On the Chinese messaging platform WeChat, he’s known as Yu Wang or ‘Fish King.’ And for good reason. If you want a true taste of northern fish, Shawn Buckley’s the guy to call.
While he’s most often spotted in the winter months cruising the streets of Yellowknife selling his catch, a big part of his business is showing visitors in the NWT capital what’s kept his family fed for three generations and counting.
Just don’t ask him to take you sport fishing.
“I don’t really promote it because it is hard to catch fish. It’s a fun thing to do, but it’s not very successful,” says Buckley. He’s quick to point out the difference between sport fishing—where a hole is drilled in the ice and lines cast down—and commercial fishing, where a net replaces the fishing pole. “I mean you can go and try, there’s the excitement of going to see if there’s fish down there to catch, but in reality, it’s very hard to catch fish. The guests are only here for a little while, if they don’t catch fish they’re going to be upset.”
Whether fishing for northern pike, cod or burbot, the fish are down there, swimming slowly under the ice. Of Métis and Dene descent, Buckley says using the nets is a connection to his culture and is considered “aboriginal sustainable cultural fishing.”
Traditionally, fishers, if using poles, could leave their lines in overnight and come back the next day to a catch, but for tourists with only a few hours to spare, they might miss out on chowing down on the fruits of their fishing. Not so with a net. “You’re guaranteed. We get fish every single time in our nets.”
Buckley’s net tours have earned him his Fish King title. He takes visitors out on lakes around Yellowknife, where he’s got nets already set up. After talking about the logistics, methods and traditions, guests help haul in the nets before the fish are prepared and fried up for them to try (alongside whatever other little treats he’s made, like smoked fish or homemade caviar).
“It’s all about the lake fishing, the depths, the amount of fish, where the fish goes, what products, the climate change, everything. Anything you want to talk about, about the lake, we know it!” he says. “They’re usually pretty happy with the tour. The odd one that really, really is adamant about sport fishing will come on the tour and they’re very upset. They’re all, ‘No, no, no, this is all wrong. We’re not here to see the net. We’re here to sport fish.’ And I have to say, ‘OK, look, watch it, give it a try, it doesn’t take long to be at the fish net.’ We fillet the fish, we show them, and you know what, they just about forget that they even wanted to sport fish.”
What he’s doing is creating a portal through time by letting visitors see how Indigenous fishers made their living 50, 60 years ago—and still today. It’s not just sharing a love of fish and the outdoors, but giving tourists a glimpse of northern culture that’s still carrying on.
“What they’re learning is my lifestyle,” says Buckley. “Real life northern experience, like stepping into history and time, that’s still practiced today by a real commercial fisherman. It’s not like an old recording when you go to Walt Disney World, that's scratched and it’s faded. This is real.”