Native Fishing

National Museum of Man National Museums of Canada

Fishing Technologies

Many different types of techniques for fishing have been developed since humans first began to search the waters for food. Most of the devices use some form of a net, which can be used either by hand or by boat. Fishing was used as both a supplemental and primary source of food for a large number of groups. Two primary forms of fishing techniques that arose were tended facilities and untended facilities. Tended facilities were devices that were either watched or used manually by someone.

Probably the simplest form of this would be the fish sweep. Heavy rains would sometimes create watering holes. These waterholes could contain fish that got trapped when the water receded. People would then take tree branches and brush them through the water. This would catch the fish and push them out of the water to someone waiting for them. A sweeping motion was used to push the fish out, or drive the fish into a weir, a low dam that backs up water, and net the fish.

Another form of tended facility was the fish trap. These had to be handled or watched when they were in use, because they had a limited holding capacity. The trap was only used to hold the fish until the person watching it could remove it. This was done by grasping, clubbing, or impaling the fish. Many different materials were used to make these traps.

Some technologies were also used in the winter for ice fishing. The Klamath and Ojibwa partially covered ice-fishing holes. By doing this, the fish would not be frightened away by the light shining into the hole. Fishing hooks are among the most diverse of the tended facilities. Before the influx of metal fishhooks, most hooks were made out of bone and sinew. The average hooks were composed of about 6.3 parts. The most complicated hooks were made by the Pukapukans, and were made of 15 parts. They used this hook to go deep-water fishing. When other hooks were used for deep-water fishing, stone was added for weight. Free bait and weighted line were used for surface fishing.

Drag nets can also be added to the list of tended facilities. These objects were used by two or more people and dragged through the water by canoe. If a fish got caught in the drag net, it would be held there by its gills or by the motion of the net through the water. The Aymara used a variety of these nets: a one-person drag net, a two-person drag net, basketry drag nets, and a stationary bag net. The one-person net was pulled behind a single canoe and was about one meter across by almost one and a half meters in length. The two-person net was considerably larger. It was pulled behind two canoes and was roughly two meters across and seven meters long. The basketry drag nets were a pair of basket-like nets that were attached to the back of one canoe. Each of these was about the size of the one-person drag net. The stationary bag net was basically the two-person net. The difference was that the two canoes attached to it would stay stationary, while three other canoes would move in front of them. The five canoes would then form a circle. Two of the canoes would throw stones into the center of the circle, as the other three would beat the water with poles. This would scare the fish into the net. Other types of nets were dip or scoop nets, and set nets. The dip or scoop nets were used to catch the fish that were in the weirs or poisoned water traps. A couple varieties did not differ that much from the nets of today. They had fairly long handles, with a hoop or semi hook net. The set nets were used for larger fish and aquatic animals. This variety of net was usually not intended for fish, but are believed to be for other animals, like turtles. The size and species of animal made it necessary to watch the set nets to keep them from getting damaged.

"Spear Fishing"

Fish were a major source of meat for Native Americans all year round. One way that the Native Americans caught fish was with spears. Spear fishing was considered a man's job while fishing with a hook and string was usually a woman's job. Spear fishing was usually done in the winter or spring time.

In the winter they would cut a small hole in the ice on the lake or pond and and put a wooden lure that resembled either a minnow or a frog or some other little water creature in it. They would usually lay on their stomachs with a blanket over their head and the hole to see through the ice better. The spears they used were made out of either bone or copper attached to a wooden shaft, this type of spear was used to catch bigger fish. The type of spears that was used to catch smaller fish was usually a trident (a three pronged tip) that would catch the fish either on a point or between the points.

In the spring after the ice had thawed they would take out canoes and fish from them. They usually fished at night by the light of a torch, which made it easier to spot fish under water. They would stand up in the canoe and wait for a fish to come then they would stab down at the fish.

"Weir Fishing"

In the weir method of fishing, rigid poles are driven into the mud bottom in a heart-shaped configuration. A straight line of poles is then placed from the shoreline to the weir. This line acts as a barrier to the fish, which follow it into the weir. Once inside, they become disoriented and swim in circles. To remove the catch, fishermen place a purse seine inside the weir. The seine is pursed and gradually made smaller; the fish are then either pumped or brailed (scooped out with a special dip net) from the weir into a boat.

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