Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Salmon in the fur trader's New Caledonia

We speak now of the salmon found in the interior rivers and lakes, in Alexander Caulfield Anderson's words -- a continuation of "Killing Fish by Explosion," blog posting for Sat. February 4, 2012:

"Overlooking a variety of smaller fishes chiefly allied to the carp, and all more or less of inferior consideration to those I have mentioned, I shall proceed now to notice the noble Salmon. In venturing, however, to describe the habits of the Salmon in its ascent from the sea into the fastness of the interior, I must premise that there are statements to make in regard to it which may possibly startle the reader, accustomed to judge of the ordinary habits of the tribe by his European experience alone.

"The Salmon has been since time immemorial the chief, and frequently the sole, dependence of the aboriginal races bordering on the interior of the Coast range, for the sustenance of life. For many years, too, the European traders and their employees, had this resource alone to trust to as the staple article of food -- eked out, it is true, by various other products in both cases; the beasts of the chase, the minor fisheries, the wild-fowl, and the hare -- but still, for their winter dependence, the Salmon was the chief and most valued.
The one was the main support, the others composed the luxuries of life, though at times, in years of scarcity of salmon occupying a more important position.

"And here, if in a practical essay such as I am supposed to be engaged upon, I may be permitted to deviate momentarily from the dull monotony of description, I would vain direct the attention of the Reader to the beautiful concatenation of circumstances through which the ascent of the salmon is made practicable.
From the rising ocean vapours, to their condensation on their interior ranges; the melting of the mountain snows; the consequent rising of the rivers, whereby eddies are formed, and the abruptness of waterfalls, else impracticable to the salmon, is modified -- all these circumstances, coincident as they are with the natural causes which impel the shoals of salmon to ascent, compose one more line in the chain of evidences design.

"The various tributaries both of Fraser River and the Columbia, with rare exceptions, are the resort of vast shoals of Salmon at the proper season. Of these exceptions, upon the latter-mentioned stream, the Similkameen is one: an effect proceeding apparently from local obstacles to their ascent not far about the junction of the stream with the Okinagan.

"To these spawning grounds, following the instinct of their race, the various shoals generated originally upon each direct their course with undeviating precision -- to those conversant with the habits of the European Salmon it is superfluous to mention that each shoal as it ascends strives perserveringly and with unerring instinct to reach, for its spawning-ground, the spot where itself was generated. The natives employ various devices for catching them, accordingly as the stream be clear or turbid; the same means not being generally applicable to both.

"To speak more particularly of the Fraser -- there are at least six varieties of the Salmon which enter this river, distinquished by the Hartlins as Sa-quai, Suck-kai, Sa-wen, Paque, Qua-to, and Hun-nun (or Hoan).
The Salmon entering Fraser River are of several varieties, making their appearance successively at various periods from early Spring to the end of Summer. As a general rule it may be asserted that the earlier shoals are the strong and richer fish. Of these the most conspicuous are the two first named -- the Sa-quai (Kase of the Carriers) entering the Fraser in April and continuing through May and June: and the Suck-kai (Ta-lo of the Carriers), a much smaller species, arriving early in July.

"For clearness sake, I shall confine my remarks chiefly to two principal varieties, called by the lower Indians Saw-quai and Suck-kai, by the upper Indians Kase and Ta-lo; by which latter names I shall distinguish them. The first, equal in size and quality to the large Salmon in Europe, enter the Fraser in May; the latter, a very much smaller and not so rich a fish, arriving a month or so later. In the lower part of the river the natives secure them in large quantities by means of drift nets. Higher up scoop-nets are chiefly used, which are wrought from stages suspended from the rocks bordering on rapid current; and above Alexandria the Ta-cully [Dakelh] tribe construct ingenious weirs for their capture.

"The preceding pages referring to the habits of Salmon are, as premised, a transcript almost literal, from notes made by me during a protracted residence in the interior. I may now add that subsequent observations have led me in nowise to modify the conclusions then arrived at. I will now trace the course of the two principal varieties in their upward way, repeating what I have already remarked, that all the shoals and portions of shoals of the inferior kinds have each their peculiar stream to which they resort with unerring accuracy.

