Introduction, 1977

For the past 20 years my home has been on the Pacific Northwest Coast, and over the years I have explored at leisure and with unending curiosity the islands and inlets, the bays and beaches of this intricate and rugged shoreline. Inland, I have been drawn to the lakes and streams, and to the rivers that flow to the sea.

It was during the three years’ research for my previous book Artifacts of the Northwest Coast Indians that I became aware of the amazing resourcefulness of the coast Indians in harvesting the wealth of the river and sea. In the past, the availability and abundance of fish accounted for the large populations of native peoples along the coast, and its importance was reflected in almost every aspect of their lives from pre-birth to after death.

Being involved in outdoor education, including survival in the wilderness, I realized that there was much to be learned from a people who had “survived” on the coast for over 9,000 years; survived, flourished and established a complex and rich culture. My practical interests widened from wild edible plants and the resources of the intertidal zone to the fishing technology of the coastal peoples.

Thus the idea for this book was born, and over the next three years I researched the various fishing gear and techniques employed by coast Indians in catching, processing, preserving and cooking fish. I marveled at the years of accumulated knowledge and experience required to produce a hook, spear, net or trap that was exactly right for the fish and the environment in which it was taken, and I was impressed by the skill of the fisherman in using his gear.

My research has ranged from talking with elderly Indian people to making and using a wooden halibut hook; from browsing through early journals and unpublished manuscripts to reading recent reports of current archaeological field work. In spite of research that was far from exhaustive, I found there were more ways of catching, preserving and cooking fish than could possibly be included in a book such as this.

Many of the illustrations showing the use of some type of fishing gear are based on descriptions recorded over the years by explorers, traders, ethnologists and missionaries. While every effort has been made to render the subject exactly as described, it is possible that I have visualized some aspect incorrectly. Sometimes an otherwise thorough description has lacked one or two details and I have had to complete the drawing with an educated guess.

Almost all the fishing gear and associated materials have been illustrated from my photographs and drawings of articles in museum collections; a few are taken from photos in archives, or in catalogues or other books. Certain items, although with little or no documentation, were too interesting to be excluded.

Because of the wide variety of types of fishing gear and the ways in which they were used by different Indian groups and sub-groups, there are bound to be differences of opinion over the use of this or that fish hook or trap, or one way or another of preserving salmon eggs or of rendering eulachon oil. Inevitably, I suppose, errors will be discovered, despite the considerable checking, cross checking and experimenting that has been carried out.

While the time period covered is up to and including contact by visitors from other lands, I have included old photographs to give a thread of continuity with the practices of today’s native fishermen. Contemporary photos show that there are still Indians who catch and preserve fish by methods little changed in hundreds—probably thousands—of years. The traditions still serve; the major changes are the materials used. A nylon net replaces one of nettle fibre, and a butchering knife is made of metal instead of ground slate or shell. Too resourceful to ignore new materials, the Indian people started early with their substitutions: a nail as a fish hook barb; sail maker’s thread, strong and fine, to lash the barb to the hook; hemp rope for fish line.

For the purpose of this book I have categorized the types of fishing gear not by their cultural use but by the methods used: hook and line, nets, traps, and so on. By eliminating repetition where one type of hook or net was used by more than one cultural group, this arrangement gives greater cohesion to the subject.

Fish, and the salmon in particular, was not only a vital food for sustenance but also a major influence on the lifestyle and well being of the Indian people; indeed, it played an important role in shaping and strengthening the cultures of the entire Northwest Coast.

I hope this book will give a better understanding of the importance of fish for the indigenous peoples of the coast and its rivers, and an appreciation for the skill, knowledge and great effort that went into its harvest. I hope, also, this understanding will lead to a greater respect for the fisherman and his aboriginal rights.