In the days when lutefisk ran the rivers

Forrest Johnson

Columnist's note: I offer my annual Christmas lutefisk column. Please note that lutefisk is still in fashion in some households this week. I know one fellow in Two Harbors who has eaten lutefisk every day since Thanksgiving and he said he won't stop now.

Not long ago I visited with an old timer who lived in a shack on the outskirts of town and he told me about the long ago days when the lutefisk used to run in the North Shore rivers of Lake Superior. That was before all the pine and cedar were gone and you could still ride a train from Two Harbors to Embarrass on a Saturday night to dance the polka.

“The spring snowmelt would flush the rivers of ice and the best time to go for lutefisk was when the first peepers would start to sing in the swamps and the moon would be waxing to full,” he said. “We thought it would never end.”
The lutefisk are all gone now. 
About 20 years ago there was talk that a few fish had been caught up past Thunder Bay so the old timer went out late one night with his dip net and only caught a few smelt. He never saw a lutefisk except in a fish market freezer and knew it was over for good. 
“No matter how many times lutefisk appears on your Christmas menu they just don’t run around here anymore,”he said. “I suppose we never did manage the resource like we should have so what can you expect when you can find it frozen in the grocery store nowadays. They are a very fragile fish until you get them in that white sauce.”

He told me he was a real novice when he first started fishing for lutefisk. Nobody in town was too helpful about where they went to catch them but he said he figured out pretty quick that a good lutefisk eater is a pretty good lutefisk fisherman so even though he was a skeptic about matters religious he started to go to all the church suppers during the holidays and watch for the ten percent of the anglers that caught ninety percent of the fish.

He was a quick learner and you should see some of the old faded pictures of the whoppers he caught in the days before they disappeared.
“Sitting there in the basement of the church, steaming heaps of fish being passed around, you could tell right off who were the best fishermen on the stream,” he told me, his clear eyes drifting to a bygone era. “Some of those fellows could slurp it up faster than the church wives could dish it onto a plate."

The fishermen in those days were all pretty proud of their ability to keep the town stocked up with fish and each one of them couldn’t wait for Christmas season to show off their knack for catching lutefisk. Before each supper kegs of lutefisk would be rolled into the kitchen, each of them stamped with the name of the fisherman. They would feign a blush when the pastor or the mayor would mention their names during the dinner prayer.

The old timer said that during the years of the big lutefisk runs church suppers would spill over to the Sons of Norway Hall or the Vasa Lodge and last for weeks because nobody could go home until all the fish was eaten.
Lutefisk just isn’t one of those things you save and eat later.
On any given lutefisk supper night things would start out innocent enough with a few songs upstairs in the church and the pastor perhaps thinking he might slip in a few words, not a sermon mind you, just a few words regarding temptation and forgiveness since one always led to the other. Pastors, as a whole, especially the Lutherans, did like their fish cooked a little longer for some reason. Pretty soon the smell of the dinner would start to pull people out of the pews and down toward the kitchen and since it wasn’t an official service hunger played a larger role than guilt. The choir would lift up like a flock of birds and then the organist would slip away and pretty soon about the only people left would be those who’d lost their sense of smell, the pastor and the confirmation kids who had to acolyte and bus dishes for extra credit.

Noticing the exodus, the pastor would eventually say “Well, I guess it’s time to eat” but he always made sure he had the jump on anyone left behind before he said anything.
During the suppers the old timer said he would slide in and talk a bit to the real good lutefisk eaters, you know, fishing for a little information. But he said overall they were pretty sly to that. He told me that if brook trout fishermen keep quiet about the best spots to catch brook trout, well, it was the old lutefisk fishermen who taught the brook trout fishermen about covert operations and the importance about keeping your mouth shut.

“Most of the time they’d act pretty coy and tiptoe around my inquiries,” the old timer said. "But you know, they all had a weakness for aqavit, which in my mind is simply potato liquor made out of kerosene,” he said with a slight smile. “A little pass of the flask to help wash down the dinner and pretty soon they weren’t as coy.”

Like I said, the old timer caught some whoppers in his day.
I’ve never hooked into a lutefisk but the old timer said you might as well have a stick of dynamite on the end of your line. A good lutefisk would fight the current and take you straight upstream like an angry steelhead trout, spitting and splashing lye all over the place. They’d put up a heck of a battle and leave behind a weary angler to deal with hooks bent, line stripped from the reel and broken rods more often than not.

I sure wish I could’ve been around in those days.
The old timer was wistful.
“For a while, the North Shore of Lake Superior was known around the world for trophy lutefisk. An old logger I knew had the pleasure of guiding the King of Sweden for lutefisk and I’m told that’s why so many Swedes and Norwegians settled around here. But the fishery is all gone now. It wasn’t because of overfishing. Like I said, as soon as you could buy it frozen in the store, that’s when the lutefisk fishery finally went to hell.”