THAT GLAMOROUS GOLDEYE
He had the scientists guessing and gourmets clamoring when he suddenly disappeared from Lake Winnipeg. But all’s well—our most famous and temperamental fish simply shifted to Alberta
MANITOBA’S famous Winnipeg goldeye, the fish with the golden spectacles and the million-dollar taste, has staged a mysterious but highly welcome comeback. Four years ago it had all but vanished from the waters where fishermen once had hauled it in by the ton. Now, suddenly, the goldeye has turned up in Alberta, 750 miles away.
How it got there no one knows. But it’s there, as plentiful as it ever was in Manitoba during its heyday, and scientists declare that Canada’s most famous dish will now probably continue to keep the gourmets of the world smacking their chops and ordering second servings.
The goldeye’s reappearance is another surprising chapter in the strange rags-to-riches story of this paradoxical, mud-loving aristocrat of Canadian fish which started its career as one-cent-per-pound dog food and wound up in the continent’s swankiest wine-and-dine spots at $2 and up per plate.
Canada has few famous national dishes but, among sophisticates and world travelers, broiled Winnipeg goldeye is to Continued on page 39
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Canada what Boston baked beans are to Cape Cod and smorgasbord to Sweden. Recently singing star Marion Anderson had goldeye flown in as a treat for guests at her Connecticut home. U. S. millionaires, Hollywood stars, European playboys have all at various times had iced cases of smoked goldeye flown or sent express to their dinner parties. The goldeye put choppy Lake Winnipeg on the gourmet’s map.
It is a small herringlike fish of the shad clan with the pompous scientific name of Amphiodon aloso ides. A polished overcoat of silver scales distinguishes it as one of Canada’s prettiest fish as well as our tastiest. Its eyes are surrounded by distinctive reddishgold rims which give the fish its name. However, it is always smoked until it resembles a kippered herring before the public sees it and thousands familiar with the smoked product wouldn’t recognize a live goldeye if it was in their goldfish bowl.
The average goldeye caught by fishermen is about a foot long, weighs one pound or a little less. An occasional big one hits 16 inches and two pounds.
The story of the goldeye’s ascent to the top of the social ladder reads like a typical North American success story.
In 1900 only 7,200 pounds of goldeye were marketed in Canada for a total value of $72. Most were used as dog food. Unsmoked, the goldeye’s flesh is a flabby, unappealing, tattletale grey. Trappers ate them only when all other food was gone. There is a legend that one starving Pas trapper boiled and ate his moccasins and then started eating goldeye. At the Icelandic fishing settlement of Gimli, on Lake Winnipeg, fishermen would pull in whitefish nets and find them loaded with goldeye. They threw them on the fields for fertilizer to get them out of the lake.
The Secret Was in Willow
Then, just before World War I, a few enterprising farmers around Lake Winnipeg tried smoking goldeye to see if it would make them more palatable. They made a startling discovery. The goldeye’s flesh was soft and fat enough to absorb a high content of the tangy wood-smoke flavor. Unpalatable when fresh, it had a delicately sharp and savory taste when brined and smoked, a taste unlike any other smoked fish. Gradually the news spread that smoked goldeye was not merely something to eat in a pinch, but a great delicacy any time.
Smoked goldeye might have remained an unsung tidbit of the Lake Winnipeg farmlands had it not been for an unknown CPR dining-car chef who tried one once in a farm kitchen and “discovered” the Winnipeg goldeye for the food connoisseurs of the world.
Frank Drury, inspector of CPR dining cars for Ontario, picks up the story: “No one knows who that chef was, but he deserves a monument because he put the Winnipeg goldeye in the society columns. Back before 1910 this man told the purchasing department at Winnipeg it should start featuring goldeye on the diner menus. We tried it. Tourists liked it, for the smoked, woodsy flavor seemed peculiarly appropriate to a pioneer country like Canada.
Restaurants and hotels in Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal soon climbed on the goldeye bandwagon and the words “broiled Winnipeg goldeye” on a menu became a symbol of dining refinement. The goldeye’s fame spread. English tourists landing at Halifax would ask: “Where can we get a Winnipeg goldeye
dinner?” American tourists started enquiring at hotels back home in New York and Chicago, and Manitoba fish dealers began receiving urgent wires from the hotel chefs: “What is a Winnipeg goldeye? Please ship us a 100pound case.”
The small fish handlers and farmers up along Lake Winnipeg realized the goldeye was a gold mine and refused to let the bigger Winnipeg dealers in on their secret of how goldeye were cured and smoked. For several years the big fish companies stood back helplessly as the growing goldeye trade went past their doors to the little backwoods lake shanties. Then their spies sleuthed out the goldeye-smoking secret.
