Making a Native-Style Halibut Hook

By , May 14, 2011

As mentioned previously, I recently decided to try to make and use a Northwest Coast Native style halibut hook. My purpose is not to try to reproduce a Native artifact, but to build my own fishing tool replicating the marvelous engineering the style represents.

To do this, I consulted Hilary Stewart’s Indian Fishing: Early Methods on the Northwest Coast (check your local independent bookstore). Stewart provides a lot of information on the hook, along with very accurate drawings of many different variations on the design. Her illustrations are detailed enough that I could use a scale ruler to get dimensions when necessary.

A V of wood creates the hook’s frame. A barb at the top of one arm of the V angles sharply into the crotch of the V. A leader extends from the middle of the opposite arm, positioned so that the V floats on its side, buoyed by the wooden frame. The barbed arm floats up from a weight, usually a beach stone, around which the line is slip knotted. When a fish strikes, the line can be jerked, slipping the knot and removing the stone weight from the rig before hauling the catch to the surface.

halibut hook first step

The first step: two roughly equal lengths of wood (alder, in this case). (Photo: Mark Zeiger.)

Initially, I decided to use the crook of a small tree to create the distinctive V-shape of the hook. Stewart shows many hooks like this, rather than the more traditional and elegant two-piece hook, using two separate pieces of wood lashed together at one end to form the V. I found an alder sapling with a crook that looked right, cut and dried it, and began shaping it for the hook. Interestingly, I read shortly afterward in another source, that “all Tlingit halibut hooks form a 30° angle.” I measured my crook, and found it to be almost exactly that—a confirmation of the old boat building adage: “if it looks right, it is right.”

I abandoned this piece after misdrilling the hole for the barb, which sent the tip of the barb too far out of line with the frame. I switched to the common two-piece hook, using two separate pieces of wood lashed together at one end to form the V. Working with one side of the V without the other, I found I could control the drilling process much better, and quickly had an acceptably angled receptacle for the barb.

barb placement

After drilling the barb hole, I placed a twig in the hole for orientation reference (Photo: Mark Zeiger).

What Stewart does not detail is how to lash the two pieces together. Since I’m not trying to recreate an authentic artifact, I don’t really need to know the exact way to lash a hook (although, I am curious). In fact, based on her illustrations, there are probably many different ways to do that. However, it’s obvious that a certain set of methods, tried and true over many, many generations, have been successful in the past. It doesn’t make sense for me to try to reinvent what others have already figured out.

Initially, I seized the pieces as I would a rope end, then drove a wedge into the binding to tighten it. I wasn’t completely happy with that solution, so I rebound it, using a continuous series of half hitches. This seems to have bound the two pieces together securely—hopefully well enough to withstand the thrashing of a halibut fighting for its life.

I’m much happier with the barb, which I’ll detail next.

2 Responses to “Making a Native-Style Halibut Hook”

  1. mike mayo says:

    do you have to steam the wood to make the hook? How do you make it??

  2. Mark Zeiger says:

    No, Mike, some of the Native nations to the south of us steam-bent halibut hooks in an elegant U-shape, but the northern style is either a natural tree crook, or, more commonly, two pieces of wood lashed together (like I did). The southern style, and how to make them, is also detailed in Hilary Stewart’s Indian Fishing: Early Methods on the Northwest Coast. I can’t recommend the book enough!

    I described the construction process over a series of posts. The link at the end of each piece should lead you to the next.

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