JHR Trainer Ophira Horwitz learns how to fish through Sandy Lake’s sense of community and family
By: Ophira Horwitz
I was so excited to go fishing for my first time. I bought a fishing rod and salted minnows at the grocery store; donned my purple raincoat, fisherman’s hat, and backpack appropriately decorated with a pattern of fishing lures, and headed out to the river behind the radio station, where the locals told me that the walleye, weebeejees, and northern pike were abundant. My friend Anthony at Ontario Works had demonstrated how to cast the reel earlier in the day. It looked so fun and easy. I thought I’d be a natural.
But I never even got the lure into the water.
I cast it backwards, twice, and the line tangled in a bush. On my third try, I loosened the reel so much that I flung it into the water. Thinking that my rod was permanently broken, I left it at the edge of the water, and trod back to the Ontario Works office feeling defeated.
“Back so soon?” the receptionist asked. I told her what happened, and she and everyone in the office who overheard burst out laughing. People in Sandy Lake love to laugh. “That’s right, your rod is ‘broken’ — I’ll pick it up after work and take it for myself,” teased a bystander. The laughter, and the knowledge that my rod could be salvaged, lifted my spirits. I went up to Anthony’s office and told him the story, this time more easily, and he and his colleagues got a good laugh too. “The poor girl, we have to give her a ride to pick up her rod,” so the five of us drove back to the river, and this time they showed me how to do it right.
They took me to a spot deeper in the bush. There the current wound around big rocks, creating eddies where the fish gathered. Anthony showed me how to tie what was left of my line to the rod, and reel it in with my hands. He told me that when he was little, he made fishing rods out of sticks this way. I didn’t have to cast my line very far, he explained: the edge of the bank would do. Within minutes, I caught my first fish: a walleye, the token fish of Sandy Lake. I shrieked in delight as I struggled against its powerful muscles to remove the hook.
“Don’t touch the top fin. It’s as sharp as knives,” warned my friend. “I brought my mallet! Should I hit it?” I asked. “Usually we let it flop around on the ground until it stops moving,” he replied. My next catch was a northern pike, sometimes called a jackfish. This one was huge, but Anthony instructed me to throw it back.
“Too bony, not enough meat.” The boys left me to my own devices at that point, and I caught one more pike before calling it a day and heading home with my supper.
Fishing is important to the community, and fishing derbies are big events in Sandy Lake. The entry fee can range from $50 to $150, but the prizes are worth it, ranging from trucks and boats, to televisions, 8’x8’ sheds, and even a truckload of gravel. The winner of my first fishing derby was a 13-year-old boy. He caught the biggest fish and won the grand-prize truck. After the derby, my friend Rosie and I cleaned over a hundred fish, which were then fried and served during the annual Treaty Day celebrations a few weeks later.
In Sandy Lake, fishing isn’t just a common activity. It’s also traditional, and it’s often necessary. The principal store in the community, and on many other remote reserves in northern Canada, is the Northern. This store often has a monopoly on fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, milk, and other staples meaning the prices can be high. In Sandy Lake, it costs $15 for two bags of milk, $3 for an apple, and up to $8 for a chicken breast.
Approximately 70 per cent of the community is unemployed, and families tend to be large. From what I hear from friends and neighbours, it’s often a struggle to make ends meet. Therefore, fishing, trapping, and hunting – for fish, moose, beaver, partridges, geese, muskrat, and rabbits – are more than just traditional activities, they are necessary for survival.
I’ve gone fishing a few times since I cast my first line. I feel empowered living off the land. Someone has offered to take me hunting in September. I can’t wait. And hopefully my rifle won’t end up ‘broken’ this time.