This Throwback Thursday feature originally appeared in the Winona Daily News on Nov 19, 1955.
There apparently is no record as to when the first carp were introduced into the Mississippi River, but that introduction seems to have been the real birth of commercial fishing on the upper river, especially in the Winona area.
Historical records tell of four carp being introduced into California waters in 1872. Harriet Bell Carlander, in her “History of Fish and Fishing in the Upper Mississippi River” published in 1954, located the first carp at Lansing, Iowa.
“The first carp taken at Lansing,” she writes, “was taken by Sever Olson in 1880. The carp was about 12 or l4 inches long, and none of the fishermen knew what it was. When Sever took the fish uptown, the German druggist ‘Doc’ Nachtwey recognized it. Nachtwey was pleased to see the carp which he had known in Europe and paid Sever a dollar for it. He subsequently paid a dollar for each of the two or three carp caught later the same year in the Lansing area.”
Today’s game fish — walleyes, northerns and bass — made up much of the earlier commercial fishing catches along the upper river. Buffalo fish was probably the most common river fish, but the market for it was strictly local in the 1860s and 1870s. Walleyes were shipped out by fish marketing concerns.
“Commercial fishing on the Mississippi,” says Henry H. Kowalewski, Hot Fish Shop owner and earlier secretary of two of Winona’s biggest fishing enterprises, “was carried on for quite a few years in this locality on a rather small scale, principally for local sales. Small nets and setlines were used. The demand locally was not for rough fish but for game fish and the laws, less stringent than today, permitted the taking of game fish with small nets and setlines, during the night or day. About the only commercial fish that there was a demand for were sheephead and catfish on the Chicago market.”
Before the turn of the century, commercial fishing was carried on almost entirely from row boats and sailboats. No motorboats were reported in a census taken by the Bureau of Fisheries in 1894. Of 1,841 boats used on the Upper Mississippi River, only one was powered other than by oars or sails. There was one steamboat.
2,390 in fishing work
Figures for 1894 showed that there were 2,390 men engaged in commercial fishing above St. Louis. These fishermen that year marketed 13,725,000 pounds of fish, of which six million pounds were buffalo, three million catfish and a million and a half sheephead. All common game fish of today, such as bass, pike, walleyes, sunfish, crappies and bullheads, were included in the marketable catch. There were a quarter million pounds of panfish and half a million pounds of walleye in the lot.
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This industry was almost completely motorized when the Bureau made its survey in 1922 of the same sector of the river. There were 966 motorboats used by 1,773 fishermen who caught 12,600,000 pounds of fish. Carp predominated the annual catch with seven million pounds, with buffalo and catfish running two million each. The total poundage of game fish marketed was less than a quarter of a million.
About 1900, the eastern fish market, seeking new sources of supply, discovered the Mississippi River. New York buyers moved up and down the river acquiring fish by the carload. The fish were heavily iced and salted and shipped to Fulton Street.
Joseph Liebner was one of those buyers with vision and he conceived the plan of shipping live carp to the New York market in tank cars. This arrangement would make the fish of much greater value on the Jewish market.
Several baggage cars were leased for the purpose, and in each car were placed 12 tanks of water, into which approximately 30,000 pounds of fish were dumped. Being a hardy fish, the carp survived the trip and brought premium prices in the eastern markets. Several million pounds were moved each season in this manner.
This boost to the carp industry, Kowalewski states, caused combinations to be formed in the east among buyers so that the price was controlled, and the river fishermen paid little for their catch.
Big fishermen along the river protested. A group headed by M. N. Lipinski, Winona, Dave Gantenbein, Maiden Rock, and others formed a corporation known as the Northwestern Fish Co. to market their own catch in New York. Earl Simpson, prominent Winonan, then county attorney, was named secretary, and offices opened in Winona.
Property was acquired in New York in the center of the fish marketing area, and the fish business boomed. Another company, the Winona Fish Co., also was set up by the same group. Branches were opened to buy fish at Warroad, Minnesota, Mt. Clemens, Michigan, and Neppel, Washington. The group was a major fish marketing agency on the eastern market
In 1935, Northwestern Fish Co. sold its New York interests and confined its efforts to marketing corn-fed chicken carp from carp ponds at Bay City and Maiden Rock, Wis. Lipinski also acquired the Delta Fish and Fur Farms, which he was developing at the time of his death.
Commercial fishing, through all of the years before and since the 9-foot channel, has been able to control the carp in the Upper Mississippi. At no time have the states had to give aid in the work. Fishing in the river has been a commercial venture able to stand on its own feet.