Fishing Goes Back a Long Ways in this Land

Ah… the time of Msh-ka-tiwi Kiishthwa – the Raspberry Moon.  The little ones have gained their parole from school after nine long months of hard labor.  Cooking outdoors has become the norm, family vacations are afoot and fishing… goes into high gear.  I do like catching panfish with a pole.  Yep, I have a fond affinity for fly and lure fishing for panfish, just like my ancestors did.  Sure, good ole agomo-wewebanaabii (fishing), goes back a long ways in this land.

Fishing had little to do with sport for the olden-time Indians.  Back then, it was all about survival.  Indians caught fish by several methods, and one of them was hook & line angling. They made thread from plant fibers for the line, and used a forked stick – long or short – as a rod. The fishhook could be made from a bone grated into a fishhook’s shape, or even a splinter of bone tied onto a small cleft of another to create a barbed hook.  As a rule, the hooks were tied onto the line a little way from the end.  The bait was then tied on with the remainder of the line, below the hook.  Everything from sunfish to suckers or carp was caught with this method.  And while there are fishing TV shows and tournaments galore nowadays, the Indian bass fishing of old… held no such celebrity.  No sponsors, no accolades and no prizes – it was just a fun way to get food.  Even so, the practice of nailing a bass with a plug or bug is the oldest method of catching fish on hook and line in North America.  Yes’sir, and American Indians began it hereabouts.

Way back in 1741, a British naturalist named William Bartram described how Florida’s Seminole Indians fooled largemouth bass.  He detailed how they did it with a hand-made “bug-looking bob” attached to a line, which they flung out from a pole, fashioned from a length of bamboo cane.  As he watched, he noted that the bass mistook the “bob” for an edible bug or frog, as the Indian angler jerked and tweaked the line, mimicking movement of the lure.  Other kinds of hook & line fishing included using what my people call ‘many hooks fishing’.  It’s known to most folks as… fishing with a trotline.

Now, many two-leggeds mistakenly think the word trotline is a mispronounced version of ‘trout-line’.  Nope – it isn’t.  Still, others erroneously think it has to do with ‘trotting back & forth to check the lines’ and it ain’t that, either.  Actually, the English Dialect Dictionary states that trot is: “of a stream; to flow briskly, to run, to babble .  Cromwell’s Dictionary relates that Trot is a noun, meaning ‘the bed of a river’.  So, a trot line is specific to a stream or river, and that’s what it means.  Yeah, and American Indians were fishing this way long before the first colonists arrived.  Trotlines are basically heavy fishinglines, with baited hooks attached at intervals by means of branch lines.  A trotline is usually set so that it covers the width of a channel, river, or stream with baited hooks that can be left unattended. There are many ways to set a trotline, with most methods involving weights to hold the cord below the surface of the water.  Yeah, but while the various types of hook & line fishing were done aplenty, it was often a women and children’s pastime.  The Indian guys – like all men – liked throwing stuff around.  In the case of summertime fishing, that usually meant… throwing a lance.

Most Indian men preferred to fish with a spear which not only required throwing skill and hunting savvy, but simultaneously sharpened their warrior skills.  Lances, after all, were used in battle, and practice makes perfect.  So, when fish came into the shallows in the spring and early summer, Indians speared them from canoes.  They also waded for them, loosing a spear… like a lightning bolt… into the low water, and through a fish they had crept up on.  Many meals were tagged like this; the warrior got food and weapons practice all in one fell swoop.  But then, there was the kind of fishing that ‘lit up the night’, too.

In bygone days, American Indians ‘fire-fished’ often during summer nights.  They used a log dugout canoe that was fitted out with a hearth, placed amidships, or centered in the craft.  It was lined with heavily dampened clay to prevent the fire from burning a hole in the bottom.  The hearth was raised until it was within two inches of gunwale, or side height, so that at night the light from the fire would be easily seen underwater.  Several men manned the canoe as paddlers.  Another was the fire tender, keeping the fire burning brightly and one or more were lance-throwers.  Fish are very curious, and they come close to check out the brightness.  It’s a great attractant.  The fishermen would spear the nosey fish that rose to the surface attracted by the light, and voila, fish for breakfast.  A lot of fish could be caught this way back then, and nowadays, too.  Many treaty Indians still fish in this way, but they use artificial lights now. So there you go.  Good ole agomo-wewebanaabii (fishing), goes back a long ways in this land and it’s as much fun as ever.  Good luck out there!

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David Walks-As-Bear is an Inter-Tribal Elder and Kispoko Shawnee Indian. He works as a private game warden and detective captain, and is a mystery author & novelist. He writes the syndicated column “Bear’s Den” and lives in Northwest Michigan. Contact him at his home publication: The Great Lakes Pilot – Phone: 906-494-2391 – or visit his website at: