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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Early Madison Fish Tales


Many observers commented on the abundance of fish and game around the Four Lakes at the time that Madison was founded.

"On the first day of May in 1839," wrote the first postmaster, John Catlin, he and a friend "discovered a large catfish near the shore of the head of Third Lake [Lake Monona] and I suggested the idea of stopping to catch him. Mr. K. laughed heartily at the suggestion and said I could not get within two rods of him. I replied that he did not understand the nature of the animal, and that he was sunning and stupefied by the pleasure. The sun was shining warmly and the fish was near the top of the water. I waded out quietly and putting my hands gently one under his head and the other at the tail, lifted him out of the water and landed him safely upon the shore before he was awake from his stupor. He weighed thirty-five pounds!"

Robert Ream, another early settler, took over the Peck's boarding house and contracted with two old French traders who "furnished us with daily supplies of fish from the lakes until we were sufficiently skilled in fishing to procure our own supplies. Shooting pickerel in the Catfish [Yahara] River soon came to be one of the grand sports of the time. When the fish 'run up' they are shot in shoal water in large quantities, which is done by simply discharging your loaded piece at the fish. Neither ball nor buckshot will penetrate the water over an inch or so, but the fish are stunned by the report and concussion of the water, and in a twinkling are on their backs and easily captured.

"Spearing fish was the next best sport, and many nights have I spent at the outlet of Fourth Lake [modern Tenney Park] when the channel was narrow, and a single log which was used for a footbridge spanned the stream. In spearing fish of almost every kind, the water was very clear and with a good brush fire on both sides of the stream, sufficient light was furnished to see all the fish as they swam by. From the footbridge you could spear all you wanted. It was not an unusual thing for Ed George and myself to return with our boat loaded to the water's edge with fish of many different kinds as the reward of one night's labor. Fishing with a spoon hook was also a favorite sport, and when winter came we fished with scoop nets through holes cut in the ice. In those days we always fished for fish never for fun."

At the time, cash was far more rare than game, and one lawsuit was even settled with fish. When a claim was made against the debtor, "the judge asked him if he had anything to say against judgment being rendered against him. He replied that he did not know that he had, as it was an honest debt but that he was unable to pay it. The judge inquired what his occupation was. He replied that he was a fisherman. Says the judge, 'Can you pay it in fish?' The defendant answered that he did not know but he could, if he had time to catch them. The judge turned to the clerk and ordered him to 'enter up a judgment payable in fish and grant a stay of execution for twelve months;' at the same time remarking to the defendant that he must surely pay it at the time and in good fish, for he would not be willing to wait so long for 'stinking fish.'"

[Source: The preceding stories are from Daniel Durrie's 1874 History of Madison, which you can see at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.]

For the next few weeks we'll feature episodes from early Madison history, not all of them odd, to help celebrate our state capital's 150th anniversary.


:: Posted in Madison on April 3, 2006

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