Fishy Business: a day in the life of a Great Slave Lake ice fisherman

You’ve probably seen Shawn Buckley crossing Yellowknife Bay in his odd-looking Bombardier. The beast weighs close to one ton and can hold all the gear he needs. Shawn prefers using his Bombardiers over a snowmobile. “There’s a bigger holding area and I can repair them myself,” he says. “They’re sustainable, they were made for the North; they have 3- to 4-feet skis in the front, eight tires and suspension.” Shawn owns several of the caterpillar-like track vehicles and they require TLC and a flair for mechanics. Before we leave, he turns towards me to show me the hatch on the roof in the front of the cabin. “That’s the emergency exit in case we go through the ice quickly. Or you can open the side door if we have time.” He smiles at me but adds, “on the ice, you never know.” Safety is the biggest thing for him. “The local fishermen trace a road at the beginning of the season and they all follow that road to be safe. Your machine has to be in good shape – and communicate, tell people when and where you go.”

At the end of November, when the ice is 8-10 inches thick, Shawn rides his Bombardier about a half-hour outside of Yellowknife to set up his net under the ice. He uses a jigger, a simple yet efficient slotted wooden plank which has been used by northern fishermen for about 60 years.

The fishing line is tied to the jigger which is pushed under the ice through a first hole. The plank floats right under the ice and is propelled forward by a scissor action, and its spring system pushes a lever that taps against the ice and makes a sound that the fisherman can hear, which enables him to know where the jigger is (if the ice is not clear and he cannot see the device).

When the jigger is about a distance equal to the length of the net from the first hole, Shawn breaks the second hole and pulls out the jigger. Then the net is pulled under the ice from the first hole, and a weight is tied to each end of the net to keep it down so it doesn’t freeze. The top of the net is frozen into the ice on a stick. The first step when he and his helper Stéphanie Vaillancourt check the net the next day is to break up the ice over the two holes using a needle bar and a shovel. It takes some elbow grease.

Pulling the net requires a lot of strength as it is spread under the water about 100 metres across and 25 feet deep between the two holes. You have to hold it tight and not let it go, you don’t want to lose your net. Great Slave Lake offers mostly whitefish, inconnu, lake trout, ling cod, pickerel and northern pike. Shawn carefully checks the fish to make sure it is good; sometimes he won’t take fish like cisco and long-nosed suckers as they are bait for wildlife and bigger fish like inconnu, so they are more useful in the water than on our plates.

Shawn gradually pulls the net out of the ice and swiftly removes the webbing off the fish using a pick to prevent it from freezing. Freezing alters the flesh and the taste of the fish and Shawn sells his fish fresh. The thin grooved gloves he uses offer him a good grip on the slimy fish, but don’t protect from the cold. When I ask him if he gets cold, he says “cold is not an option out here. You have to move, be constantly active to keep warm, even get pumped up or angry to keep your blood flowing if you need.” I’m lucky, it’s -27 and there is no wind. “I’ve gone out at -50 for commercial fishing, I wouldn’t recommend it, it’s not fun,” says Shawn.

Above: Once all the fish have been harvested, the net must be put back in place. Here Stéphanie pulls the other end of the cord so the net spreads back into the water. Would Shawn recommend this tough line of work to the new generations? “I think it’s economically viable to be a fisherman if you learn the job with someone like me, a local who knows the lake and has been doing this for a long time and can show you how to do it and transfer the knowledge gained throughout the years.”

Shawn feels it’s important to show people that there’s local and sustainable food in their neighborhood. “When I grew up, nobody bought fish from us, they overlooked it. Now, all the restaurants have local fish on their menu. There’s an awareness, people understand that there’s a reward when eating fish with the omega and everything.”

I ask Shawn if he thinks he’ll retire. “I will never retire, it’s a way of life,” he says, adding that as long as he’s healthy he’ll keep going. “I appreciate the fact that I accomplish something; I like the feeling I have at the end of the day when I sit at home by the fire. I always think of the end result, the gain. At the end of the day, I don’t dwell on what’s tough.”

Helper Stéphanie Vaillancourt with fisherman Shawn Buckley after a satisfying day on Great Slave Lake.

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