"There are two varieties of the Kase, differing very little in their characteristics, but one shoal, perhaps a little smaller in size, entering the Fraser somewhat earlier than the second; this first shoal, as nearly as I could ascertain, resorts to the West Road River. The Kase arrive at the mouth of the Fraser River somewhat earlier than the Talo, in May, and are caught at Alexandria in the beginning of July. The course of the Kase, apart from the minor shoals which may diverge to their native tributaries by the way, may thus be indicated from the Forks of Thle-et-leh (at Fort George). A division of the grand shoal here takes place; one detachment ascending the eastern, or Great Fork, or Tete Jaune Branch, and some individual fish attaining as before stated as far as Tete Jaune's Cache, where an abrupt over-fall debars all further progress.

"The other division strikes up the Stuart's Lake Branch, as high as the point called the Forks of Chinlac, 60 miles above Thle-et-leh. A further subdivision here takes place; one portion continuing to ascend the Stuart Branch nearly to Stuarts Lake which, however, they do not enter -- instead ceasing at the Rapid a short distance below the issue of the Lake. The other detachment ascends the Fraser Lake branch, and turning off about a mile below the outlet of the lake, continues their course towards the Nechaotin lands, up the river Neja-coh, on which its spawning grounds are situated. This is a stream which on the other hand the Talo do not enter.

"The Talo, its vanguard reaching Thle-et-leh in company with the rearguard of the Kase, strike up the Stuarts Lake Branch, not frequenting the main fort heading to Tete Jaune's Cache. They continue undeviatingly up to the the Forks of Chinlac, before mentioned, where a separation takes place. On reaching Chinlac they divide; one shoal ascending to Stuart's Lake, passing through it, and continuing up its chief feeding tributary towards Lake Tat-la. The other division, passing the Naja-coh unnoticed, proceeds directly to Fraser's Lake; continues through it and pursues its route by the tributary stream issuing at the village of Stella, ascending it towards the Lac des Francais on the inner vege of the Coast Range, and opposite to the Southern heads of the Skeena.

"The Ta-lo reach the Lakes of Fraser and Stuart almost simultaneously about the first week in August. This process, actuated by an infallible instinct, goes on undeviatingly from year to year: and though at times there may occur, from inscrutable causes, a partial failure of the supply, the period vary but little and the regularity of the system is never interrupted. The Talo do not enter the Fork uniting with the Stuart and Fraser Branch at Thle-et-leh. To this the Kase alone resort; struggling upwards even as far as Tete Jaune's Cache, where an abrupt overfall debars further progress. In no case, it should be remarked, has it been known that a Kase has been caught above the debouchure of the Naja-coh, upon the stream issuing from Fraser's Lake which there unites with it. On the other hand, it would be equally vain to seek for a Talo in the Neja-coh.

"It will thus be seen that the laws which govern the ascent of these fish are fixed and undeviating. The knowledge of their habits, therefore, which long experience has taught them, enables the Indians to prepare devices for their capture, in the full certainty that, when the fish do arrive, their preparations will not have been made in vain: in these various devices much ingenuity is displayed, but in different portions of the river, and by different tribes, various methods are practiced.

"Before the salmon enter the river they are readily caught in the adjacent straits and inlets with baited hooks, frequently affixed to long lines fastened to a canoe, which is then paddled briskly through the water. The bait used in this system of trolling is a small fish, or some other substance or even a piece of old cloth.

"The lower Indians of the Fraser use small drift nets which are plied from their canoes. Higher up they erect scaffolds on rocky projections where the current is strong. From these scaffolds bag-nets distended by light frames, nearly similar to the drift-nets, are plied by the fishermen. This system continues as far as the borders of the Ta-cully tribe near Alexandria.

"The Ta-cully who are peculiarly expert in preparing various devices for fishing and the snaring of the beasts of chase, construct weirs for catching the salmon. A close fence of light hurdles, supported by strong stakes driven into the bottom, is projected some forty or fifty feet into the steam, where the current is swift and the bottom gradually shelving. Another fence is run downstream; then at a right angle six feet or so towards the bank, and again upwards nearly to the first transverse fence. The ascending fish thus intercepted in their progress by the upper fence seek in vain to round the obstacles, and after a while enter a large cylindrical basket which is sunk at the angle where the descending fence is formed, with slender rods converging inwards like the entrance of a wire mouse-trap. Great numbers are thus caught. This is the plan adopted on the main stream where, as before stated, the water is turbid. In the clear tributaries the submerged basket is not found to answer, except where the stream can be fenced from side to side.

