breed and something of an enigma in the world of commercial fishing and on this great prairie lake in the center of Canada.

In ideal conditions, the winter net needs to be set before too much snow covers the early ice that has formed on the lake. Too much snow and the fisher will have difficulty seeing where his line is being placed. This season fishing began on December 11th. The line is set with a stringing device shaped like an exaggerated "Y" . It is designed to crawl from the anchor hole to the lift hole, along the underside of the ice with the net attached. Leading the way is the top float line of the 100 foot (33 metre) net. The device is encouraged to leapfrog and inch its way beneath the surface ice while guided by the fisherperson who determines the direction. A mistake in setting the line will cost the fisherman either his net or his winter catch and perhaps both.

Lake Winnipeg is the largest lake within the borders of southern Canada and the eleventh largest freshwater lake in the World. It is a relatively shallow lake (12 metre average) and because it's water is emptied and replenished every three to four years, the replacement and regeneration of water makes it one of the most fertile fishing lakes in the World. In this century, Manitoba fisherpersons are a main contributors to the thirty million dollar annual commercial catch. Manitoba alone is the source of 25% of Canada's freshwater catch.

Fishing on all lakes and rivers is closely monitored by Natural Resources and by the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation (FFMC), established in 1969. The fishing quotas have been in place for many years and are based on the number of persons who fished the lakes as well as the average harvest from the lake as determined prior to the issue of the individual quota. Jay at the main office of the Fresh Water Fish Marketing Board in Manitoba advises me that most carp come from Lake Manitoba and carp fishing in Lake Winnipeg is rare. To my surprise Jay informs me "that there is very little market for carp in Canada, other than a few places in the Maritimes". I (like many) was of the mindset that carp would be used to make pet food or sold to European markets. I was wrong.

Once harvested and filleted, carp is bought from the fisherman in two ways; the headless/gutless fish and roe (fish eggs). The eggs are marketed locally and are as valuable as the meat. When cleaned properly, the roe is sold by the Freshwater Fish Marketing plant to Canadian processors who then prepare tarama which is by most definitions a salty caviar. In posh restaurants it is served with pita bread or raw vegetables. It was interesting to discover that Manitoba carp are sold to the American market. They are bought by processors for the production of gefilte fish, the name given to poached fish patties or fish balls made from a mixture of ground de-boned fish, mostly carp or pike. It is a tradition Jewish dish served at Hanukah.

So much for marketing the fish. First they must be caught and we have to get to the nets. Reney easily manages the short hill down to Traverse Bay and the nearly non existent Lake trail with the skill and precision of a race car driver. He is constantly on watch for trouble. Mike, in the front with Reney braces himself with his feet and with the calm of one who has made this ride many times. I'm in the back buckled in and keeping my hand firmly gripped on the handle conveniently located on the roof above my left hand. Through the front window I can see that daylight is just a hint on the eastern horizon.

Once on the lake, the ride to reach the nets is like that of a rollercoaster out of control. The difference is that a rollercoaster has a well defined track. The truck doesn't. The trail to the nets, which are on the opposite shore of Traverse Bay, is snow covered and wind blown. Traces of previous trips are barely discernable. The track is marked only by the odd balsam tree that has been dragged onto the lake and strategically placed so the path can be found even on foggy or snowy days. This morning the snow is a little soft due to some very welcome warm temperatures that are promising a balmy minus 16c. after weeks of 35 below zero.

Reney is tells me he is wary of the open crack in the lake not far ahead and he explains that with the warm weather, it could have opened even since yesterday when they put down a makeshift wooden bridge. I am well aware of the danger but I'm also thinking I haven't enjoyed anything so much in years. Then, before we reach the anticipated fissure the truck gets stuck. I learn later that this is the first time this season this has happened. It took the three men nearly a half hour of digging to free the chaise of the truck from the heavy snow that threatened our passage.

Once cleared Reney called "climb in" and after some back and forward rocking, we headed out again. This time the snowmobile was in the lead. Another five minutes or so and we arrive just ahead of the looming open water and the ice fissure Reney had mentioned earlier. He stopped the truck and Mike and I got out. Once Reney and the boys secured the plywood "bridge" and Reney advised me to walk across. He said that "should the truck sink it would be better if just one person was in the vehicle". I was hardly about to argue with that logic

Although it would be another half hour before the sun would rise above the Eastern horizon we slide and twist across the lake and finally slow to a stop just next to a pole marker. It is overcast and the wind is from the North though not quite as cold as it has been for the last few weeks. We seem to have the lake to ourselves. Reney said that yesterday a couple of coyote came close by and always the ravens fly above and around the lift holes hoping for a free lunch.

A gill net or string of gill nets, must be marked at each end with a pole extending at least 1 metre (3’) above the water or ice, with a flag measuring at least 20 by 20 cm (8” x 8”). Fish nets are sometimes set as a single net but are often placed as a series of nets forming a string. Reney's nets are set up so that only one lift hole needs to be used for two sets of 100 foot nets. When you do the math, this equates to 200 feet (66 metres) of line with the lift hole in the middle.

