Colville Tribe teaching traditional fishing method

Bridgeport, Washington (AP) October 2011

Colville Tribal elder LeRoy Williams has fished all his life using the traditional methods of fishing with hoop nets and dip nets. Now, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation has hired him to test his handmade traditional nets and to teach others how to use them.

The tribe hopes newly taught members can help catch some of the tens of thousands of salmon expected to return to the upper Columbia River once the Chief Joseph Hatchery is up and running.

The tribe is also testing methods so that individual tribal members can catch fish without leaving the reservation.

“I think it’s important to have a toolbox full of methods,” Joe Peone, director of the tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Department, told The Wenatchee World.

The tribe plans to build more scaffolds below Chief Joseph Dam next year and offer their use to tribal members who want to fish in traditional ways, Peone said.

The tribe is also building a weir that will span the Okanogan River, roughly fashioned after those used by Okanogan Indians a century ago. Next year, they’ll test floating nets in deep waters of the Columbia River.

“You’re going to see the tribes doing some things you may not have ever seen in your life, but they’re things we have done traditionally,” Peone said.

LGL Ltd., an environmental research company in Ellensburg, is building a temporary weir on the Okanogan River to trap fish as they head upstream. It plans to test the weir this month and next summer to look at how the weir changes water flows, erosion, and fish behavior. If the tests are successful, the tribe will apply for permits to install a permanent weir that can be used at certain times to catch salmon, including those raised at Chief Joseph Hatchery.

Meanwhile, Williams, who lives in in Nespelem, plans to travel to each of the four districts on the Colville Indian Reservation to teach traditional fishing methods. Many tribal members abandoned those traditional fishing skills when Columbia River dams limited their access to fishing, the newspaper reported.

In recent weeks, Williams has been testing his handmade gear from two new 26-foot-long scaffolds that the Colville tribes built this summer. Usually he’s with his son, Mylan, and they’re teaching anyone who wants to join them.

Several people came to learn, and many brought their children. 

The hoop net measures up to 8 feet in diameter and is attached to a long piece of netting. The net is then roped to a pole that’s tied to the scaffold and lowered vertically into the water. The current pulls the net downstream, and pushes it out like a balloon. The pole jiggles when a fish swims in and hits the net.

A dip net has a much smaller net attached to a 33-foot pole to reach into the deep water. A string running the length of the pole tells the fisherman – who’s fishing in the dark – which side the net is on. When a salmon swims in, a buckskin tie that’s holding the net open comes undone and the net slides around the loop and closes shut.

Using it is no easy task, Williams said. “It’s a balancing act.”

The hatchery and an agreement with the state that brings more fish to the upper Columbia will mean plenty of fish for everyone, including nontribal sports fishermen, Peone said. The hatchery is scheduled to be completed December of next year. 

Peone said he hopes that when sports fishermen see the new scaffolds on the Columbia River or any of the new methods the Colvilles are using, they’ll understand that the tribe is exercising its fishing right, and are fishing within the boundary of the Colville Indian Reservation.

“I think scaffolds are a good icon for tribal fisheries, but people in the upper Columbia haven’t seen scaffolds for so long – it’s been generations,” he said.

“The tribe is rekindling the old traditions, and old traditions make tribal culture,” he said.