"Elsewhere the natives substitute an open basket, in the same position as the other but sunk only a few inches below the surface, above which the top of the basket projects. An opening is left in the top of the fence opposite to the basket, through which the water rushes. The salmon leap this tiny fall and drop unsuspectingly into the trap prepared for them. At the discharge of Frasers and Stuarts Lake the stream is fenced across, and the sunken basket is used; immense numbers are thus caught in ordinary years. The fence, however, is rarely so secure but that the main portion of the shoal contrives to force a passage, and even admitting it were perfectly close, the natives have a convention understanding that the fish shall be allowed to pass towards their neighbours further inland, who in turn do not seek to intercept the main body from the spawning grounds.

"The spear cannot be used save in the tributaries when the water is clear. At Alexandria I used to amuse myself at times with the scoop net and have thus secured fifty or sixty fish in an evening. The Seine, too, can be effectually employed.

"In the Appendix will be inserted a brief notice of several other varieties of the Salmon resorting to Fraser River, some of which, diverging up the Thompson's Branch and other tributaries, do not ascend to the Upper Fraser: and I will now advert to a peculiarity in their fate, which, strange as it may appear, distinguishes the majority from all other known varieties of the genus. There seems to be no question that the shoals resorting to the smaller streams debouching upon the Coast return, after performing their procreative functions, to the sea, as elsewhere. But as regards the main body, resorting to the distant head-waters of those great rivers, it may be incontestably asserted that they never return to the sea. At first incredulous of this asserted fact, subversive of all my preconceptions on the subject, it was only after the observation of years, under circumstances which seem to preclude the possibility of error, that I was constrained to arrive at the same conclusion. Without prolonging my notes by entering on the particulars of these observations, I may confidently repeat the assertion that, the function of spawning over, the fish, still struggling upwards, die of exhaustion. Upon the main, or Eastern, branch of the Fraser, which as I have said is frequented only by the large variety or Kase, the strongest of those fish attain as high as Tete Jaune's Cache, between 700 and 800 miles from the sea: there their further progress is arrested by a steep fall. At the foot of this fall, and elsewhere below, the stream swarms in September with dead and dying fish. The once brilliant Salmon, no longer recognizable save from its general form, may here be seen, the function of spawning completed, almost torpid from exhaustion; its nose in many instances worn to the bone, its tail and fins in tatters, nay its very flesh in a state of half-animated decay, either helplessly floating in the eddies or with momentary exertion still struggling to ascend. In no case is the smallest disposition to descend perceptible: its course is still onwards, until, dying at last, it floats with myriads of others to be cast upon the beach, attracting to a hideous banquet a multitude of Bears and other carnivorous beasts from the adjacent mountains. In like manner perish the other shoals upon the head-waters of the several streams to which they resort -- on the Columbia the Salmon attain to the head of the McGillivray Fork, more than a thousand miles from the sea. There is there a small lake, which, before winter sets in is crowded, I have been assured, with the dead and dying fish.

"I am not, however, to write a treatise on natural History, but to confine myself to such notes as may tend practically to a useful end. Nevertheless I may be pardoned if I have dwelt passingly upon a fact which, if for its singularity alone, is worthy of record. Before quitting this branch of the subject, too, I may supply some memoranda which will convey an idea of the productiveness, in favorable years, of the salmon fisheries on the Fraser. At the Post of Fraser's Lake, in 1836, 36,000 dried salmon were purchased and stored for use; and at other posts proportionate quantities were likewise secured out of the superabundant provisions made by the natives. The year in question, it is true, was one of great abundance.

"At Fort Langley (some fifteen miles above New Westminster) large quantities were formerly salted every year by the Hudson's Bay Company, as well for home consumption as for exportation. In some seasons between two and three thousand barrels were thus provided; the fish procured by barter from the natives. For some years past private fisheries have been established, where large quantities are annually cured: and recently an establishment for preserving the fish in cans for exportation has been started, which promises to be very successful. The chief markets are South American, the Sandwich Islands, and Australia.

"We may here mention cursorily that, while the salmon of some particular variety is common, perhaps, to every stream issuing along the Coast from the Coast range of mountains, as well as to the many tributaries of the Fraser, it is not found upon the waters of the British Columbia tributary to the Peace River, or indeed to any of the streams flowing eastward from the Rocky Mountain boundary of the Province. Thus Peace River, and its co-tributary to the great McKenzie, the Athabasca, as well as the Saskatchewan, are destitute of this valuable fish. with our knowledge of the habits of the genus it would be a facile undertaking to introduce the fish artificially into these rivers, by spawn taken from the western watershed: but it is questionable whether the extreme length of the two first-named streams, at least, in their course to the ocean, might not prove an insurmountable obstacle to their successful propogation. Nevertheless, it is possible that the attempt may at some future day be made."

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  1. This blog-post has been updated and is found at