Yesterday, I told you about making a discovery in one of the Haida legends recounted in Bill Reid and Robert Bringhurst’s The Raven Steals the Light (check your local independent bookstore). The story that caught my attention mentioned the Native halibut hook used by the Haida and their northern neighbors, the Tlingit. It observed that the hook is designed to flip the captured halibut upside down, so that as it is pulled up from the bottom of the ocean, the flow of water over its gills is reversed, so it drowns.
The hook drowns the fish on the way to the surface!
This is huge news to me. This means that the powerfully muscled, hard-to-kill halibut, as dangerous as it is delicious, can be subdued before it is pulled into a small boat, such as a Native canoe, or our usual halibut fishing boat, our Coleman Scanoe. The hook design makes this dangerous process safer for a small scale fisherman working alone.
The distinctive V-shaped Native-style halibut hook has been familiar to me all my life. Not only is it an intriguing artifact of incredible artistic beauty, it’s also a marvel of engineering. Unlike the modern, western-style halibut hook, which merely accounts for the halibut’s odd shape, the Native hook exploits the fish’s natural behavior.
The Pacific halibut could be considered an ocean bottom super predator. A large, flat fish with both eyes on the top side of its head and a mouth that opens sideways. Cruising along the sea floor, it hoovers up anything that might be prey, including whole fish and octopus. If the prey turns out to be unpleasant in any way, the fish reverses the suction, expelling the object with incredible force.
Halibut can grow to monstrous size. Alaska produces “barn doors,” fish weighing hundreds of pounds. We can’t set any official sport size records, because we pragmatically subdue the larger fish by shooting them in the head with a pistol. This “unsporting” method helps ensure that several hundred pounds of angry fish don’t unleash havoc on board the fisherman’s boat. Even small halibut have been known to break legs and batter out the bottoms of lapstrake skiffs. Halibut fishing is tricky business, particularly in a small boat with hand tackle, but well worth the risk. Halibut is one of the best tasting fish around, and if you can catch it, you get a lot of food all at once.
American acquisitiveness compels us to aspire to catch the largest fish possible. (I confess, I feel this urge myself, even though it would be disastrous for me to hook a large halibut in my boat.) However, the story in Raven Steals the Light reminds us that fish in the 30-40 pound range are the best eating.
The Native halibut hook accounts for both of these factors. The V-shaped hook “sorts” halibut by size. A halibut that’s too small can’t get its mouth around the baited section. Any that are too large take the whole hook in their mouths, then expel it without ever getting caught.
Those that are just the right size, however, take the baited half of the V into their mouths. When the fish finds that it can’t swallow the bait, it expels forcefully, sending the sharply-angled barb into the side of its mouth. As long as the hook’s materials hold against the fish’s struggles, it can then be hauled to the surface at the fisherman’s leisure.
All of this is described and illustrated wonderfully in Hilary Stewart’s Indian Fishing: Early Methods on the Northwest Coast (check your local independent bookstore). Most of my information comes from this book, except for the key observation about the flipping hook drowning the fish.
Learning this last feature of the hook, which adds safety to the fishing process, compelled me to try to do something about it. I’ll describe that process in future posts.