The goldeye were being soaked in a brine mixture first, then smoked above a willow wood fire. Willow smoke gave the flesh a delicate reddish-gold tint and a tangy-but-not-too-tangy flavor. But willow was too scarce for mass production of smoked goldeye so the big dealers tried some refinements of their own. Most wood smokes, they discovered, left the fish bitter and resinous. Oak and maple, however, gave it the original famous taste but failed to impart the willow’s distinctive reddish color. They got around that by dyeing them. Today’s smoked goldeye is exactly the same product in taste and appearance as was originally made famous, but a red dye does the trick now that willow smoke used to do.
Large goldeye processing plants went up. By the ’20’s Winnipeg goldeye had become Manitoba’s most famous export and tourist attraction. U. S. and European tourists who had never heard of Manitoba’s wheat fields knew all about her goldeye.
Meanwhile, Lake Winnipeg fishermen, who 15 years before had been throwing goldeye on the fields to rot, were now making as much as $1,500 every two weeks during the height of the winter fishing season.
However, dining-car and restaurant chefs are not standing back meekly and letting the smokehouse men claim all the credit for the goldeye’s meteoric rise in popularity. Smoking goldeye is an art, the chefs admit, but cooking them is an art too. In the kitchen of Toronto’s showy Paddock Tavern big rawboned Andrew Costeck pushed his chef’s cap back until a ribbon of blond hair emerged and declared: “You
can’t cook Winnipeg goldeye like any old fish, you know. You have to preserve and bring out the flavor that the smoking has given it. Mostly, goldeye are broiled, but sometimes pan-fried or steamed.”
The Scientists Were Stumped
Costeck slapped a chunk of butter half as big as your fist in a thick polished broiling pan, waited until the butter was sputtering. He poured lemon juice over a goldeye and dropped it into the pan.
“This way the fish stays solid,” he explained. “Goldeye get soft pretty easy. If you’re pan-frying goldeye use a heavy pan or you drive out the smoke flavor. A thick pan slows down the heat. That’s what you want to keep in the flavor and hold them solid.”
The 20’s were boom years for the goldeye fishermen. Fish dealers throughout the continent were crying for Winnipeg goldeye and only a few hundred Manitoba fishermen had them to sell. There lay one of the mysteries of the golcjMye. How a species could be common (Ally in one restricted area is a riddle that has the scientists stumped to this day. Even distribution of the goldeye in Manitoba had its mystery. It was common in Lake Winnipeg, Lake Winnipegosis and Dauphin Lake, yet Lake Manitoba, connected with
these lakes and possessing identical water features, never produced one.
Anything could happen to a fish with habits as eccentric and puzzling as this. And something, no one can say for sure what, did happen.
Until 1929 Manitoba produced more than one million pounds of goldeye every year. Then suddenly the 1930 production dropped to half a million pounds, by 1933 it was down to a quarter million. Only a remnant of goldeye remained. The fish that had made Manitoba famous had all but vanished.
For 10 years Manitoba continued to keep a trickle of goldeye flowing out to the fish markets—barely enough to keep the goldeye fanciers from forgetting what they tasted like. Then in 1946 came the greatest plunge of all. From a quarter million pounds in 1945 the yield dropped to 70,000 pounds in 1946, remained little better in 1947, ’48 and ’49.
Manitoba’s Winnipeg goldeye was gone—but the name was too famous now to leave off the restaurant menus. A substitution racket developed and many restaurants and hotels continued to feature “broiled Winnipeg goldeye” on their menus, but the “goldeye” now had become smoked tullibee or cisco, fish of the herring family which resemble goldeye in appearance when smoked but taste about as much like it as beef tastes like chicken.
A man who knows his goldeye would not touch a tullibee with a 10-foot fork but hundreds of unwary tourists are eating them for goldeye and wondering what all the cheering has been about. A U. S. tourist last summer started to chat with a fish expert at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum of Zoology. “I just tried a Winnipeg goldeye,” he said. “Half a dozen U. S. fish taste better than that. You Canadians are frauds.” That evening the tourist and the biologist returned to the same restaurant, ordered goldeye again. The plates arrived. The biologist recognized at a glance that their $1.50-a-plate “Winnipeg goldeye” was 30-cents-a-pound smoked Lake Erie cisco.
Death in the Muskrat Marshes
How can you tell whether you are served genuine goldeye? The best eateries serve their goldeye whole— complete with head and tail—and it is easy then to spot a cisco in goldeye clothing. If your fish has a mouthful of small sharp teeth, one small fin near the tail, is relatively deep and thin, and tastes heavenly—then you are eating goldeye. If the head is cut off before serving, ask the waitress to bring the head in from the kitchen.
When Manitoba’s goldeye production hit the skids in 1930 fishery experts began prying into its private life for clues about why it disappeared and how it might be brought back. But the fish detectives quickly learned that in the goldeye they had a tough case to crack.
