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Illegal Fishing With Nets, 1914


There was a time in Dakota Territory, when the bounty of nature seemed limitless, with countless buffalo, ducks and geese, along with endless grasslands and enough lignite-coal to last for centuries. Even fish, in rivers, streams and lakes, appeared to be over-abundant, as it was written in 1885, of Devils Lake – its “supply of extra fine fish is inexhaustible.”

Well, the truth of the matter was that the buffalo were wiped out, the ducks and geese had to be protected, and even the grasslands were largely plowed up. And the waters, once teeming with fish, could be ‘fished out’ quite easily by taking too many “pike, pickerel” and perch with nets.

There had been multitudes of immigrants to Dakota who had been commercial fishermen in the old country, in Norway or Sweden, who knew how to use gill nets, and it was difficult to enforce state laws that allowed the taking of game fish only by hook and line, prohibiting spearing, seines, and nets.

Charles Cavileer, an old settler from Pembina, believed the fish should be better protected, for he witnessed “seining and netting” being conducted “night and day, Sunday included,” and he saw people taking out “wagon loads” of fish.

R.W. Main of Cando, State Fish Commissioner, wrote about the decline of Gordon Lake and Jarvis Lake in the Turtle Mountain area, noting that anglers fishing legally with hook and line could catch from 200 to 300 fish in one day, while a man using an illegal gill net could take 900. The nets took the bigger fish, leaving undersized fish in a diminished fishery. Enforcement of the laws prohibiting netting became vital.

It was on this date, in 1914, that the Wahpeton Times reported that a man from Kindred, named Ole Swanson, had been arrested and charged with illegal fishing in the Sheyenne River. Swanson, a “well-known farmer, admitted his guilt and paid a fine of $10.” Swanson had used a dip-net to take fish near the mill dam.

His neighbors had seen him netting and called the game warden. The net result of this case and other N.D. law-enforcement efforts in catching illegal fishermen was that the high ideals of conservation and sportsmanship prevailed.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “Additional Locals; Ole Swanson,” Wahpeton Times, August 27, 1914, p. 8; “News of the State,” Bismarck Tribune, August 26, 1914, p. 4; “City and Country,” Wahpeton Times, August 20, 1914, p. 5: “Illegal Fishing; Kindred Man Fined $10 . . . for Using Dip Net,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, August 30, 1914, p. 3.

“Protection of Fish,” Bismarck Tribune, March 8, 1895, p. 11.

Biennial Report of the State Game Warden (Bismarck: Bismarck Tribune Printers and Binders, 1908), p. 41, 45-46.

“To Protect Fish; Hon Charles Cavileer Presents His Views on the Subject,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, July 1, 1899, p. 2.

“Our ‘Minnetonka’,” Devils Lake Inter-Ocean, August 29, 1885, p. 1.