A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

April 2003

Gone Fishing
Two Traditional Northwest Coast Fishing Tools

by Dr. Tina Brewster Wray, Curator of Collections

  The waters of Puget Sound, including its many rivers and streams, were home to a great variety and abundance of fish. To tap these resources, Native Americans developed a varied and highly refined set of fishing tools and techniques. These included various types of fishhooks (and their accessories - baits, lures, sinkers, lines and floats); spears and harpoons; nets; and traps and weirs. These tools were specifically designed for the particular types of fish and environments from which they were taken. The following examples, drawn from the Museum's collection, represent only a fraction of the range and complexity of this traditional technology.

             Salmon harpoon & Harpoon head

Salmon Harpoons
Native Americans of the Northwest coast developed many techniques for catching salmon, one of which was the salmon harpoon. The harpooning of salmon was generally done in clear, shallow water, such as rivers and streams. Harpoons differ from spears in that the harpoon head detaches from the shaft when the fish is impaled. Then, the line attached to the harpoon head is used to pull the fish to the surface or in to shore. While spears work well to catch smaller fish, a large strong salmon could easily break a spear in its struggles to escape. The detachable harpoon head with attached flexible line accommodated the fish's struggles without breaking the gear.

          Components of the harpoon head

Typically, the harpoon consisted of a wooden shaft with one or more prongs lashed to the end, with a harpoon head on each prong. The harpoon head was made of three pieces - a wooden or metal point which was held between two shaped pieces of bone or antler, called valves. The valves flared out behind the point, acting as barbs to hold the harpoon head inside the speared fish. The assembled point and valves were lashed together with sinew, which was then covered with pitch to make a smooth surface that minimized friction. Variations of this basic harpoon design were used for other types of fish and for use in different conditions such as for example, deep pools and rapids.

  Herring Rakes
The herring rake was an effective and efficient tool for catching herring and smelt. The WRVM has two herring rakes in its collection. They have narrow, highly polished wooden shafts 11.5 to 12 ft. long, with a row of sharp metal teeth set into one edge. The teeth are 1 1/4 to 2 in. long and spaced 1/2 to 3/4 in. apart.

Herring rake

To use the herring rake, the fisherman would paddle his canoe out to a school of herring or smelt. The rake would be swept through the water in a single swift stroke, impaling up to a dozen fish on the sharp teeth. A brisk tap would then release the captured fish into the back of the canoe. An experienced user could easily fill his canoe with fish in an hour.

Dr. Tina Brewster Wray