Indian Fishing

Indian Fishing – At the first coming of the Europeans the waters of this continent were found teeming with food fish, the great abundance of which quickly attracted fleets of fishermen from all civilized parts of the Old World. The list of species living in American waters utilized by the Indians would fill a volume. The abundance or scarcity of this food on the Atlantic coast varied with the season. In spring the fish made their appearance in vast shoals in the spawning beds of the coast and in the bays and rivers. Capt. John Smith relates, in his History of Virginia, early in the 17th century, that on one occasion fish were encountered in such numbers in the Potomac as to impede landing from his boat. The annual spring run of herring above Washington is still almost great enough to warrant the assertion. Fish life varied with locality and season. On the northern and eastern coasts the fish disappeared to a great extent when the waters became cold at the approach of winter, and many northern fishes went to more southerly waters. Among the better known food products furnished by the waters of the country may be mentioned the whale, sea lion, seal, otter, swordfish, sturgeon, porpoise, cod, haddock, halibut, pollock, salmon, trout, herring, shad, perch, bass, mackerel, flounder, eel, plaice, turbot, white-fish, catfish, smelt, pike, dogfish, and all varieties of shellfish. By some tribes, as the Apache, Navaho, and Zuñi, fish were tabu as food; but where fish was used at all by the Indians, practically everything edible that came from the water was consumed. The salmon of the Pacific coast are still found in enormous schools, and in the canning industry hundreds of persons are employed. Lobsters and crabs furnished no inconsiderable food supply, while the vast deposits of shells along all tidewater regions, as well as many of the interior rivers, testify to the use made of shellfish by the aborigines; they not only supplied a large part of the daily food of the people but were dried. Shellfish were dug or taken by hand in wading and by diving. Salmon and herring eggs formed one of the staple articles of diet of the tribes of the Pacific coast. To collect herring eggs these tribes laid down under water at low tide a row of hemlock branches, which were held in position with weights; then branches were fastened together, and a float was fixed at one end, bearing the owner’s mark. When these boughs were found to be covered with eggs they were taken into a canoe, carried ashore, and elevated on branches of a tree stripped of its smaller limbs, where they were left to dry. When first placed in position the eggs adhered firmly to the boughs, but on taking them down great care had to be exercised, because they were very brittle and were easily knocked off. Those not immediately consumed were put up in the intestines of animals and laid aside for winter use. It is recorded in the Jesuit Relations that many eels came to the mouth of St Lawrence r. and were trapped by the Indians, who made long journeys to get the season s supply.

On the middle and s. Atlantic coast fish are found during the greater portion of, if not throughout, the year, while farther N. fishing is confined more to the spawning seasons and to the months when the waters are free of ice. Experience taught the natives when to expect the coming of the fish and the time when they would depart. In methods of capturing sea food the native had little to learn from the white man, even in killing the whale (which was treated as royal game on the coast of Vancouver Island), the sea lion, or the seal, or in taking shellfish in the waters of the ocean and in the smallest streams. Large fish and marine mammals were captured by means of the harpoon, while the smaller ones were taken by the aid of bow and arrow, gigs, net, dull , trap, or weir, Fires or torches were used along the shore or on boats, the gleam of which attracted the game or fish to the surface, when they were easily taken by hand or with a net. Among the Cherokee, Iroquois, and other tribes, fish were drugged with poisonous bark or other parts of plants; in parts of California extensive use w y as made of soap root and other plants for this purpose. Carved fishhooks (q. v.) of shell and bone have been found in shell-heaps and graves in the interior. In shape these resemble the hooks of metal from Europe, though the natives of the Pacific coast used fishhooks of wood and bone combined, made in so primitive a manner as to indicate aboriginal origin. Another ingenious device employed along the N. Pacific coast for catching fish consisted of a straight pin, sharp at both ends and fastened to a line by the middle; this pin was run through a dead minnow, and, being gorged by another fish, a jerk of the string caused the points to pierce the mouth of the fish, which was then easily taken from the water. Artificial bait, made of stone and bone combined, was used as a lure, and was quite as attractive to fish as is the artificial bait of the civilized fisherman. Still another ingenious way of catching fish was by “pinching,” by means of a split stick, which, like the gig, held the fish fast.

In shallow rivers low walls were built from one side of the stream to the other, having a central opening through which fish were forced into a trap mats were also made, which were moved along like seines, so as to drive the fish into shallow or narrow places, where they were readily taken by the hand or with dipnets. Along the shores of rapid streams men stationed themselves on rocks or staging and speared fish as they passed up or down stream. During winter, when the northern waters were frozen, holes were cut in the ice, and through these fish were shot, speared, or netted. Probably the most primitive of all methods of fishing, however, by which many salmon were and doubtless are still captured, was that of knocking them on the head with a club. After a great run of fish had subsided, single ones were caught in shallow water by any of the above methods. There are still indications that from an early period a trade existed between the fishing Indians and those of the interior who gained their livelihood by other means. Great supplies of fish were cured by drying in the sun or over fires, and sometimes the product was finely ground and packed in skins or baskets for future use. See Fish Hooks.

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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