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Four generations of fishermen on Lake Superior

Walter Sve, still fishing for the family business at 86 years old, pulls up a net full of herring. Photo by Ken Vogel.1 / 4
Steve Sve tackles the less glamorous side of commercial fishing -- cleaning the day's catch before delivering the fish to waiting customers. Photo by Ken Vogel.2 / 4
Eric Sve (standing) returning to shore after pulling fish from a trout net with his father, Walter, Tuesday morning in Lake Superior. Photo by Ken Vogel3 / 4
Tubs of tagged lake trout await sorting and cleaning. Photo by Ken Vogel.4 / 4

Ken Vogel

As the sun was rising over the horizon on a warm fall morning this week, Walter Sve and his son Eric were busy pulling nets from Lake Superior in hopes of filing their tubs with herring and lake trout. Calm waters made for a pristine setting on Tuesday as the family team pulled their nets while flocks of herring gulls circled in hopes of a free meal.

The Sve family commercial fishing business began in 1926 when Norwegian immigrant Ragnvald Sve (Walter's father) began commercial fishing on Lake Superior with his father-in-law. Prior to that, Walter's grandfather Julien Jacobson also fished commercially. In 1927, Ragnvald and his wife Ragnhild Sve purchased the property which is still the home of Split Rock Cabins, the family-owned business.

"If we can do 100 pounds of fish a day, then that's a good day," said Eric. The Sves sell their catch to several local restaurants including Camp 61 in Beaver Bay, the Rustic Inn of Castle Danger and Russ Kendall's Smoke House in Knife River.

While the beauty of the big lake draws many to its shores, harvesting the its bounty is hard work, Eric said. The nets are held down by to 300 to 400 pounds of weight and the fishing season ranges from early, cold spring to late, harsh autumn.

The Sves run three nets totaling about 700 feet. According to Eric, they typically get out before sunrise to start pulling up the nets.

"We get there early so we can get the fish in and clean them, then we prepare them for transport and deliver them to the buyers," Eric said.

For the Sves, all the hard work is well worth the effort as they find contentment in being a part of the Lake Superior ecosystem.

"I have always enjoyed the outdoors, but seeing the sun rise over the lake, watching the seasons change and just being on the water brings a peaceful feeling to me," Eric said.

Eric's brother Steve echoed those sentiments while standing on shore checking on his 86-year-old father, who was still out pulling nets.

"This is beautiful," Steve said, observing the early light on a clear September day over the lake. "You can't beat this view."

Eric and Steve said they were hooked on fishing from an early age when they would go out with Walter to watch and help him bring in the days catch.

"We would sit up front on the net box," said Eric. "It was great just to be with him doing something fun."

The life of a fisherman is not always fun, especially when factors outside of their control affect their catch. To bring in extra money, Walter Sve also began a charter fishing business in 1945, based at the family resort.

"I did that until about 1960 when (sea lampreys, an invasive species) all but wiped out the trout population," Walter said.

Lampreys made their way from the Atlantic Ocean into the Great Lakes in the late 1800s and early 1900s, where each lamprey can kill around 40 pounds of fish in its lifetime, according to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. The invasive species decimated the trout numbers, resulting in the near collapse of the charter fishing industry. Using chemicals, traps and barriers, scientists and government agencies have reduced the lamprey population in the Great Lakes by about 90 percent from its peak, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

"It is rare to find fresh lamprey scars on the fish now," Walter said.

Walter said another devastating blow was dealt to commercial fishing when Reserve Mining in Silver Bay, now Northshore Mining, dumped taconite tailings into Lake Superior. Walter still remembers the details well.

"It was Aug. 27, 1956 when the tailings showed up in front of our place," he said.

The tailings polluted the waters near shore, causing herring to seek refuge in cleaner water miles from the coastline.

"Herring gills are very sensitive to polluted water. They moved way out and stayed out," Walter said. "It took almost 30 years for the water to cleanse and the herring to return."

The Sves didn't abandon chartering entirely -- Eric is now a licensed captain and still does some tours.

"I like doing it, but the resort keeps me pretty busy," he said.

He said Gichigami was slow to yield its larder this year after a record-breakingly harsh winter, meaning both businesses were a little sluggish.

"It was slower than average for both the charter and commercial fishing," Eric said. "It took a long time for the water to warm up."

Whether the fish cooperate or not, it seems the Sves have found their niche on the North Shore. Eric summed up the fascination with the lake that has kept the Sve family here for nearly a century.

"It's the sound of the wooden boat my dad built gliding through the water, its being out there with a full moon and all the stars and it's the feeling of how small you are when the waves are big," he said.