Purdys fisheries: A life working on the water

William Jeremiah Purdy founded Purdy’s fisheries in 1900 with two hoop nets and a dream. The dream is now an important part of Grand Bend and Sarnia’s history. The technology, however, has changed little; today, Purdy’s fishermen use trap nets, which are similar to hoop nets, with both trapping fish alive after they have entered a one-way gate. This is the account of one day on a boat with three members of current owner Milford Purdy’s crew.

Photos and story by Casey Lessard

The boat leaves the dock at Purdy’s in Sarnia at 7:30 a.m. Deckhand Chris Dewey, 21, overslept, but is able to catch the boat before captain Derek Jennings, 24, of Forest embarks. Before untying, Dewey helps gas up the boat with Dustin Johnston, a 29-year-old originally from Prince Edward Island, and Jennings checks the transmission on the Mary Jane, a boat that resembles a long flatbed pickup truck. We will be pulling fish out of trap nets, which are underwater cages made of rope, while fishermen on Purdy’s other boats will be using gill nets today. The crew of the Mary Jane unties and we head north into Lake Huron.
Pulling up to our first catch of the day, Jennings slows down as he struggles to see through the bright reflection of the early morning summer sun. As we navigate over the first of 12 nets we will be checking, Dewey hooks the buoys along the port side as Johnston hooks the rope at the starboard stern corner of the boat. Once hooked, Jennings reverses and halts the boat while the two deckhands pull the rope out of the water and above crates – some empty and some filled with ice – and to the middle of the boat.
In a feat of science that every boat operator must understand, but which is hard to explain to the layman, Jennings unties this rope, ties some of his own to one end while Johnston ties the other end to the starboard side of the boat, and Jennings gets the submerged net to rise. There are pulleys underwater, and the rope apparently goes down, but there must be an engine driving the process because when Jennings hits a lever, the boat shimmies and grinds (likely controlling the speed of the net’s ascension) until the net rises to the surface.
After securing the net to the boat – the equipment looks much the same as you might expect from fishing boats of long ago, with wood the dominant element – the three men work together to pull the net up and see today’s catch. Not a lot, but I’m told in the spring the catch can be in the thousands of pounds, a multiple of the few pounds caught so far. Of course, the day is still young.
Among the catch, about ten silver bass, a dozen perch and about the same number of pickerel. Sheephead, redfin and all sport fish (other than the silver bass) are thrown overboard.
“If we get sturgeon, we’ll keep them,” Jennings says, but none today. “In the spring we’ll get tonnes.”
He points out that there are marks on their sorting tray that mark how long they want the fish to be. He and Dewey sort the fish that Johnston pulls in with a net on a pole. The men sort fast. The silver bass, perch and pickerel land with a piercing thud in empty blue trays on the boat’s floor. They quiver as they try to remain alive, and they will for a while.
Johnston shovels ice into the blue trays so the fish stay alive as long as possible so they are fresh when they arrive at market.
“Perch and pickerel are the two people like the best,” Jennings says. Perch is most popular, but “the pickerel we’ve been catching this year have been exceptional for some reason.”
On the third net, though, “I wrote zero on that one,” he says. “Not one fish.”
At 24, it may sound unusual for his coworkers to call Jennings master, but that’s the title Johnston says he was told to call his boat captain; he learned this at a recent commercial boat safety course. Jennings takes it in stride.
He is, of course, in charge today, and he shows his mastery of the boat and his job. He’s also patient, friendly and hard working, and treats his coworkers and guests with a relaxed kindness. It’s clear he’s comfortable with his work and is happy to be leading the charge.
One time, on the seventh net, he gets mildly frustrated when Johnston makes a mistake because he is distracted, talking about NASCAR. Instead of pulling a knot loop that unties the net, he pulls a single line that tightens it. Jennings tells him to move out and he bans him from talking NASCAR again.
“I do it (mess up the loop) once or twice a day,” Johnston replies, “even though I’ve been doing this for three years.”
Jennings asks Johnston to grab a needle and after a few minutes is able to untie the knot. They’re back in business.
A couple of nets later, captain Jennings throws a buoy line out while pulling the net in and it snags on the net.
“Way to go, NASCAR,” jokes Chris Dewey. Luckily, the captain doesn’t have to go in for a swim to unsnag the rope, which unsnags itself.

