ICE FISHING IN MERIGOMISH
Tom MacLaren - 1983

Just to the north of the house that was our home in Merigomish is a narrow channel. Through this channel has flowed the salt water that comes into the Merigomish Harbor all the way from the Northumberland Strait with each rising tide. And, of course, with each falling tide the current is reversed.

The east bank of this channel is that low promontory of stone and gravel which my grandfather had named THE BIG BEACH, so named because a smaller piece of land that jutted from the main road, and just to the east of the sheep barn was always referred to as THE LITTLE BEACH.

With each rising tide, in the winter time, the Micmac Indians had discovered many years ago that hundreds and hundreds of smelts were swept through this channel all the way through the bridge and into that body of water known as THE FORKS OF THE BROOK. There they remained until the out-going tide carried them back through the bridge and out through the channel. It was smack in the middle of this channel that my brother and I spent so many hours when it was frozen over from December through March, fishing for smelts.

We used no bait and no hooks--just a line with a sinker and always near the sinker was attached a knotted string of bright red yarn. Uncle Forrest and Grandfather Finlayson had learned, many years before our time that smelts would not bite even had we used worms. No matter what was attached to the line to lure the unsuspecting smelt he would be mildly curious and would hesitate just long enough to sniff and then swim on. For us, this peculiar behavior of the smelt in the frigid waters of Merigomish Harbor was most fortuitous since worms were hard to "come by" in the winter months and frozen ground.

The ice in the water which almost completely surrounds the old homestead would build to a thickness of 6", 10" or even more than 12". This ice, for weeks at a time, would be the highway used by the farmers to take produce to market, by the mail man, and for all the horse traffic which would normally use the main road but which was not passable when the heavy snows arrived. This ice highway started just to the west of the afore-mentioned bridge, across the road from the school. It wound it's way to the rear of our house and then continued to the east across that BIG BEACH about one hundred yards from our fishing channel. This winter road extended all the way to BIG ISLAND and/or to LOWER BARNEY'S RIVER and on Sunday we could use it for travel to church about two miles along the harbor shore towards L.B. RIVER. This highway was bushed. These bushes which had been inserted into holes chopped in the ice were spaced at distances of 50, 75 or 100 feet to guide the traveler at night or on those days when the weather was blustery or misty. Our horses, Billy or May or Bessie would follow that line of trees without any rein guidance. I tell you the route of the ICE HIGHWAY only to emphasize that it did not follow the course of the smelt current. There, because the water flowed so swiftly, the ice would not be safe; oft time, for many weeks after the rest of the harbor was frozen solid.

But to return to the smelts. Since they would not bite we used a spear. With a hook the fisherman must accept the fist that is foolish enough to bite but with the spear it is possible to select only the larger. What must one do to fish for smelts in winter? First you cut a hole in the ice at least 12" dia. and 16" is better. Next lay some planking or boards just wide enough and long enough to provide a "cot" on which could be spread several burlap bags or even discarded blankets. It was not exactly a comfortable cot and it was cold. To the windward would be piled spruce branches. Usually the water was clear enough to see to the bottom -- maybe ten feet at most. Many times we would have a sheet of tin which we could lower to the bottom and then the fish could easily be seen swimming over the bright sheet of tin.

Now you are ready to fish. A line with a sinker would be dropped to a depth that would keep the lure--the colored string or cloth--about 6" from the bottom. Next the spear would be lowered and held so that the actual spear would be about 4 to 6" above the lure. When the curious smelt hesitated to examine the brightly colored yarn--and if he was large enough--a quick motion would invariably catch a fish. The spear itself was home-made and perhaps one or two of them are still to be found in the wagon shed or the out-house in which, for many years was located Aunt Becky's large loom. The shaft was about 3/4" diameter and seven to nine feet long. At the business end was mounted a sharp needle or spear. This needle was but a piece of 1/8" wire inserted into the end of the shaft with but 3" left protruding and this was sharpened to a needle-like point. Surrounding this needle was placed two "guides" 180 degrees apart and just far enough apart to permit the passage of the smelt through and close enough to prevent him from wiggling off.

Seldom did we spend more than ten minutes lying on the ice without catching some fish. If none showed in that time we would merely retreat to the kitchen--less than one hundred yards-- and wait for a more favorable current. If one was right-handed he would lay on his left side with his left eye alert to any motion below. His left hand provided the guide for the spear whilst his right hand did the spearing. To lie on the ice for hours was considered a type of insanity but I can recall on one Saturday in 1916 (the date is important) that Neil caught just over 60 dozen smelts. He had enough to give many to Uncle Dave, to Mr. "Black" Bill Craigie, to Mr. and Mrs. John Dunn and also to Mr. and Mrs. Fred Smith in exchange for a bit of candy at the store (the MacDonald Bros.).

Nowhere did two boys have more fun than did we. But, alas, our fishing days out at that channel came to an end during the war year of 1916. From Sydney to New Glasgow the railroad line passed through Merigomish. From Pidmont to the tracks took a curve to the north just as they entered Grandfather Finlayson's farm. They then traversed all the way to a spot about 150 yards from our house at the west fork of THE FORKS OF THE BROOK and then through the Mitchell Dunn farm. This is the farm where my old friend BOBBIE DUNN was reared. (Incidentally the triangular piece of ground sliced from the Dunn farm by the railroad was then added to the Finlayson property and to this day it is known as Mitchell's Corner).

