The art of net building & maintenance
The DNR's Fisheries Division uses a variety of net types to sample Michigan's aquatic communities. The crew that covers the northern portion of the Lake Huron basin uses more than 15 different kinds of nets throughout the year, each with a specific purpose.
In this area alone - which covers all or a portion of the following counties: Alcona, Alpena, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Chippewa, Crawford, Emmet, Iosco, Mackinac, Montmorency, Oscoda, Ogemaw, Otsego, Presque Isle and Roscommon - more than 150 nets are maintained. These nets consist of everything from a long-handled dip net used during stream shocking to a large trap net to set in an inland lake - their configurations and purposes are varied and broad.
Many of the nets used by Fisheries Division are produced in-house at a workshop located at the DNR Customer Service Center located in Roscommon. This shop was configured primarily for the purpose of building the wide variety of netting gear that is essential to carrying out fisheries work.
Nearly all the net building work - at least for the Northern Lake Huron Management Unit - is done by a seasoned Fisheries Technician, Ed Melling. Melling has more than 24 years of net fabrication experience and spends the winter months constructing nets and assisting fellow personnel with net repair and assembly.
"We used to have a full-time net builder position and for a long time it was filled by a gentleman named Joe Drew who worked at the DNR's Rose Lake Warehouse," explained Melling. "When I was first hired I worked in Waterford and I would often go to Rose Lake to build nets under Joe's guidance."
Eventually Melling was transferred to the DNR's Grayling office and all Fisheries Division net building was moved to the Roscommon facility - lead up by Chuck Jeffery. At that time most of the division's nets were pretty old but between Jeffery and Melling the inventory was replenished with newer options.
"Since Chuck was nearing retirement, I committed to learning as much about net fabrication from him as possible, otherwise that knowledge would be lost," Melling shared. "When Chuck retired in 2010 my unit decided to take advantage of my knowledge and asked me to continue to build nets for them and to assist others where I could."
Net design and construction is an ancient art and while ropes and netting are now made out of modern materials such as nylon and polypropylene, the basic techniques have changed very little. In fact all of Fisheries Division's nets are still assembled by hand, sometimes with the help of an industrial sewing machine.
Take an inland trap net for example, which is the largest net used by the Northern Lake Huron Management Unit in their lake surveys. Seven hundred feet of rope is cut and spliced together to form a frame on to which floats, weights and then nylon mesh is attached. Nylon twine is used to tie it all together using a net making knot. That means that over the course of two weeks more than 4,000 knots are sewn by hand to assemble one trap net!
"I would say net building is a lost art," Melling shared. "When I was younger I wasn't that interested in learning how to build nets, but as I got older and I suppose more patient, I got so much more interested. You don't learn from a book or reading step-by-step instructions - you learn from the person before you and the knowledge they can offer."
For the last several years the Northern Lake Huron Management Unit has been making minor improvements to its nets that make them lighter and easier to use without reducing their ability to capture fish. These improvements, when coupled with high quality fabrication skills and proper maintenance, produce nets that can last 30 years or more.