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Or Starrs of Morning,
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Impearls: HIC 4.06: Fish and game

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Fish and game   by A. L. Kroeber

 Fig. 7: Yurok net weights.

Salmon begin running in the Klamath in spring and in autumn.  These are the periods of all the great ceremonies, whether or not these refer directly to the fish.  The river carries so much water, however — more than any California drainage system except the Sacramento-San Joaquin — that there is scarcely a month in the year when some variety of salmon can not be taken.  It may be added that the stream is of undiminished volume up to practically the head of the stretch of Yurok ownership.  Fish were taken with dip nets, seines, set gill nets, and harpoons, but of these devices the first was the most usual.

The dip net, or lifting net, as it may be called to distinguish it from a smaller instrument on an oval frame occasionally used by the Karok and other tribes to scoop boiling riffles and rapids (Pl. 6), was let down from a scaffording built out over the water, almost invariably at some eddy or backwater.  Here the fisherman sat on a block or little stool, holding the bone button of the string which closed the entrance to the pyramidal net stretched out in the current.  This net was hung from the bottom of a long A-shaped frame with a bottom crossbar.  The whole was hauled out as soon as a pull on the cord had inclosed a salmon, which was then struck on the head with a club.  A single night's vigil sometimes produced a hundred salmon, it is stated — a winter's supply, as the Yurok say.  At other times a man will sit for half a day without a stir.  The old men are much inclined to this pursuit, which would be trying to our restless patience, but gives them opportunity for undisturbed meditation or dreaming or mental idleness along with a sense of profitable occupation.  (Pls. 4, 7.)

Lampreys, customarily known as eels, much prized by the Yurok for their rich greasiness, also ascend the river in great numbers, and sturgeon are not rare.  Both species are taken much like the salmon, though of course with a different mesh.  In the lower river eelpots were also set.  Trout in the affluent creeks are too small to be much considered by a people frequently netting 20-pound salmon.

Both salmon and lampreys were split for drying — the former with a wooden-handled knife (Pl. 16) of “whale-colored” flint, as the Yurok called it; the latter with a bone awl.  A steel knife probably involves a different and perhaps a more precise handling, so that until a few years ago the old women clung to the aboriginal tools.  Most of the fish was somewhat smoked and put away in old baskets as strips or slabs.  The pulverized form convenient for packing, known also on the Columbia, was probably more prevalent among interior and less-settled tribes like the Shasta.  Surf fish were often only sun dried whole and kept hung from poles in rows.  They make a palatable food in this condition.  Dried salmon is very hard and nearly tasteless, but rather satisfying and, of course, highly nourishing.

A long net was sometimes set for sturgeon.  One that was measured had a 6-inch mesh, a width of 3 feet, and a length of 85 feet, but in use was doubled to half the length and double the width.

A measured salmon seine had a scant 3-inch mesh, a width of 3½ feet, and a length of over 60 feet.

Nets were made of a splendid two-ply cordage rolled without tools from fibers of the Iris macrosiphon leaf.  The gathering of the leaves and extraction of two fine silky fibers from each by means of an artificial thumb-nail of mussel shell was the work of women.  The string was usually twisted and the nets always knotted by men.  The mesh spacer and netting shuttles were of elk antler; net weights were grooved, pierced, or naturally perforated stones.  (Fig. 7 7.)

The salmon harpoon, which could be more frequently used in the aboriginal period than now when mining renders the river opaque, had a slender shaft, sometimes more than 20 feet long.  To this were attached two slightly diverging fore-shafts, one a few inches the longer, on which were set the loose barbs of pitched and wrapped bone or horn.  The lines were short and fastened to the main shaft, a pay line being unnecessary for prey of the size of a salmon.  In fact, an untoggled barbed spear would have sufficed but for the opportunity its resistance offers a heavy fish to tear itself free.  This harpoon was made with no essential variation in practically all fishable parts of California, and it is the only harpoon known, except for a heavier implement driven by the Yurok and Chumash into sea lions.

Sea-lion hunters took station on rocks, disguised in bear or deer skins.  When the animals clambered up, the hunters barked and twisted their bodies, atttracting the sea-lions' attention as they approached, then leaped up and harpooned them.  The toggle head had two barbs in a row; the line was fastened to the shaft.  No attempt was made to hold the bulky prey, but it was followed by boat, the shaft regained, and then at first opportunity the victim was speared again.  Sometimes a canoe was dragged out to sea for half a day before the animal was dispatched.  For this reason large males were not attacked late in the afternoon.

Deer seem to have been snared more often than shot before the introduction of rifles.  They were often driven with dogs.

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