In 1916 the C.N.R. train was proceeding down the grade from the "back field" at a speed that did not permit it to make the curve just beside Dunn's and DeWolfe's crossing. The top-heavy tank cars tipped over--three of them--and at least one was full of creosote. The tank broke open and hundreds--yea thousands--of gallons of the sticky deadly smelly creosote flowed down by the school, out under the bridge and into the waters which surrounded our little island. From there it had no other course to follow but out through our fishing channel. Later we could find deposits of creosote as far out as HARDWOOD POINT or SMASHEM HEAD. And of course all the fish were poisoned and died. The deadly tar permeated the shores to kill all the shell fish in an area where we could with a pitch-fork garner clams on any summer day at low tide.

Most of us are inclined to lose our perspective when we attempt to recall the days of our youth. The weather was colder, the hills were steeper and of course the house where I lived and the room in which I slept was much larger and warmer.

(end)
Notes by Grant E. MacLaren: The brother Dad speaks of was Neil B. MacLaren. Dad told me "bushing" the route across the water was a task bid upon by local residents. Dad's Uncle Forrest frequently obtained the contract; his performing the task is mentioned frequently in the journal kept by his wife, Dad's "Aunt Jean."

Dad (Thomas F. Maclaren, 1904 - 1998) spent much of his childhood on "Little Island" near Merigomish, Nova Scotia. On the map below, there is a green arrow pointing to the place where Dad fished for smelt. The picture above shows the house where Dad lived, and the "sheep barn" he mentions in his story.

UPDATE, December 17, 2011: The google cameras have made it up the shore road out of Merigomish, and have photographed "Little island," showing the big barn no longer stands. Click on these numbers for google photos:

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Soon after posting Dad's "memory," I received the following email from a friend (who always writes in green):

I have a bedtime habit. After I turn off the light and after the pillow and comfort are just right, I lie and think of 2 or 3 things that made me happy that day. I try to have an selection so that I can sort through them and pick out the one that makes me smile even as I'm drifting off. Last night I thought of lunch with Ron and Toni, finding an immaculately clean bathroom at Walmart, talking to my brother, and then a soft whisper brought me, "Ice Fishing in Merigomish".
Angus this was captivating. Here's what I want to know...is this lifted from your father's journals or have you put together this narrative? Either way it is absolutely delicious. When The Boy said, " you cut a 12" to16" hole in the ice, I'm asking, "how, how do you do that? How do you start?"
When he talked (I felt he really was talking to me) about lying on the ice waiting for the smelt, I was shivering. I just loved the story of the 'bushing' that acted as markings on the ice road, and that the best busher was named Forrest. The end made me truly angry, but I knew that your father cherished his good memories and, mostly, left behind the tragic.
I can't thank you enough for sending me this memoir. It is a wonderful time machine. One wonders how we can have changed so much in such a short time. I'm afraid we made too much creosote.
Love from your friend,
Jane


Found printed in my father's hand, 2/10/2013:

I think of the days when Edw. Finlayson would walk with his 8 yr. old grandson out to the old road, to Mitchell's Corner via the forks of the brook, out across the R.R. tracks to Pine Hill thence back via Pea Hill and through the apple orchard of Pipens, Northern Spies, & August apples for a refreshing drink of cold clear water.

Quite an effort it was for a man in his 70s who was obliged to use a crutch - and also for the tot who shadowed him when ever he would set out on a tour of the 100 acres - the land he inherited from his father John Finlayson in 1866.

Edward would recall the days when his father and Edw. Mortimer would charter sailing ships to transport lumber and logs from all over Pictou County to Oban or Liverpool - and he would solemnly recall the tragic loss of 2 schooners on the stormy Atlantic about 1850.

Although Grandfather F. never ventured far from Merigomish, he knew every family of Scots in the County and never tired or repeating the history of the Robertsons of Lower Barney River, the MacLeans (Laughlin from Antigonish), the Smiths (82nd Regiment), the Murrays (Andrew married his sister Ann), the McCabes (to Loch Broom via Philadelphia, 1820), and of course, the MacLarens who settled in Wentworth Grant (Telford).

With the peg at the bottom of his crutch he would trace, in the found, his beloved Scotland. Starting with Glasgow - up to Skye, to Loch Alsh, to The Cossacks, the Braes O'Balquhidder, and on to Inverness. Aberdeenthence down to Edinburgh.

That was the time when the post office started to deliver our mail to a box right close to the well and it was on this road that travelers from Lismore, The Ponds, Big island, Lower Barneys River and Arisaig would travel to meet the train from New Glacow at the Merigomish R.R. Depot just "up the road." Most would stop to give the horse "a drink from the trough" and to wave a greeting to Edward Finlayson, the only one of seven brothers to remain in Pictou Co.

Years later (1920-1930) one of his grandsons would visit every parish in Scotland to confirm all the "facts" of the Finlayson-MacLaren heritage - and many of those findings may still be lodged in the files of The Eatern Chronicale (no longer published) in New Glasgow (Hector).
T.F.M.

(undated, but G.E.M believes the above was written by his father, Thomas F. MacLaren, in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. The "one of his grandsons" was Tom's oldest brother James Edward, father of Shiela and Iona.)


3/6/2014
My cousin, Col. Bruce MacLaren, died recently (February 26.) Bruce was son of my father's bother Neil. That family milestone prompted me to think about Dad's brothers and sisters, where and how they lived their lives. I got to thinking again about Little Island in Merigomish, hence these two "screen shots" today made from Google Maps' views:

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