Its love life baffled scientists for 20 years. There was evidence that it swam up streams in spring to spawn but no one could find a goldeye egg outside the female fish itself. Efforts to propagate the goldeye in hatcheries were not successful.
In 1945, after 15 years of research, the goldeye was almost as great an enigma as it had been at the beginning. That year the Fisheries Research Board of Canada put two of the continent’s crack fishery biologists on the goldeye trail—Dr. William M. Sprules and Dr. K. H. Doan.
Sprules and Doan discovered two clues which partially explained the goldeye’s disappearance. They established that 60% to 70% of the fish caught in the customary 3%-inch mesh
nets had not reached spawning size. The fishermen were not letting them grow up. And they proved that the control dams in the shallow muskrat marshes of the Saskatchewan River delta near The Pas were playing hob in goldeye family affairs. Mature goldeye swam into the marshes, evidently spawned, and swam out again when high spring water covered the dams. But the youngsters, before they were old enough to handle their fins, were trapped behind the dams by the summer lowering of the water. Then hundreds of thousands of them died of oxygen starvation when the shallow marshes froze over in winter. Now the dams are ordered opened periodically in summer to let the goldeye fingerlings out.
The next development came in the form of rumors that Lake Claire and Lake Mamawi at the western end of Lake Athabaska in northeastern Alberta “were chock-full” of Winnipeg goldeye. It was impossible, of course, for Lake Claire was 750 miles from the main goldeye waters of Manitoba, but the rumors persisted and in 1947 Sprules went out to investigate.
He set nets, left them out one night, hauled them in anxiously at daybreak. There were more goldeye than anything else—and Winnipeg goldeye, the real McCoy!
Sprules computed that Claire and Mamawi alone could produce 250,000 pounds of goldeye a year without the breeding stock being depleted. He recommended that a commercial fishing firm be licensed to operate on the lakes. The Alberta Government complied and in 1948 Canada started tapping its new goldeye mine.
Catches were poor the first year because the Indian crews were inexperienced. But even at that the two Alberta lakes produced 65,000 pounds of goldeye—almost as much as all of Manitoba produced the year before. Commercial fishermen soon improved their technique and hauled in 144,000 pounds of goldeye in 1949. The fish shops and the restaurants had Winnipeg goldeye again!
But Lake Claire had yet another goldeye ace up its sleeve. In May, 1949, scientific investigations had been held up several days by spring gales which whipped the water. While waiting impatiently for finer weather Sprules and his men made an interesting discovery. Concealed among the storm debris on the beach were windrows of tiny whitish eggs. When examined hastily under a microscope they turned out to be goldeye .eggs—the first Winnipeg goldeye eggs ever obtained except by dissecting the fish themselves.
The mystery of the goldeye’s spawning habits was solved. Unlike any other freshwater fish the goldeye had eggs which floated freely on the water.
Where had the mysterious new Alberta colony of goldeye come from? The scientists can only guess. The goldeye has always been a gadabout. It had always had a curious penchant for turning up, a few at a time, in spots hundreds of miles away. Northern Ontario natives, for example, have long claimed that there are a few goldeye in Lake Abitibi and the Abitibi River, of northeastern Ontario, almost 800 miles from Lake Winnipeg. Biologists insisted for years these must be mooneye, the goldeye’s cousin, so similar it could be a twin, but when scientists investigated they found the fish were genuine goldeye. Down through the Mississippi
system the goldeye has cropped up s periodically, at times as far south as Louisiana, 1,500 miles from Manitoba. a There is one authenticated record of a C goldeye caught in 1908 at Fort Wrigley, y on the Mackenzie River, 1,000 miles v from Lake Winnipeg. t
Presumably these are goldeye bitten by the wanderlust bug. Many goldeye u swim up rivers to spawn and probably n a few explore farther upstream after s spawning instead of returning to their s
Manitoba home lakes. Far up the fi
rivers they spawn again the next year t and each generation a few trail-blazers 9 wander farther. Some probably find d their way into the small source streams b and swamps and during spring high water succeed in crossing the heights of “ land into neighboring river systems y
such as the Mississippi and Mackenzie.
Dr. Sprules is sure that Lakes Claire and Mamawi in Alberta will supply the Canadian goldeye market for several years unaided. Meanwhile Manitoba waters will have a rest during which the goldeye can repopulate itself.
But the goldeye, though better understood maybe, will still be a fish of mystery. Last year 200 carefully selected Lake Claire goldeye eggs were shipped air express to the Manitoba fish hatchery at Whiteshell Park. According to all hatchery experience 99% should have survived. But most died, and the handful of fry that did hatch lived only two days.
Said a puzzled hatchery official: “You clear up one goldeye mystery and you bump smack into another.” ★