In July 1835, Archdeacon Edward Wix joined a night fishing party at the Main Gut, Stephenville Crossing, and described it in his diary. In his Vignettes of the West column, historian Don Morris told the story.
A moonlit sea-trouting scene
All was not work for the English Church of England missionary, Archdeacon Edward Wix, when he toured settlements along the south and west coasts of Newfoundland in 1835. Certainly, he attended most conscientiously to his priestly duties of marrying, baptizing, interring and holding church services in the various little hamlets he visited. But he also took time out to see first hand how the people went about their routine industry.
On one occasion he accompanied salmon fishermen to their site of work and he indeed experienced a singular scene. Before describing this in his diary, he wrote under the date of Sunday, July 5, (1835) the following:
“Three full services at Sandy Point (St. George’s Bay) so well attended that I regret exceedingly there should be no missionary stationed among this very teachable quiet people. This harbor and the barrisways, with an occasional visit to the Bay of Islands, and the settlements at Codroy Rivers and Island, would constitute a pleasant and no idle charge; and a school, as I found on an enumeration with one of the inhabitants, might in Sandy Point alone, congregate 70 children if it could be opened tomorrow.”
Following that entry for the Lord’s Day of July 5, the archdeacon penned in his journal:
“Monday [July 6, 1835] –
Went this week to visit the salmon fisheries, which are upon the Main Gut. Three or two families reside there. One night, as some of the families and an Indian boy were going out just at the rise of high tide, five canoes in all, to spear trout and eels, I joined them in the excursion. It employed us till an hour or two after midnight.”
Archdeacon Wix described the scene as an “animating one”. He wrote that a brilliant moon hung over the hills, which were finely wooded to the very cliffs and sand at the edge of the water. He continued his account: “Bunches of birch bark were packed together, a dozen in each packet. These were stuck, one at a time, as required, into a stick which was cleft at the top to let in this rude flame, in which a light was applied. The stick with the ignited birch bark was then put upright at the bow of the canoe; there, also, the man stood up, most insecurely balanced, as would seem, with his ‘nighor’, or eel-spear, a pole cleft at the bottom with a spike inserted. This, on his striking a fish of any size, would open and admit it till the spike perforated it, and then closing upon it, would press it and prevent its escape.”
The archdeacon continued his fascinating account: “The sandy or stony bottom of the river in the shallows, – for in deeper water this sport cannot be pursued, – was seen as clearly as in the day, and every fish in it. The fish seemed at least bewildered, if not attracted by the light; and the quickness of eye, and adroitness of the man who used the nighor, impelling as he did, the canoe with the thick end, and every now and then, reversing it to strike, was surprising. He struck successfully at eight out of 10 of each of the fish at which he aimed, and shook them off into the boat with a sudden turn of his arm, which left him at liberty to strike at two fish within a second or two.
Kept his balance
“He kept his balance, also, with great niceness, when he seemed to have poised himself so far over the side of the light canoe, that he must, it seemed to me, have gone overboard, or capsized our crank bark. the light of the flambeau in the other canoes, as they came round the projecting points of leafy green, and the shade, as we again lost view of them behind the tree or rocks in the distance, was most imposing.”
Archdeacon Wix went on to say that 400 trout were thus speared in the canoe in which he was an occupant. He added that some of these fish were of such a size, that they would have been taken, as they frequently were, in the salmon nets.
The archdeacon concluded his account of this unusual “excursion” by penning: “In the five canoes, above 1,000 (fish) were taken in a little less than two hours. I had the curiosity to weigh six of them, which together weighed 22 pounds, and had a barrel of this night’s catch salted that I might take them with me to St. John’s.”
Held more services
During the last days of July, Archdeacon Wix went about his duties, holding three full services at “The Barrisways” on Sunday the 19th.
The entry for his journal, Friday, July 24, said: “A new schooner belonging to my kind friends, Mr. Horatio Forrest and Joseph Pennall, for the launching of which I had been anxiously waiting, being now rigged and ready for sea, I took leave of the worthy inhabitants of St. George’s harbor – of whose kindness I shall ever entertain an affectionate recollection – in an evening service which was very crowded.”
He sailed from Sandy Point Saturday, July 25, at five in the morning, headed for Port aux Basques. No doubt his moonlit sea-trouting excursion was still fresh in his mind.
Who was fishing at the Main Gut?
Archdeacon Wix does not name those with whom he went fishing. However, Kirk Butt in Early Settlers of Bay St. George Vol. 1 writes about who it likely was:
The 1838 List of Inhabitants showed four settler families living in the area that is now known as Stephenville Crossing… Jean Pillet and Jean-Marie Luca/Lucas were included on the 1838 List of Inhabitants and it was indicated that both men had been at the Main Gut for 15 years (since 1823)… François Benoit’s time of residence in the area was given as 50 years. This number was also rounded off. He had actually been there for just under 49 years. James Young Jr. (Jacques LeJeune Jr.) was correctly entered on the list as having been there for 8 years (since 1830)…
During this period, there are known to have been Mi’kmaq families from Seal Rocks [St. George’s] who lived in the vicinity of Stephenville Crossing during the summer months in order to participate in the salmon fishery… In addition to the settlement at Seal Rocks (Anse des Sauvages), his map [Lieut. Vauhello 1819] showed two families a few kilometres away at the mouth of St. George’s River (the east end of Stephenville Crossing)…
The two Mi’kmaq families at the Main Gut would only have been living out on the point during the summer as that area was exposed to somewhat fierce winds and storms in wintertime. They may have returned to Seal Rocks in the winter. By about 1830, however, there were Mi’kmaq families from Seal Rocks in permanent residence at Stephenville Crossing. [2007:279-280]
Mr. Butt says that the family of Jean Marche also lived in the Main Gut but was omitted on Captain Polkinghorne’s 1838 List of Inhabitants (2007:218).
How to make an eel spear
Should you wish to make your own eel spear, Kerry Prosper of Nova Scotia shows you how on YouTube.