Fish Wheel Facts

From a distance, a fish wheel looks a lot like a paddleboat anchored in a river. But get closer and you’ll see an ingenious device that catches fish as its wheel revolves in the current. The use of a fish wheel is passive fishing at its finest. Net baskets turn by water power as if seats on a Ferris wheel, trapping fish as they sieve through the flow, and then as they rotate, dropping the catch onto a slide and into a holding pen. The contraption generates a whole lot of impressive mechanical activity and large catches, and the fisherman doesn’t even have to be there.

Fish wheels normally are supported by a scow or pontoons They are set a strategic locations and kept in place with anchors or posts, sometimes with lead nets (similar to dip net fishing) to steer fish toward the apparatus.The trick to rigging a fish-gobbling wheel is to figure out the most effective number of revolutions per minute. One wheel on British Columbia’s Fraser River fished best when it completed a turn every twenty-four seconds. A working fish wheel makes a steady plink, plink, plink noise over the river’s natural hum as the basket’s cross braces strike the water.

Fish Wheel History

Fish wheels may have been invented in China and have also been employed in Japan, in France on the Garonne, and in Rome the Tiber. They were first used in the United States in North Carolinian 1829. But their major deployment has been on the West Coast, where they have been highly effective at landing upstream migrating salmon. Fish wheel appeared on the Columbia River By 1879, but they later were the target of antagonism by the general public, owing to their supposedly destructive powers, and they were banned for commercial fishing in 1929 in Oregon and 1934 in Washington. Wheels operating at prime locations bordering rapids at the Cascades and The Dales-sites of huge dams today plucked as much as thirty million tons of salmon from the Columbia each year. A full-sized replica of the 1881 McCord fish wheel, once used near the present-day Bonneville Dam, is an attraction at the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center.

Fraser River

But although today fish wheels can’t be used commercially in many places in North America, they are ideal for researchers monitoring fish populations, because their catches aren’t harmed and thus can readily be measured, weighed, tagged, and released. They also are not species-selective; one fish wheels daily harvest in October on the Fraser River system in British Columbia’s included 4 sock eye salmon, 186 chum salmon, 36 Chinook salmon, 505 coho salmon, 3 steelhead, and 1 sturgeon.

Fish Wheels Today

Fish wheels may be making a comeback as a commercial fishing technique. Large rivers often host runs of several kinds of salmons some of which may be plentiful and others reduced. Many alternative gear types, such as gill nets, kill much of what is caught. But because fish-wheel catches are kept alive in holding pens, they may be sorted, with protected fish released unharmed. Also, the quality of the harvested fish is first-class, as they are not damaged by netting and can be kept alive until sent to fish processors.


Because using fish wheels to catch spawning salmon going upstream works so well, someone had the idea of using wheels for research purposes to catch their young, known as smolts, moving downstream. Thus the smolt wheel was born. Smolt wheels look like the casing of a turbine on a jet plane. Inside the wheel is a series of baffles that capture smolts and drop them into a pen, where they pause before being counted and released on their way to the sea.

Fish wheels became popular in Alaska since they were introduced by gold stampeder’s around 1900, and they are still used by subsistence fishermen today, especially in winter to catch food for sled dogs. Anyone interested in owning one can find toy models in Alaskan gift shops.


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