Dip netting-the gathering of fish with a long-handled net-ranks low on the scale of sophisticated fishing techniques. Yet its success is not a given unless at least one of two conditions exist: The fish must be available near the surface in glutlike abundance, or they must be squeezed through a narrow passage, preferably as they travel against a strong current.
Both considerations were met at the most colorful of dip netting sites-Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, described in Carl Safinas’s Song for the Blue Ocean (1997). This great drainage system once hosted runs of salmon in numbers almost unimaginable today. The falls, nearly one hundred miles from the coast, were visited by Lewis and Clark, who wrote,” Here is the Great fishing-place of the Columbia”. In the Spring of the year, when the water is high, the salmon ascend the river in incredible numbers.
This wealth of food was fished by Native Americans, who built numerous make shift platforms over the dangerous, roaring rapids from which they landed huge numbers of salmon. These skilled fishermen mostly dip-netted, catching as many as twenty large salmon per hour each, but some even speared leaping salmon out of the air.
Constructing the wooden fishing stages also took skill and not just a little daring. The fisherman made holes in the riverbed at some distance from shore to receive the support posts. When the water fell enough during the summer, a strong man was chosen to set the posts.
The men pushed a fir sapling out from the bank and sat on it to hold it in place while the chosen man, tied with a safety rope, walked out in. Carrying a staging pole, the brave soul watched until the swirling water allowed good visibility, dropped one end of the pole into the hole, and then immediately tied it to the fir sapling on which he stood, while those who had remained on shore piled rocks on the sapling’s other end.
A second post was similarly set, and crossbars were tied between the saplings with hazel ropes. Some netting locations were so isolated that they could be reached only by riding a wicker basket ferry through the air.
The Celilo Falls fishery formed the backbone of a large regional economy and cultural crossroads; indeed, one expert called the tiny fishing community of Celilo Village Oregon’s oldest town, with continues occupation of at least eleven thousand years. Coastal tribes came not to fish, but to trade whale and cedar products, clams, shells, beads, and canoes; southern peoples brought baskets obsidians, water water-lily seeds, and tobacco; eastern tribes carried buffalo products, pipe stone, and feathers. But in the twentieth century the Columbia was dammed for hydro power, crippling its salmon runs and drowning much of the river. Celilo Falls was submerged in 1957 while Native Americans watched from the banks, some weeping.
A minor but intriguing dip-netting scene was described by Henry David Thoreau in A Week on The Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). The Connecticut River at Bellows Falls, Vermont, was divided by a great rock island. On the island’s steep sides hung several ladders, fastened to armchairs that were secured by a counterpoise. Fishermen sat casually in this odd outdoor living-room scene, dip-netting salmon and shad that passed below.
A truly weird form of dip net was used in New Guinea to skim the surface of the water. An arc of bamboo was fitted with filtering material made from spiderwebs. Although obviously time consuming to create, this gear had advantages: These scoops were almost weightless and drained water quickly.
Dip Netting in Alaska
Dip netting is still allowed in parts of Alaska, On the Kenai River during dip netting season each Alaskan head of household may catch twenty-five salmon, and families are allotted an additional ten fish per member. When the rum is strong, the beach along the lower Kenai becomes a makeshift village of tents, tarps, coolers, and folding chairs.
Nearby, in the shallows, a line of dip netters forms, waiting, poised, like great blue herons. There is a strange allure to such an unsubtle and direct means of fishing. One fist-timer remarked, “It’s the most fascinating thing I’ve ever done. This is only an Alaska thing, it’s hard for anybody else to even fathom.’ But Alaskan find it less mystical; one business like Fairbanks native said,‘We don’t throw ’em back , we don’t play with our food.’
Specialized Dip Netting
A specialized kind of dip netting takes place in California, as described by John McPhee in The Founding Fish (2002). There, delta fishermen capitalize on the spawning behavior of American shad. Shad are not even native to the murky waters of the delta formed by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin River. But sometime after shad were carried by train in milk cans from the Hudson River in 1871 and subsequently flourished, fishermen learned that a powerboat with a slowly turning late roe shad, thus attracting males, By holding a chicken wire-meshed dip net alongside the vessels hull and reacting instantly to the slightest bump, fishermen could scoop mostly male shad. Hence these fishermen are known as “bumpers.”