YE OLDEN TYME - 1890's Fishing in Algoma District

11 May 2019

J.B.Dobie grew up in Chatsworth, Ontario just south of Owen Sound near the south shore of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. From an early age he was an ardent fisherman in the streams nearby his father’s farm. His love of fishing is what introduced him to Basswood Lake with an early expedition from Thessalon in the late 1870’s. From his writing, he particularly loved fishing in creeks and moving water however he also took every opportunity to wet his line in the lakes of Algoma and Basswood Lake in particular.

When he moved to Sudbury late in his life with my Grandparents, he didn’t get much of an opportunity to fish however my mother Margaret told me that a rare day went by that he didn’t visit the nearby Melanson’s Fish Market on Borgia Street to purchase supper for the family – he certainly loved his fish!

The following trilogy of fishing expedition stories in this edition of “Ye Olden Tyme” will give some insight into life in pioneer days and how despite the daily hardships and with limited amenities, sports fishing was a relief and joy for those who had the opportunity to take part.

By J.B. Dobie


To Editor of Algoma Advocate,

Komta Cottage, Basswood Lake, May 1927.

Dear Sir,

I was very much interested when I read of Dr. Marshall’s fishing expedition on the Little Thessalon on May 2nd, and was also surprised that he was successful in capturing 17 brook trout. In all my years in Algoma, I have never caught brook trout before May 15th and seldom before the 24th, the water always being too high or the weather too cold.

This year I tried the little creek (Harris Creek) which empties into Mud Lake (now Bright Lake) from Basswood Lake where I have caught a few in previous years in July or August. The water had been undisturbed with rain for some time and was clear and not too high, but there was no sign of life and I could not get a strike. Dr. Marshall had the reputation of being the most successful angler in Owen Sound when he lived there, so if anyone could succeed on the Little Thessalon or its tributaries, he would be the man to do so. His letter led me to recall several trips of my own.

Once in the 1890’s I took a party to McCreight’s Dam, then called Gunn’s Dam (about 2 miles north-east of Little Rapids). We had a team and a three-seater and went around over Case’s Bridge. There were my sons Fred and Joe, my daughters Nell and Tina; Burn, Morley and Ethel Ruddy and Edith McAlpine. The tongue fell out the neck yoke just as we got on Case’s Bridge, but fortunately the team were the kind that always had their ears set back for fear that they would hear you say “whoa”, and they stopped immediately and waited till repairs were completed.

From Case’s Bridge around to the other side of Gunn’s Dam the road was through a beautiful forest of tall pine trees, a real park with blueberry bushes on each side of the road, and with wild grasses and flowers forming a carpet over the sandy land. It was a lovely shaded park long since destroyed by the axe and saw of the lumbermen, followed by the fire which always completes the destruction – but once seen can never be forgotten.

When we had safely reached the dam and were preparing for everyone to fish, we found we had left the supply of hooks behind and the only fish hook was the one on my line. My son Joe and Morley Ruddy undertook to cross country on foot to Little Rapids and buy hooks. In their absence, I fished with the only hook and caught 32 fish. The boys were back in good time with the hooks and everyone fished. The conditions seemed to change and none of us were able to get any for the remainder of the day. Everyone had a good day and enjoyed the outing and returned home well pleased with the pic-nic.

One of the most memorable trips I ever had for trout was my first trip to Burrows Lake (about 5 miles due north of the far west end of Basswood Lake) in the early 1890’s. We had heard of the big speckled trout there and as Archie Moore and I each had a good driving horse, we put them together and hitched them to a light two-seater. Myself and my brother Alex, Frank Bennett, my son Fred who was just a little chap then, went along with Archie driving the team. It was on the 11th of June and it had been a very dry season but notwithstanding the dry weather the road to Wharncliffe was in places beyond description. However we made good time as Archie made those ponies do everything but walk on the fence rails. We did not reach the Burrow’s place till evening and Mr. and Mrs. Burrows gave us a splendid welcome and insisted on us having supper, and oh how thankful we were that night for the generous hospitality of those kind-hearted pioneers. We wanted to go right to the lake, a two mile trail, and fish until dark and then come back for supper. But Mr. Burrows said “you will not make it back tonight” and he sent one of his boys, Bill I think it was, to guide us to the lake and assist us in any way he could.

