Finally, a true to life fishing story
A lot of my non-Native friends are surprised when I tell them that fishing is not a big part of my cultural background and experience. Most Cree people up the James Bay coast were hunters and gatherers predominantly interested in hunting geese, moose and caribou.
These food sources were relatively easier to gather from the land as animals and birds could be hunted in great numbers at certain times of the year. Fishing on the other hand required a great deal more knowledge, skill, energy and luck. Gathering fish from the lakes and rivers provided a small amount of nutrient rich food but it had to be continually gathered in order to keep a family fed.
Since the introduction of electricity and modern refrigeration, it was easier to gather a few large animals and plenty of birds from the land and keep them frozen over several months.
Fishing over the past 30 to 40 years steadily declined as a food source for my people as it required too much work for too little return. As a child, I can remember only a handful of Elders who still kept a gill net on the river near the banks of the community. Everyone looked at the activity as a quaint reminder of our traditional past and it was done because Elders still enjoyed having fresh fish once in a while.
Rod fishing and gill net fishing up north is regarded as a skill set that is maintained by Elders, traditional hunters and travellers on the land. It requires a great deal of knowledge, memory and experience in order to know where and when plentiful fish are located.
The number of people with this knowledge is slowly dwindling but is still kept alive by several dedicated hunters, trappers and Elders in the north.
I spoke to one such traditional person recently. Elder Leonard Naveau of Mattagami First Nation is an individual who has lived, trapped and fished in the Mattagami Lake area all his life. As I talked to him on the phone, we had to cut our conversation short because he was heading out on the lake to go fishing and I could tell that he was excited to get his line in the water. At 71 years of age, he enjoys the peace that fishing brings him when he is out on the land where he grew up.
I talked to him about how his people depended on the lake for their survival and livelihood when he was younger. It was difficult to find fresh sources of food on a regular basis back then. The only secure source of food throughout the year was fish in the lakes and rivers.
The community ís connection to the fish in the lake is kept alive through the annual Mattagami First Nation Walleye Tournament which is hosted every June. It has grown to become a major tournament that draws participants from across the province and the country. There is also a Walleye Derby in September.
I also spoke to Chad Boissoneau, a former chief of the community and ever busy entrepreneur, who told me about a new project that his First Nation has initiated to protect and preserve the fish population in Lake Mattagami. For the first time, the community established a Walleye Hatchery project in their First Nation. Chad was selected to manage this project for his ability to coordinate initiatives such as this and for his experience in working with walleye hatcheries in the past. He pointed out that he was grateful for the opportunity and that it was a great success.
The project lasted for two months from April to June and it incubated walleye eggs that hatched into over 300,000 walleye fry or juvenile fish that were released into different areas of the Mattagami Lake area. The release will ensure that the walleye population will stay healthy and provide a plentiful natural resource for his community and the enjoyment of other fisherman in the area.
The Walleye is known in Cree as - Oo-kah-oo. The name Walleye comes from a description of it ís eyes like it is looking at the walls to the side. It is a fish that has excellent vision so it chooses to move about for prey during rain, at night, in stirred up water and often in deeper areas. It is an excellent tasting fish and I say that because my friends Jack and Brynn Vokes caught some recently and gave them to me for my supper. I was a little embarrassed when I had to ask their dad Rob how to clean these Walleye. I am just not much of a fisherman but thankfully a lot of people I know are keeping this tradition alive.
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