Fish nets under the ice

Fishnets During Winter



During my stay in the arctic I had the pleasure of helping Bill Cooper with his nets. This short article briefly describes what I learned about placing nets under the ice. Throughout the winter, a valuable source of food and protein can be had from fish. One of the most productive methods for catching fish is by using nets. Nets also allow for the harvesting of Whitefish--a bottom feeder that does not go after lures. The Whitefish are usually smaller than Lake Trout and have scales covering a mild, white meat. The Lake Trout have no scales and possess a slightly reddish meat. Generally, we tend to catch equall numbers of Lake Trout and Whitefish in Baker Lake, Nunavut. The fish vary from two to ten pounds each. The hole size of the nets tends to dictate this. This lake is connected to the Arctic Ocean but is a freshwater lake. The large Thelon and Kazan rivers flow into the lake along with various smaller rivers and streams. The nets were used from late October through to December with the option of going longer or restarting in the spring. There are various methods used to place a net under the ice from mechanical devices that crawl under the ice by use of a lever and string to feeding a pole under the ice through a series of holes. The latter will be shown hereafter.


Location and Orientation

I can't admit to knowing just what will work well for net location other than what I have seen others do in the this area. The nets generally get placed in the same spot year after year--likely a result of passed-on knowledge and/or recent successes. However, most of the nets are not placed close to shore; rather, a few hundred metres out. Conversely, summer nets are placed just off shore in shallower waters. The depths vary around 30-60 feet. We noticed more fish being caught on the deeper end of the net when placed on an uneven or sloping lake bottom. Also, if one considers that the ice will get to seven feet thick, you need to place your nets in water that is deep enough.

The nets are placed under the ice to cross the direction of the lake current. Hence, one would assume that the fish tend move with or directly against the current more often than not. If the current of a particular lake is not known then one might consider chipping a hole to drop a line into the water to check.


Chipping the Holes

ice-fish-holes Figure One. General layout of holes.

Once the location has been found and the area for the net planned, the holes may be chipped. I use the word chip to coincide with the more tradtional method of making holes--with a taaq or ice chipper. The taaq is a simple chisel on the end of a long pole. This tool is still in use and far outnumbers the more modern ice-auger in our community. I suspect this may be common abroad in the arctic. I believe this stems from the simplicity, durability, and multiple uses of the taaq over the augers. Augers cut holes quickly--but are good for nothing else. Taaq's can make virtually any size and shape of hole and can make ice anchors for tie-downs. Moreover, it is common for survival oriented individuals to choose a tool with more than one purpose when out and about.

I have paid attention to and asked questions of elders in the know about ice chipping. When chipping through up to seven feet of ice, one quickly appreciates a well constructed taaq and technique. It literally means the difference between 20 minutes (a very experienced chipper) and 2 hours or never getting through the ice with vast amounts of energy used. Not to digress too far off topic but the taaq needs to be razor sharp (or as close as one can get it). The taaq also tends to have a heavy blade or chisel width around two inches wide. Light weight taaqs force one to use the strength and weight of their arms. A heavy taaq is somewhat thrown towards the ice with its own weight impacting the ice instead of one's arms. Narrower chisels are slower at breaking up the ice. The bevel on the chisel is tapered on one side only over the distance of and inch or so. The one sided taper allows for one to carve straight walls when keeping the flat side of the taper to the outside edges of the hole. To do otherwise would result in a hole that quickly tapers to a point. The long taper allows for a more efficient time at making the hole. At some point in the future I hope to write more about the taaq in that it is an important tool for winter survival.

The holes for the nets are chipped soon after it is safe to be out on the ice. The first hole is to be quite large and will remain so for the duration of the netting season. The hole is made to a diametre of roughly 20 inches. This sounds like a lot of work but the ice is not thick at this time of year and can be chipped through quickly. The next step is to locate the second hole approximately 8 feet away from the first--be sure to orient the holes to be across the current.
The second, third, and fourth holes may be chipped to a smaller diametre of around 6-8 inches. Ensure that all the holes are along a straight line--important for lining the holes. The last hole (i.e., number 5) is made to a diametre similar to the first hole.


Lining the holes

Fasten one end of a good length of rope (sufficient to line past all of the holes-- 40' should be ample) to the trailing end of a long pole. A 2" x 4" x 10'works well for the pole. The pole is pushed into the first hole, towards the second hole. The taaq is valuable for helping to push and direct the pole once submerged under the ice. Ideally, you will have a helper guiding your actions from the second hole. This person should be able to see the progress of the pole through this ice as it nears the second hole. Once the pole reaches the second hole, the taaq is used to guides the poles from the second hole. It is the shape chisel shape of the taaq that allows one the steer and push the pole simple by sticking to the wood surface. Continue the pole's progress towards the final hole in this fashion. Once the pole has passed the last hole, grab the rope fastened to it and pull the pole and rope up through the hole.

NOTE: fasten the other end of the rope so it cannot get pulled into the first hole during this process.

ice-holes-lining Figure Two. Preparing to line the holes.


ice-holes-lining-2 Figure Three. Inserting the 2 x 4 with line attached into the first and larger diametre hole.


ice-holes-lining-3 Figure Four. Pushing and steering the 2 x 4 along with the ice chipper (taaq). Once the line and 2 x4 make it to the last hole, secure line up through the last hole.


Placing the net

The nets may now be lowered into the water. The net is attached to the rope that lines the holes. Pull the net through with someone feeding the net carefully into the first hole. The floats along the top of the net and the weights (bottom) should not get twisted. Sufficient weight is needed to ensure the nets sit on the lake floor. Once the person pulling the net has the net reaching the last hole, the pulling may stop. At this point the whole net will be in the water. The net is lowered at each end untill it reaches the bottom. The rope is then tied off. It may be tied to a 2" x 2" by 3' over the hole so that the line does not allow the net to sag. Moreover, be sure to place the 2 x 2 and rope in the centre of the hole so that when the water freezes the rope will be in the middle of thinner ice to chip out later. You do not want your rope to be cut when chipping the ice the next day. The ice may reach a few inches thick overnight. The holes will slowly narrow over time and will need to be kept open.

lowering-nets ice-holes-lining-4


Checking the net

The nets should be checked once a day. Leaving the nets longer may cause fish to begin to spoil or undully struggle there. Both end holes are chipped open to free the line. One hole should be kept larger to allow the net to be pulled through. Also, keep the area around this hole clear from loose ice that would catch the nets as it gets pulled along the surface. After the holes are open, ensure that the far end of the net has enough line on the surface to allow the net to be pulled out this end--you don't want to have to restring the holes! You may simply layout this excess rope aloing the ice so that it pulls in on its own or have someone stand there to make sure it does not get all pulled in.

pulling-nets-with-fish nets-2

As someone begins to pull on the rope and net another should remain by the hole to aid the net in coming onto the surface of the ice. As fish start appearing in the nets it is a good idea to stop pulling the net up to unsnare the fish before they freeze in the net or become further tangled. Continue pulling uintil the far end of the net appears. Place the net back into the water to check again the next day. Most of the fish will still be alive. The ones that are not can be checked for freshness by looking into the gills--fresh is red. The gills begin to grey with time.

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