Let’s Go Fishing!

Cover Let's Go Fishing

Please enjoy this excerpt from Eric Dregni’s new book, Let’s Go Fishing!

A celebration of the sport in the land of 10,000 lakes and beyond, where the fish fry is a near-holy Friday ritual, the running of smelt heralds spring, and a village of ice-fishing huts springs up on every frozen lake, Let’s Go Fishing tells the full story from trivia to tradition. Dregni, who has entertained countless readers with enlightening tales of Midwest marvels, here shows his considerable skills as a raconteur and cultural historian of the fun and the facts of fishing in the Great Lakes region.

“I get depressed when I look at the price per pound for walleye at the grocery store, as it’s often under $15 per pound,” according to Robert Zink in The Three-Minute Outdoorsman. “I calculate what it costs me to catch them, figuring in the boat, gear, gas, and lodging. Somewhere near $11.7 million per pound is my estimate.” At that point, sport fishers decide that store-bought fish isn’t so bad after all.

In the early years, commercial fishing operations on the Great Lakes shipped out massive amounts of their catch to nearby cities and as far away as the East Coast and St. Louis. The lakes offered supposedly “inexhaustible” amounts of fish. In 1917, gill nets that could stretch up to two miles were used by 273 licensed commercial fisheries. Fishermen strung so many nets on Lake Superior that they could supposedly reach across the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Fishers stuffed 125 pounds of fresh fish into “herring boxes without topses” made from fresh poplar that wouldn’t leave any flavor on the meat. Steamboats would travel the coasts twice a week and whistle their presence to fishing families. The fishermen would row out to deliver their catch often during the dark of night. When roads finally reached these remote spots, the fishermen would simply leave their fish on the side of the street to be picked up.

At that point, these fishing families realized that they could sell their goods directly to customers. Today, tourists make a point of stopping at Lou’s Fish House in Two Harbors, Minnesota, or Susie-Q Fish Market in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, to stock the fridge with fresh or smoked fish. Perhaps the most famous retail fishmonger in Minnesota was started by Ed Morey of Motley. He started selling Sunday newspapers and vegetables, but then ran into a fisherman from Lake of the Woods who had a broken-down truck full of fish. He swapped vegetables for three boxes of fresh walleye, perch, and saugers. He was tricked, though, since the fisherman sold him a couple of cans of “catfish,” or so he thought. “I found out the darn catfish was burbot—eelpout! But they didn’t know the difference. They sold ‘em and never complained,” he wrote in Classic Minnesota Fishing Stories. “If you want a guaranteed limit go to Morey’s! Many a limit has been ‘caught’ off Morey’s retail counters.”

Photo: Eric Dregni    This small statue in front of a Norwegian stabbur in Westby, Wisconsin, shows a nisse named Ole bringing a gift of fish. Although the writing on the statue claims that it’s lutefisk, the little fellow’s apron would be more slimy if that were the case. Perhaps a taco shell is in order?

Photo: Eric Dregni
This small statue in front of a Norwegian stabbur in Westby, Wisconsin, shows a nisse named Ole bringing a gift of fish. Although the writing on the statue claims that it’s lutefisk, the little fellow’s apron would be more slimy if that were the case. Perhaps a taco shell is in order?

Another long-standing fish processor is Olsen’s Fish Company in north Minneapolis, in operation since 1910. Chris Dorff took over the company from his father in 1994 and remembered the early days: “You used to be able to smell [Olsen’s] a block away. The herring boxes, your clothes, they all smelled. The cardboard, wooden pallets. Some companies will only use plastic pallets now.”

Brad Hanson, a friend of Dorff’s who used to work at Olsen’s, told me, “I’d wear the same clothes every day because they were ruined. Now they’re laundered every day.”

“We didn’t wear gloves back then and it’s so oily,” Dorff said. “That oil doesn’t go away for a good week afterwards. It’s in the skin.”

Hanson recalled that even with gloves, the vinegar and fish smell got into his pores. “This is the reason I finished college. A barrel rolled over me. I buckled my knee and all the herring poured all over me.” They laughed at the past and the tour began.

Despite their stories about the old days, the operation is remarkably clean and odor-free. Dorff showed me a mini silo filled with vinegar shipped up from Chicago and bags of sugar to make pickled herring. Because of the limited number of lake herring available, all the fish come from the Atlantic pre-cut and salted. A specialty from the past was smoked pickled herring, but demand dropped. Now Dorff reports that 80 percent of Olsen’s operation is dedicated to pickled herring.

Almost all the rest is lutefisk, making Olsen’s one of the last in the country to make this cod soaked in lye. The only other in Minnesota is Day Fish Company in Braham that began in 1968 in the town’s old cooperative creamery and only opens from October 1 to January 31. Olsen’s, on the other hand, has two semi-trailers pull up before the Christmas season with 30,000 pounds of dried fish in each one. “That’s about a half a million dollars on each truck,” Dorff calculated, since it will sell for $22 a pound when reconstituted after the 11 to 12 day process of rinsing out the caustic acid daily to get the pH down.

To expand lutefisk’s market, “Dorff thinks younger people would take to lutefisk if only it were bacon-wrapped, or stuffed into tacos,” according to the StarTribune from Christmas day 2014. The journalist returned to the newsroom to make “mac-and-cheese lutefisk,” not a recommendation of Olsen’s. As sales of lutefisk slip, herring sales are rising. Olsen’s recommends “roll-ups” of herring wrapped around a dill pickle.

Morey’s points out that two servings of fatty fish, such as herring, a week is recommended by the American Heart Association. If that doesn’t convince skeptics, listen to President Herbert Hoover recommendation of shopping at the fish market when the fish aren’t biting: “In the end you may get the big one, but the average expense is about one thousand dollars per fish. You can get one of equal weight, although a little less flavor, at a … market for less than five dollars.”

Reprinted by permission of the University of Minnesota Press from
Let’s Go Fishing: Fish Tales from the North Woods by Eric Dregni. Copyright 2016 by Eric Dregni.

Eric Dregni is the author of 17 books including Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America, Weird Minnesota, Never Trust a Thin Cook, and most recently Let’s Go Fishing! As a Fulbright fellow to Norway, he survived a dinner of rakfisk thanks to 80-proof aquavit, took the “meat bus” to Sweden for cheap salami with a busload of knitting pensioners, and compiled the stories in In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream. He is a freelance journalist for the Lake Minnetonka Magazine, StarTribune, and occasionally The Norwegian American. Dregni is Assoc. Prof. of English at Concordia St. Paul. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, three kids, and a fat dog named Bacco.

This article appeared in the July 29, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Norwegian American Logo

The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.