In spring, people chopped holes in lake and river ice to fish for grayling. They also caught suckers, inconnu (sheefish) and whitefish.
In mid-summer, First Nations people moved to fish camps all along the Yukon River where they set up shelters and repaired gear while awaiting the two great salmon runs. First the Chinook or king salmon followed in late summer by the Chum or dog salmon. Many of these camps were at the mouths of smaller rivers and streams where we set traps for the spawning salmon. At Tr’ochëk, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in set up a weir at the mouth of the Klondike River. They hammered stakes into the stream bed, wove branches between the stakes directing the fish into basket traps. People emptied the traps then allowed the next fish to continue upstream for several hours before resetting the traps. People also caught salmon by spearing then flinging them to shore. Others went out in canoes and scooped the fish in dipnets which they towed to the river bank.
Rowena Flynn described the use of a woven gill net at Tr’ochëk:
The people used the small roots like they used to weave baskets. They weave it like a net about 150 feet. All the men, even the tallest, hand it out and go way out into the Klondike River. They go out and around, and coming in, they singing eh? They were shouting and the women and children were making noise. My grandfather thought they were going to kill, those men. He went running back. My grandmother went to see. Oh, the salmon. They gave her a salmon and she went back to camp.
“Look see what those crazy Indians gave us.”
After the arrival of traders and miners from outside, our people began adopting new fishing methods. We began using pole boats and setting gills nets in eddies. From the early 1900s, several families began using the fish wheels first introduced on the lower river. The current-driven wheel scooped up salmon and funneled them into cruise boxes on either side of the wheel.
Chinook salmon stocks have suffered from overfishing and changes to habitat. As a result, we are eating more Chum salmon, formerly used mainly for dogfood, but now appreciated as a nutritious and tasty alternative. Management of the fishery is complicated since it requires international agreements between the United States and Canada as well as recognition of land claim agreements. A key tool in managing salmon stocks has been the knowledge of the elders.
Simon McLeod holding a string of grayling all caught in 30 minutes during spring ice fishing at Forty Mile, ca. 1930s. Yukon Archives #7300, Claude and Mary Tidd fonds.
Yukon River salmon cut in strips and placed on racks to dry.
Salmon dip net made with babiche.
From: Frederick Schwatka, Along Alaska's Great River, p. 258
Emptying a fish wheel.
Yukon Archives #2156, Vancouver Public Library coll.