Remington based this picture on an illustration he did in 1891, for Harper's Weekly. Titled Big Fishing—Indians Hauling Nets on Lake Nepigon, the drawing accompanied an article by Julian Ralph, a friend and fellow outdoorsman. The illustration later appeared in Ralph's book On Canada's Frontier.
While the painting's composition derives from the illustration, it differs in significant ways. Remington alters the drawing's slightly compressed vertical orientation to a more open, horizontal format and elevates the choppy waterline. This, coupled with the diminished size of background forms, expands the scene's space. The two men's activity now becomes more precarious, which matches Julian Ralph's description of net fishing in October: "It is a stormy season of the year and the work is rough and hazardous. . . ." The size of the canoe's bow relative to the composition is greater in the painting than the illustration, which enhances the visual power of its upward sweeping arc. The painter also reverses the direction of the canoe and turns the gill-netter more toward the viewer. This prompts the impression that the canoe is moving towards the viewer, rather than passing by, as the illustration suggests. The alteration in the canoe's course may owe to Remington's original drawing having been reversed by the halftone printing process (that is, his drawing may have oriented the canoe as it appears in the painting).
Both the illustration and the painting modify Ralph's account of net fishing by depicting canoes, not the larger sloops actually used. Remington's conception of Indigenous peoples as paddlers, his love of canoeing, and Ralph's appreciation of the birchbark canoes as "the prettiest vehicles" in the Nepigon region may have dictated the change. This painting and the two flanking it were featured in Remington's 1906 exhibition at the Noé Galleries in New York.