Imagine laying on your stomach in the dead of winter, on an ice-covered body of water to look for food. Native Americans did this often, spear fishing in the winter and spring months. In the winter, when the water was frozen over, they’d cut a hole in the ice, and lie on the ground with their heads covered. Then they’d peer into the icy lakes, waiting for an unsuspecting fish to swim by so they could spear it.
In the spring, things were a little easier, or less painful anyway. Spear fishing was usually done at night. Men would wait for the sun to go down, and then would pack their fire torches into their canoes to help them see into the water. Another method of spear fishing was done by standing, sometimes for hours on end, searching the water for fish.
Not all Native American tribes practiced spear fishing. But for some, fish was a common staple at the table, eaten along with produce grown by farming and meat obtained through hunting. A popular way for men to catch fish, women were not allowed to use spears. To aid in fishing, women used string with a hook on the end, a highly rustic version of modern day fishing poles.
The spears used for spear fishing differed depending on the size of the fish being caught. The shafts were made from various woods, while the spear tips were commonly made out of bits of bone, copper, or other metals. For small fish, a tip with three prongs was popular.
Technology has all but done away with spear fishing. Fishing poles have replaced strings with hooks, and when spear fishing is necessary or desired, powered spear guns are now used. Still, it’s interesting to learn about the lengths tribe members used to go to in order to ensure their family’s nutritional needs were met.
Joseph Paige © 2006