Salmon Fishing on the Coast in the 1850s


by James G. Swan

As we had brought up barrels and salt from San Francisco for salmon, it was proposed by Russell that we should go out on a fishing expedition, although the season was very far advanced, and the fish had nearly done running for that year. Accordingly, he procured five Indians, and, taking two canoes with us well stocked with provisions, we started for the Palux River, about four miles to the south. We went up the river about ten miles, where we found there were three forks or branches--one running to the southeast, another, or the middle fork, to the east, and called Tomhays River, from an Indian who lived at its junction with the other branches, or north fork. 

fishing-tools-shoalwater-bayThe implements used by the Indians for catching salmon were a hook and a spear. The former is in size as large as a shark-hook, having a socket at one end formed of wood. These hooks are made by the Indians from files and rasps, which they purchase of the traders, and are forged into shape with ingenuity and skill. The socket is made from the wild raspberry bush (Rubus spectablis), which, having a pith in its centre, is easily worked, and is very strong. This socket is formed of two parts, which are firmly secured to the hook by means of twine, and the whole covered with a coat of pitch. Attached to this hook is a strong cord about three feet long. A staff or pole from eighteen to twenty feet long, made of fir, is used, one end of which is fitted to the socket in the hook, into which it is thrust, and the cord firmly tied to the pole. When the hook is fastened into a salmon it slips off the pole, and the fish is held by the cord, which enables it to perform its antics without breaking the staff, which it would be sure to do if the hook was firmly fastened. The spear is a flat piece of iron with barbs made of elk horn, and fastened in the same manner as the socket to the hook. This spear-head has also a line attached to it, which is fastened to the staff in a similar manner as the hook is. The spear is generally used in shallow water, and the hook in deep water at the mouth of rivers, before the fish run up the streams.

Although the river was filled with salmon, and the banks literally piled with the dead fish killed in attempting to go over the falls, yet, the season  being so far advanced, there were comparatively few really prime ones. The salmon, after casting its spawn, grows thin, and the flesh loses its bright pink color. The fish then is of little value either to the whites or Indians. Our Indians, who were well skilled, started up stream to commence, as their custom always is to go up the stream, and then, letting the canoe float down, catch the fish as they pass. As the tide fell, the Indians left their canoes and waded in the stream. We joined them, and such a splashing and dashing I never before witnessed. I caught seven and Russell about as many, when, getting tired and thoroughly wet, we went back to the camp, and amused ourselves shooting ducks. When the Indians were tired, they came in, having been about four hours at work, and during that time succeeded in killing over a hundred fine salmon.

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Swan, James G. The Northwest Coast; or Three Years' Residence In Washington Territory. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1857. [Excerpted from pages 35-41].

 

by V. Keven Shipman

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