It was sundown when we had reached the lake and had our lines ready for a cast - and oh such fishing. They just seemed to be waiting for us and when darkness settled down over us, we had trout in abundance from 1 pound to 3 1-2 pounds. It was a very dark night. We had no lantern and we realized how much wiser than we, Mr. Burrows had been for it was impossible for us to go back over the trail until daylight, so we lighted a fire on the grassy slope of the shore, and made ourselves as comfortable as we could with neither blankets or food, except the fish we were catching. At dawn we were fishing again and in all my experience in Algoma I have never had such a run of fish. We soon had all that we thought we could carry and were ravenously hungry so we were on our way back to the Burrows’ home before 6 a.m. with probably the finest catch of trout ever taken in this part of Algoma in such a short time.

Mrs. Burrows had anticipated our early and hungry return and had a breakfast for us which could not be surpassed, and though we had not slept we all felt we had passed a perfect night. On the return trip one of the ponies balked, which added variety to the trip, but Archie was an expert. He knew horses and after both coaxing and punishment both failed, he took two pocket handkerchiefs and tied one over each of the pony’s eyes and afterward she came home without any trouble. Our catch created a sensation in Thessalon and there was a rush to Burrows Lake. It’s no use to rush out there now, take your time, you’ll not catch any. The Burrows’ home is still there occupied by some of the family and a monument to the thrift and industry and bravery of those dear old pioneers who worked long and hard to make it the beautiful home that it is.

Another never-to-be-forgotten trip was one I made to the spot where I am now living (on Basswood Lake), in the company with that prince of good sportsmen H. De. B. Randolph, or Harry Randolph, we called him. One of the most likeable gentlemanly fellows who ever settled amongst us. Unfortunately for us after he had lived for years amongst us and had married one of Algoma’s beautiful and estimable daughters, he moved to Sarnia and everyone here who ever knew Harry Randolph was sorry to see him leave Algoma.

He and I had been invited to visit Mr. Dyer, and it was no short jaunt to come from Thessalon here at that time, as there were two mudholes on the road, one extended from Crockford’s Hill to Thessalon about 6 miles and the other from Campbell’s Hill to Day Mills about 6 miles more. The balance of the 13 miles was fair! Mr. Dyer had built the original part of what is now “Komta Cottage” on a lot that I had sold him. He was an Englishman by birth, a jeweler by trade, possessed of considerable means and an ardent hunter and fisherman. His wife had died within a year after their marriage and the sad event had such an effect on him he wanted to get away in the wilds and live a quiet, peaceful undisturbed life, where he could hunt and fish and read, and enjoy solitude, so he sold out his business and moved here into the wilderness as it was then. When we arrived we were made welcome. On the front door was a big placard on which was printed in large letters. John 21 and 3, “Simon Peter saith unto them I go fishing. They say unto him, we also go with thee”. On a big oak tree was nailed a board on which was printed an epitaph in memory of a dog. It appears he had a very valuable dog, which a neighbor had spitefully poisoned, so he said and it is not hard for us to imagine what value he placed on his faithful and only companion, and the just indignation he would feel over such a ruthless act. I wish I could remember the epitaph. It began as follows “Here lies a dog that was almost a man, slain by a man that is almost a brute”. The concluding words were: “The dog was superior to his slayer, he had a pedigree”. It was quite a lengthy and cleverly composed epitaph and I have many times regretted not having copied it. (A fisherman who spent his vacation here in 1892, wrote it up for Forest and Stream, and I let that copy get away from me).

When night came my son Jim, who was with us, just a boy, and Mr. Randolph and I lay on the floor on one of my robes and covered ourselves with the other and had a good night’s rest. The robes were real buffalo hides, big ones which I had bought and had them lined with full-cloth. We can’t get them now.

We were well repaid for our trip by good bass fishing in the lake and a wonderful catch of speckled beauties in the stream (Harris Creek) which runs from Basswood Lake to Mud Lake, and all the difficulties of the road, etc., were banished by the pleasant memories of this beautiful place and our success in fishing.

One cold October day in 1894, Mr. Dyer stood with head bared during the burial service to the funeral of Mr. James Hagen, one of our esteemed pioneers, in the little cemetery right beside my cottage (Portage City Presbyterian Church Cemetery). Within a few days he was smitten with pneumonia and passed away, and although he possessed peculiarities which kept him from association with his fellow man to the usual extent, yet I still hear many kind words spoken of Mr. Dyer.

Mr. Randolph lived to see his sons return, after acquitting themselves honorably in the Great War, but has since been called away, loved and respected by all who knew him. And my old friend Dr. Marshall and I, who fished together here more than thirty years ago, are still spared to enjoy the fishing and all the other countless blessings which kind Providence has placed within our reach.

J. B. Dobie