Now shirtless as the heat sinks in, Jennings’ physical condition is apparent. Johnston casually remarks that there are three perks to the job.
“Most people pay to tan, swim and get in shape,” he says. “I get paid to do all three. My friends don’t believe me, but I weigh 225.”

10th net
“We might not be able to get this one,” Jennings says after driving past the buoy.
Dewey runs with the hook, but stops and turns, shaking his head. Missed.
“Figured we would,” Jennings says. He turns the boat around, and the crew successfully hooks it.

Singing a song about loving someone for their money, Jennings tells the guys that he jokes with his girlfriend that he’s dating her for her money.
[Are you?] “No. She doesn’t have money, but her parents do.” Allison is still in Thunder Bay. “I don’t think she’ll let me do this another summer.” [What does your work think?] “They know it’s coming.”
By next summer, Jennings will be qualified to teach; his major is physics. He’ll still need to work next summer, but “there’s plenty of work in Thunder Bay.
“My girlfriend works for the health unit and it pays well. My money goes to school. She pays when we go out because she wants me to save for a ring. I will (buy one). Not now, but…”
Jennings teases that when he was in second-year university, two girls pulled him on stage at a bar, stripped him to his boxers, and oiled him up. The prize? He was named sexiest man on campus. But his heart is true to his girlfriend.
“I may flirt,” he says, “but I would never break her heart. She’s too good. She has a good heart.”
“Do you?” asks Johnston.
“Yeah, that’s why I’d never hurt her.”

It’s been a low catch day
Jennings sings Billy Joel’s Downeaster Alexa, emphasizing for his comrades the line, “There may be fish out there, but where, God only knows.”
The men prepare to release the net after counting their catch. Dewey sits on the ledge while Jennings brings the slack rope back in. The net’s rope comes aboard and is released from the slack. Dewey pulls this rope end over to Johnston’s side and the ropes are tied together again. Jennings gives some gas and slowly moves the boat as the deckhands hold the rope aloft to release the net.
On to the next one and once again, the winds make it hard to navigate the boat into a good position so Dewey can hook the net line.
“Try it at the back of the boat,” Jennings urges Dewey.
Success. Two more nets to haul before day’s end. It’s now 12:30.
The fish have been in the nets for up to a week.
“When were we last out?” Jennings asks. “Tuesday? The fish can survive for a while without eating. As long as they have room to swim around, minnows will come in.”
The fish enter the net after following a lead that’s about 600’-800’ long and funnels them into the cage, which is about 13’ by 20’.
“We have to come out here once a week,” Jennings notes, “even if it’s only to clean out the traps. We could keep them alive in there for a couple of weeks, but they longer they’re in there, the worse it is for them.”

What do you do outside of work? I ask deckhand Chris Dewey, whose grandfather worked on Purdy’s boats for 45 years.
“Not much,” he says. “Play sports any chance I get. I like hockey.”
Do you have a girlfriend? “No,” he replies.
A boyfriend? “No. Dustin’s my boyfriend,” he says, as the three men laugh.

“We always walk the last net off because it’s usually the one we get caught in.”
Getting the boat’s propeller caught in the net is a mess. If it happens, someone has to get in the water to release the boat from underneath. Easy if it’s out of gear, but if it’s in gear, it’s a tense situation.
“Today was a good day,” Jennings says. “I always figure if everyone comes home unscathed, it’s a good day.”

Back at the shop, operations manager Mike Hopko tells the men they can head home without running the fish through the processors that remove scales and fillet them. They are processed the next day, and by Wednesday, are delivered to Grand Bend for sale and cooking at Purdy’s at the Bend.
“No one has higher standards than Milford Purdy for quality, consistency and cleanliness,” says assistant manager Al Duffy. “Trust me. No one.
“What makes Purdy’s so unique is they control their product from catching it to cooking it.”

To try the fish (fresh or with chips) for yourself, visit Purdy’s on River Road. Fresh fish includes pickerel, perch, whitefish, and lake trout, as well as imported Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout. The shop is open Wed. and Thurs. from 4 to 8 p.m., and Fri. to Sun. from 12 to 8 p.m. The season runs from Victoria Day to Labour Day.