Ancient American Indian Fishing Techniques

Fish, whether from lakes, rivers, or the ocean, was a part of the diet of all Native American tribes; for some, such as those in the Pacific Northwest, its abundance meant it was among the main foods consumed. The Native Americans developed a number of fishing techniques, from basic spear fishing to the sophisticated use of weirs, in order to catch fish during all seasons, even with ice fishing.

  1. Spear Fishing

    • The most basic, and widely used, technique was spear fishing. The men – spear fishing was a purely male occupation – would construct a spear with a wooden shaft and a sharp tip made of either metal or bone that was tied to the shaft; sometimes the tip would be barbed on either side of the tip. In spring the men would go out in canoes, usually at night, and use torches for reflections in the water to spot the fish before spearing them, then drag them in with a line attached to the shaft and looped on the canoe prow or around the wrist. The men would also stand still in the water and spear fish who came close. Spears were also used for ice fishing; a hole would be cut in the ice and a bone or wooden lure put in the water. Then men would lean over the hole, their heads covered to block the light, and spear fish which approached the lure.

    Hooks and Gaffs

    • Hooks and gaffs were widely used among the Northwest tribes, where fishing was an important part of life. The gaff was carved from bone or wood with a long handle. The fisherman would stand on the bank of the river and literally hook salmon out of the water onto land. The hook was very akin to a standard fishing pole, but the hook was smaller, attached to a line which was tied to a pole. Unlike modern fishing, though, the pole would be dragged behind a canoe with the baited hook in the water, and fish were caught as the canoe moved.


    • The Native Americans used a dip net as one of their methods for catching fish. The net itself was made from twine or vines knotted together around a hoop and attached to three poles, which then joined together at the top, with a trigger to close the net and prevent fish escaping. The men would lower the net into the water and leave it, usually for hours, before returning, closing the trigger and pulling out the net to see what they’d caught.


    • The Northwest tribes developed the weir technique as a way to catch large quantities of salmon as the fish migrated upriver from the oceans to spawn. The weir was a dam, built by the village, and served as a barrier to slow the fish moving upstream. Individuals would build platforms that attached to the weir and use these for dip net fishing. The weir was communally owned, but the platforms weren’t.

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