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Mackenzie Petrie

Know the River

In collaboration with

Perch Magazine - Logo

Story by Stephany Hildebrand
Photos by Stephany Hildebrand

A young fisherman transmutes his experiences on the river into observations that inform future scientific research.

Born and raised on Lake St. Francis, Mackenzie has a map of the river etched into his mind. It is marked with rocks, shoals, landmarks, and spots where the fishing has been good to him.

Last summer, the 23-year-old and I set out on the St. Lawrence near his home in Bainsville so I could snap photos of walleye, and bass that will be used to illustrate regional consumption guidelines for The Great River Rapport. I noticed Mackenzie was a skilled multitasker: with one hand on the mercury tiller to steer, and the other on his rod, feeling for the slight tug of a fish nibbling at his lure. Within 30 minutes of leaving shore, he smiled with excitement and pulled a beautiful, glistening four-pound walleye out of the water. After assessing its size, he decided it was a mature specimen at its peak reproductive age. So he quickly released it to ensure it would reproduce again and preserve the balance of the natural environment.

A young fisherman transmutes his experiences on the river into observations that inform future scientific research.

Born and raised on Lake St. Francis, Mackenzie has a map of the river etched into his mind. It is marked with rocks, shoals, landmarks, and spots where the fishing has been good to him.

Last summer, the 23-year-old and I set out on the St. Lawrence near his home in Bainsville so I could snap photos of walleye, and bass that will be used to illustrate regional consumption guidelines for The Great River Rapport. I noticed Mackenzie was a skilled multitasker: with one hand on the mercury tiller to steer, and the other on his rod, feeling for the slight tug of a fish nibbling at his lure. Within 30 minutes of leaving shore, he smiled with excitement and pulled a beautiful, glistening four-pound walleye out of the water. After assessing its size, he decided it was a mature specimen at its peak reproductive age. So he quickly released it to ensure it would reproduce again and preserve the balance of the natural environment.

Mackenzie learned much of what he knows about fishing from his uncle, Tom, and his grandfather, Sonny, known locally as a veteran hunter, fisherman, and early conservationist. Year over year, the two men took their young charge on fishing expeditions for walleye, bass, and musky. It’s clear that they passed down their generational knowledge and connection to the river. Mackenzie spends as much time as he can—rain or shine—on the river, leaving on his boat very early in the morning and returning late in the evening. In the wintertime when the ice is thick enough, he’ll head out on his skidoo. First one out. Last one in. He is without a doubt one of the people who make up the new generation of rivermen, building on a long legacy of rivermen of the St. Lawrence River.

As we continued to navigate the river, Mackenzie explained how he learned to find successful fishing spots based on landmarks meeting on the horizon. “Once that tower hits the tip of the land, we are at the spot,” he said. Sure enough, within five minutes, his focus made way for a grin as he pulled out a young walleye and the perfect model for the Great River Rapport.

The excursion continues with our minds set on finding bass. Mackenzie uses his underwater camera to find fish but says he finds it to be more a tease than a useful tool. On the screen, we see large goby— an invasive species introduced in the river from the ballast water of ships—moving around the riverbed, in a motion that can be compared to a crawl. First discovered in Lake Ontario in 1998, they are established and a major component of the local food chain.

After watching the goby for some time, we finally spot some bass curiously but cautiously approaching the camera. Mackenzie lowers his line multiple times without a bite. He changes his lure, too. The bass don’t take the bait, so to speak, and after spending six hours on the boat under the blistering sun, we call it a day and retreat to shore.

Spending time with Mackenzie not only allows us to grab photos of fish but to gather community observations for the Great River Rapport. While it’s imperative that we collect observations from the past, it’s equally as important that we collect current observations from community members so that we can tell the complete story of the river. One day, we hope that observations from people like Mackenzie—members of the community—are what inform future scientific research rather than the other way around.

In collaboration with

Perch Magazine - Logo

Story by Stephany Hildebrand
Photos by Stephany Hildebrand

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