To harvest the carp Reney uses a 9 inch (22cm) net. The net when it is untangled looks like page wire although though it is usually made from nylon. Reney's lines are nylon. Each square measures 9 inches (22 cm's) diagonally, corner to corner. Every metre there is a float at the top of the two foot ((24 cm) deep net. Directly below the float, at the bottom edge of the net is a small weight. The boys hack, by axe, into the ice at the edge of the marker. Once the hole is open, Reney uses a long handled hook to fish up the end of a nylon rope which, runs the length of the net from this anchor hole to the lift hole. We leave Bryce and the snowmobile at the anchor hole, holding the line, while Mike and I climb in the truck with Reney and head for the next marker.

In moments we reach the anchor hole. This hole takes longer to dig as it must be big enough to accommodate the large carp that are expected on the line. Since the weather has been cold, there are several inches of ice covering the opening but within minutes water splashes out. Again, the large handled hook is put to use. Like magic, which is really skill, Reney swishes around and pulls up a nylon rope with an old brick tied to the end for an anchor. Some fishermen use a large reel operated by a generator to drag up the line but Reney and his young helpers pull up every fish up by hand often using a small hook to prevent a fish from struggling free when it comes to the surface. I'd like to know, who needs a gym for a workout when you can pull in hundreds of pounds of fish through a 30 inch (75 cm.) ice encrusted tunnel which is about three feet (one metre) deep. That is exactly what was done.

While Bryce, at the anchor hole, releases line on the command of Reney at the lift hole, the net and the fish start to appear. I wonder aloud how they communicate in a storm when you can't see the anchor hole. The answer is "Well - we just know!" At the first hole Reney hauls up each section of line and a few feet behind Reney, Mike Bruyere digs his heels into the snow and steadies the heavy line. Picture the way the anchor man in a tug of war, supports his end of the rope - same concept. Skill and strength are both prerequisites for this job.

From the first line the boys pull in 60 carp. "Not bad" says Reney, "although" he adds, "we often pull in as many as 90 per net". When the fish are on shore, the net is then reset, free of any tangles. Reney rides back to the anchor hole to pull in the long nylon tow line which will ease the net back into place under the ice. At the lift hole, Mike and Bryce feed it back through with me attempting to see that the net and guide rope are easily ready. This done, Reney hops the snowmobile and swings around us to the anchor hole at one hundred feet behind where we are currently stationed. The process begins again. The second net through the same lift hole yields only 44 carp. No one is disappointed and I am the only one to take a break. I shelter in the truck to make a few notes and warm my camera.

Leaving the lift hole at lines one and two, Mike and I ride with Reney (still a rollercoaster driver) about a quarter of a kilometre and a little to the southwest from the where we were. The truck pulls to stop just in front of a tiny ice shack on skids that lies in a trough of blown snow. We don't enter the edifice which never would have contained four adults at the best of time but clearly this marks the spot of the next lift hole. Reney does the honours at the anchor hole this time to the east while Mike and Bryce pull up the carp. With quiet expertise they slowly free the fish and untangle the net while concentrating fully on their work.

The third and fourth nets contained catches that are very good. 88 carp cling to the third line, then 73 on the fourth net. Not a single "other" species was pulled up this day. I credit this to the size of the net. Only carp, mature carp, are big enough to be caught in this large net. When I realized that the fish were plentiful this day, I suggested they dub me "lady luck" but the term did not stick (I suspect they were thinking about the stuck truck). Reney, Mike and Bryce are all business. There is no lady luck for bring home this catch.

The truck was full by the time the third net was emptied and the fourth catch was stored in the large wooden sleigh that followed the Artic Cat. We aimed for home base just past mid day and without incident. Even at the ice fissure where I again climbed out at Reney's suggestion - "just to be safe" was no problem. Soon we were back at the Thomas home without incident and the job of transferring the fish to the "fish barn" began. It was a good day for me and for the three fishermen who so generously lent their time and expertise.

I asked Reney if there was anything in particular that he would like me to report. Actually, his answer did not surprise me. He said he worried that folks might think that commercial fishing of carp might upset some folks who worried about the environment. Research has excused this concern. The other thing Reney Thomas said warmed my heart and increased my respect for this man. Reney said "mention Christopher when you write our story". Christopher Fontaine is his grandson (by marriage). Chris, who goes to school with my granddaughter, lives full time with his grandparents. Reney dreams of the day when nine year old Chris can inherit the family business. His grandpa and benefactor explains it this way "On one hand I hope Christopher does not have to go out on the Lake to earn his living. (I know he is talking about what hard work it is to commercial fish). He continues, "on the other hand all that is mine will be his." It was with this same generous spirit that Reney said "Sure!" when I asked if I could join him for a day to observe first hand, commercial fishing on the East shore of Lake Winnipeg. Thanks Reney. The pleasure was mine.


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