The Homestead Reference Library: Indian Fishing

By , January 8, 2012

I’m grateful to blog reader Judy for her comment the other day that recalled me to a series I’ve been neglecting lately, on our homestead reference library.

January is hardly the time to be thinking about fishing. It threatens to lead to restlessness and dissatisfaction, although last winter I found the cure for that. But, just as Michelle does her best garden planning in the middle of winter, it behooves me to be thinking, at least on some level, of one of my most vital activities on the homestead.

As you can imagine, such a pivotal activity requires a certain amount of study. Our homestead reference library has many books on fish and fishing. One of the best, if not the most valuable title on our shelf, is Hilary Stewart’s Indian Fishing: Early Methods on the Northwest Coast (check your local independent bookstore).

book: Indian Fishing

Our copy of Stewart’s Indian Fishing (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

In Indian Fishing, Stewart, an anthropologist and artist, identifies, explains and illustrates the fishing tools and methods employed by the Native American nations of our region. She also duplicated many of the tools, and tested them under controlled conditions. Her illustrations are so accurate, I’ve been able to use a scale ruler to reproduce measurements of specific tools.

What makes this book so valuable to my family is that it provides details of methods that have been tried and true in our region over as much as 10,000 years. These tools were manufactured from the raw materials all around us. Should we find ourselves cut off from modern manufacturers, without access to factory-made fishing hooks and other tackle, this book could become a survival handbook like no other. From nets to hooks to traps and rakes, all the region-specific information is collected in this one volume.

The Natives of Alaska and the northwest coast have always been master fishermen, harvesting the majority of their food from the sea. Some of their techniques have never been improved upon by modern methods, particularly those that exploit the target fish’s behavior and physiology. The epitome of this might be the halibut hook. Stewart’s book contains an illustration of how and why this oddly shaped tool is so deadly effective. The success of this hook are little understood, even today, because the halibut is such an unusual creature. I’ve never seen a better explanation of its operation than Stewart’s. This book inspired and informed the Native-style halibut hook I made last summer. Incidentally, I tested it a few times in the early autumn, but have no successes to report. Maybe next summer? I need to put the “rod hours” in to make a proper assessment.

If you live on the coast anywhere between Prince William Sound and the Columbia River, and like or need to fish, this book is well worth owning. If you live elsewhere, I’d recommend seeking out a similar resource for your particular region. It could save your life some day.

4 Responses to “The Homestead Reference Library: Indian Fishing”

  1. Dave Z says:

    Great book!

    Another fascinating aspect of halibut fishing found in this book was the indigenous use of bull kelp for halibut line. It was tied end to end using a special knot, kept dry and ready for rehydration and use.

    Once you’ve seen a ‘barn door’ halibut (up to 750lbs), you get an idea of the strength required of halibut line!

  2. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hey, Big Brother . . . .

    I’ve been looking at those kelp lines and thinking about trying one, but it’s far less work to gather the kelp and throw it on the garden than try to preserve it.

    Of course, the kelp lines were protected from “barn doors” by the selective nature of the halibut hook. The design ensured that only the right size of fish would be caught–too small, and the fish can’t bite the hook, too big, and the fish would spit out the hook without getting snagged. It is truly a marvel!

    I should send you my hook to see if you can “prove” it, as you spend so much more time on the water than I do. I’d be jealous, though, if you did catch anything!


  3. Dave Z says:

    Hmm… you’re right… I’d forgotten about that ‘filtering’ aspect of the hooks. Not that you can’t catch a whopper on some of them I’ve seen in museum collections.

    Alas, RE trying yours out, halibut are out of our league in terms of eating/preserving. We only pick on the small fry. 🙂

  4. Mark Zeiger says:

    Halibut smokes up like salmon, and it’s delicious! Sounds like a family project sometime.

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