The Purdy family of Sarnia are clearly water people. The family has worked Lake Huron, running a commercial fishery operation, for more than a century. As Steph Purdy aptly puts it — they have a love of the lake.
It’s a pull that brought Steph, fourth generation in the business, back to Sarnia from British Columbia to work alongside her brothers, Tim and Rob (who are both boat captains), and her parents, Milford and Mary. Her mother is the company accountant and her dad, at age 76, “would still be on the water doing what he could every day but his poor body won’t let him. It’s been too many years of hard labour. He is the key brains of the operation — a wealth of information,” says Steph. Steph and her husband, Mike Hopko, met in B.C. where she was a university student and then a professional figure skating coach. He is from Chilliwack, B.C. but since 2003 the couple has made Sarnia their home. Mike also works for Purdy’s, smoking fish — a job he took over from Steph’s uncle. Purdy’s has a hot smokehouse at its Point Edward location.
“It was the water that called me home,” says Steph. “People say to me ‘Are you crazy? You left B.C.?’ But I say look at what we have here. And I don’t miss the rain.”
The Purdys are major local suppliers of pickerel, yellow perch, lake trout and lake whitefish. They also catch catfish, silver bass, redfin and freshwater drum (a.k.a. sheephead, or sheepshead). Using both the trap and gill fishing methods (depending on time of year), they use different boats for different jobs and conditions. “We prefer to use the traps but they are very weather dominated. So we can’t fish traps in the winter at all. In the deep part of summer, when the water temperature is too warm, trap doesn’t work either so we go to deeper water with the gill nets”, explains Steph. They have a fleet of 10 boats including a gill boat built by her grandfather Ron Purdy in the early 1940s.
“As my brother says, sometimes we have nine boats too many as we don’t have a lot of captains! We have different boats for different jobs. Sometimes we need an anchor boat and a net boat. The most we ever have on the water would be three. It is more likely two on the water on the same day. A gill net in deeper water fishing white fish and a trap net boat lifting pickerel traps.”
The Purdys have two licences, which allow them to fish southern Lake Huron from Sarnia north to Point Clark. Their main operation is in Point Edward where they also have a large retail outlet. They have a seasonal dockside retail operation in Grand Bend on the water next to the Yacht Club. And they sell their fish at Sarnia’s Farmer Market on Saturday mornings, in London at Sunripe, and in Toronto at Butcher by Nature.
Discerning diners can find Purdy’s on the menu at the The Only on King restaurant in London, at Jamie Kennedy’s Gilead restaurant in Toronto, and at Canoe in Toronto. Steph admits it is a bit of thrill to be able to connect their fish with celebrity chefs. “They’re just people too,” she says, “who have a very cool job. Chefs to me are what a professional athlete or movie star is for other people. It’s kind of cool when what you do gets validation.” Jamie Kennedy gave back to the Purdys when he travelled to Grand Bend to be a judge at their first (now annual) Chowderfest. The 5th Annual Chowderfest will be held in the second weekend of August in Grand Bend as part of the Aquafest water celebration.
Adding their own culinary creations for sale at their own retail outlets, as take-out or dine-in, has proven to be a positive innovation for Purdy’s. Fish and chips with homemade coleslaw is an obvious menu item and it’s something that Purdy’s does well, especially with their lake perch and lake whitefish. Chowder is offered once a week in Point Edward. And a new item for those looking for something not fried is Great Lakes Salad. Think tuna salad but made with mostly whitefish or any combination of local fish. They cook the fish in a smoker (not smoked) and add celery, onions, and dill pickles. It is sold in tubs to take home or served with pita chips or on a bun with lettuce. They also sell a line of imported seafoods, gourmet sauce/food lines and house-made salmon pot pies, fish cakes and seafood lasagna (fresh and frozen depending on the day of the week).
Some of this innovation has come from the input of students at Lambton College who help produce the food. Steph offers cooking classes in the fall or by group booking. Recipes can be found on the company website. And, if you are in the Sarnia area, you can catch Steph on the radio each week as part of Food Talk with Lee Michaels on FOX FM or CHOK AM Blackburn radio. They discuss products, fish, the effect of weather on fishing, and more.
“We are passionate about what we do. I am proud of our family and our tradition. And we have a great product to back it up. It is just a lot of hard work and a quality product.”
Purdy’s Fish Market & Dockside Eatery
1 Riverfront Road, Point Edward
Purdy’s at the Sarnia Farmer’s Market
110 Proctor Street, Sarnia, ON
Purdy’s at The Bend
59 River Road, Grand Bend
Jane Antoniak is a regular contributor to eatdrink, often found writing stories near the waters of Lake Huron, Erie and Superior. She is also Manager, Communications & Media Relations at King’s University College, Western U in London.