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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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Commercial fish nets at Lake Peosta in the late 19th or early twentieth century. Photo courtesy: Murphy Library Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Fisherman's Cabin. Photo courtesy: Dubuque and Its Neighborhoods, Harber and Blish, 1897

COMMERCIAL FISHING. According to the Dubuque Herald on January 2, 1874, the commercial fishing was the best it had ever been on record. Using a seine three hundred yards long, Ernest Wiedner of Dubuque caught 50,000 pounds of fish at a spot near Lansing. The seine was drawn to the shore under the ice and then five days were needed to dip the fish out with hand-nets through holes in the ice. One sportsman was reported to have caught 250 pounds of walleye pike in one day through holes he cut in the ice along the shore. (1)

In 1980, 754 fishermen reported commercial catches on the MISSISSIPPI RIVER along the Iowa shoreline. This number, triple the number reported in the 1960s according to conservation officials, was due primarily to an increase in the number of part-time fishermen. Fish production in the states of Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin has remained fairly constant at an estimated eleven million pounds annually with a value of $1.2 million.

Statistics hide a gradual decline in the catches reported due to pollution, silting and overfishing. The largest decline reported was in the number of catfish caught. Catches in 1980 of this valuable fish were 85 percent lower than the amount reported in 1965. Catfish have accounted for as much as one-third of a commercial fisherman's income leading to demands that size limits on catfish not be raised. Pools with the largest surface area annually report the largest catches.

One of the successful commercial fishing families in Dubuque were the Duccinis--Fred; his son, Walter; his grandson, John; and for many years, Tom. Fishing a territory seven miles above and seven miles below Dubuque, the three generations run hoop nets, wooden box traps, trammel nets, gill nets and seines profitably for decades while also holding down other jobs at the packing company or The Adams Company. The self-described "cut-throat competition" of the industry led the family to often work at night. This avoided letting others know the best places to fish or the most efficient methods to use. Catches were brought in early in the morning; family members were involved in cleaning fish before they left for school. Tom Ducccini, a member of the HEMPSTEAD HIGH SCHOOL football team remembered coming to practice with a bandaged finger and needing to explain to a worried coach that he had been horned while cleaning a catfish that morning.

John, Tom's father, began working in the business around the age of five. Trot lines carried one hundred hooks each. As they were brought out of the water, the fish were removed from the hooks and dumped into tubs. Lines had be wound carefully to avoid a mess. John ran trot lines for four years or until he was about eighteen. By then he had also had plenty of experience with "bank work" which included cleaning, boxing, and icing the fish for market. When he was in his teens, fishermen looked for trucks every three days to pick up their catch. They paid the drivers from 5-10 cents per pound to haul the fish to Chicago. Around 1990 as the price of fish dropped, families like John's packed fish in fifty gallon barrels, iced them, and drove to Savanna to sell their catch. Fish were sold to primarily to Chicago and New York, although the Duccinis once filled orders from Jerusalem. Fishermen in the Dubuque area suffered somewhat from their position on the river. Since the river was open further south, fisherman there made larger catches. Dubuque-area fishermen had to wait until the ice melted before returning to some of their better methods like hoop nets.

John Duccini learned the fishing trade from his father. Signs in nature indicated when fish would probably be spawning. Lilacs in bloom meant it was time for carp. The snowy cottonwood predicted catfish spawn. When he was old enough to handle the business, his father gave John one-quarter of the profit for five years or until he had woven one hundred hoop nets. Working in the basement at night, John could manage to make about twenty-five nets per year. When the one hundred figure was reached, he shared in fifty percent of the profit. The most profitable fish to catch were catfish ($1.00-$1.50 per pound), sturgeon ($1.00 per pound), buffalo (35-40 cents per pound), an drum/sheephead (twenty-five cents per pound). Carp brought ten cents per pound before being smoked and sold in meat markets. Suckers were caught in the fall as they migrated down creeks to the river. These were pickled.

The following pictures were shared by John Duccini of his life on the river.

The hoop net was often so full of fish that it had to be emptied by hand into the boat.
The flat-bottomed boat was often filled to the point that the gunnels were only two inches above the water.
Catfish were one of the best money-makers.
River monsters, such as this catfish held by John Duccini, were nearly as long as those who caught them.
Tom Duccini must have dreamed of catches like this of his father.
Nets needed to be dried to keep them from rotting.
Strung under the ice, gill nets brought in good catches until spring.
Carrying the catch across the ice was done with a sled powered by a motor. Teeth replaced a propeller and dug into the ice pushing the catch which could exceed 150 pounds per box.
"Mules" seen on the top of this boathouse were attached to the end of a trammel net to keep it open--increasing the catch.
Walter knew "bank work" included cleaning the catch. Cleaning five hundred catfish a day was not unusual.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10qia3AZ1mc Commercial fishing similar to Dubuque



1. "The Fish Harvest," Dubuque Herald, January 3, 1874, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18740103&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

Commercial Fishing. YouTube user:10qia3AZ1mc

John Duccini--interview

Tom Duccini--interview