Among the Northwestern tribes, the Coast Salish people specialized in pursuing the giant white surgeon of the Fraser River, a species that reached twenty feet and eighteen hundred pounds. Harpooning was one of their methods. Sturgeon harpoons could be as long as fifty feet in order to reach the bottom of the holes where the behemoths lay. To allow the fisherman to sense the sturgeon without spooking it, and so that the spear did not have to be raised far to strike, its points feathers, which allowed sensitive contact with the substrate. Once a sturgeon was impaled, a line tied to the business end snapped off the shaft bound to the head, so that the fish could be fought off the rope. Chumming sturgeon was out of the question.
“All the Indians now fishing and it is great fun to watch them spearing sturgeon which here run to the great size of 500 and 600 pounds,” wrote British Columbia colonial secretary John Birch in 1864. “The Indians drift down with the stream perhaps thirty canoes abreast with their long poles with spear attached kept within a foot of the bottom of the river. When they feel fish lying they raise the spear and thrust it at the fish seldom missing. The barb of the spear immediately disconnects from the pole but remains attached to a rope and you see sometimes two or three canoes being carried off at the same time downriver at any pace by these huge fish. , It could be a long trip. To shorten it, the men dropped heavy stones on cedar bark ropes behind the canoe to steady the craft and to tire the fish out.
Landing the defeated sturgeon was no easy task. But it in itself was a creative fishing method similar to Cormorant Fishing. Some could be towed back, but other times it was necessary to bring the fish into the canoe-a tricky maneuver that involved tipping the vessel and rolling the fish over the gunwale, then bailing the water out.
Sturgeon behavior changes seasonally, and during summer spawning season, they run shallower. Sometimes the Salish fishermen could spear them at night at depths to eight feet; when the sturgeon swam in more marine waters having bio luminescent micro organisms, the fish’s motion would stimulate the little animals to light up. It must have been a remarkable experience to thrust a spear in the dark of night at a glowing ten-foot-long creature from the prehistoric past.