Usual & Accustomed Places II – Catch a Fish, Protect a Fish (1891-1933)

The relationship between the original inhabitants of Washington and the non-Indians who started arriving in the late 18th century is one of the great ongoing stories of this state’s history. The impact of trade, disease, culture, conflict, and law on Native Americans from this region tells us a lot about our nation and ourselves. The following is an examination of the struggle between Indians and non-Indians over the right to fish for salmon, one of the great natural resources of the Northwest.


In the 20th century the salmon industry in Washington expanded quite rapidly. Developments in technology changed both who fished and where salmon were caught. Gillnetters, purse seiners, trollers, Indians, and sport fishermen all competed to take their “fair share” of the salmon runs in the state. This competition would play itself out in the legislature and courts of the state.


The case of the steelhead provides another interesting chapter to the fisheries dispute in Washington. The following excerpt from the 1974 U. S. Supreme Court decision on Native American fishing rights describes part of the fishing history of the Nisquallies:

During treaty times the Nisqually Indians recognized separately and harvested the following species or races of anadromous fish:A) Tlhwai (Chum or dog salmon); b) Skowitz (coho salmon); c) Huddo (humpback salmon); d) Satsop (Chinook salmon), To-walt (King or tyee salmon) were recognized as Satsup, the basis of distinction being size; e) Skowl (steelhead). Their fishing techniques included trolling in saltwater, and nets, traps, weirs, gaffs, spears, and hook and line in freshwater. Such fish were the Nisqually Indians most important item of food. They were eaten fresh, were smoked and preserved, and were used for nonfood purposes such as glue base used by the Nisqually Indians. . . .

Dr. George Suckley, who reported information respecting salmon which he recorded from the Indians while he resided at Puget Sound between 1853 and 1856, reported that “. . . the salmon known to the Nisquallies as the skowl (steelhead). . . arrives in the bays and estuaries of the Puget Sound about the middle of autumn, and towards the first of December commences to run up the larger rivers emptying into the sound. Their ascent of these streams continues through December and January. This arrival of the species in fresh water is not as simultaneous, neither do they arrive in such great numbers at any one time or in schools, . . . but the run being somewhat more drawn out affords a steady moderate supply to the Indians during its continuance.”

The usual and accustomed fishing places of the Nisqually Indians included at least the saltwater areas at the mouth of the Nisqually River and the surrounding bay, and the freshwater courses of the Nisqually River and its tributaries, McCallister (Medicine or Shenahnam) Creek, Sequalitcu Creek, Chambers Creek and the lakes between Steilacoom and McCallister Creeks. The saltwater fisheries were shared with the other Indians. . . .These fish were important to the Indians as an item of diet and subsistence, an item of trade, [and] a medium of exchange.

According to historical evidence the steelhead was an important fish (some estimates were that winter steelhead runs represented half of some Indians food supply) for the Nisquallies who harvested them with nets and traded them in order to obtain items not part of the Nisqually environment.

During the early part of the 20th century sportsmen increased in numbers in Washington as “sport” fishing became a way of relaxing and returning to nature for people engaged in the increasingly industrialized economy of the state. The steelhead “trout” became a particular favorite of anglers who liked the challenge of hooking one of these feisty fish and reeling it in. These fishermen also became politically vocal in the state. As a result of their well organized efforts the Washington legislature passed a law in 1925 which declared steelhead a “game fish” once it entered fresh water streams and rivers. Up to this time steelhead had been considered a “salmon” by both Indians and non-Indians. With this new legal designation for steelhead the new state Game Department began to pass new regulations to protect the steelhead for the recreational fisherman. Thus, steelhead could not be taken by net except by Indians on the reservation. Consequently Indians were excluded from using traditional methods of harvesting in their “usual and accustomed places.” Complicating the steelhead and salmon issue was the development of fish hatcheries in the state. Beginning in 1891 the state built hatcheries to fight the decrease in fish runs. In the case of the steelhead much of the funding for these hatcheries came from the revenues obtained from sport fishing licenses. (This latter development increased the state’s desire to force Indians to obtain licenses.) The establishment of hatcheries also complicated the issue surrounding the state’s desire to regulate fishing on the reservation. If hatcheries were located upstream from a reservation, the state of Washington believed it had a right to regulate fishing on the reservation as a conservation measure. Needless to say this increased tensions between the state and Indians.


Technology was changing the fishing equation in this state. As mentioned before the ability to can salmon increased the demand for salmon because canning meant that salmon could be delivered all around the nation for consumption. Supplying this new market were new and improved methods for catching fish. This is described most aptly in the book Treaties on Trial:

In three decades the odds changed remarkably: a salmon bound for its native stream was much more likely to end up packed in a can before it could reach either the nets of the Indians or its birthplace.

There are several reasons for this. On the Columbia River fish wheels had been introduced. We have already examined the development of the fish wheel industry in the previous section. The fish wheels, however, took a very large initial investment and were not suitable for the typical commercial fisherman. (A typical site might call for an initial investment of $20,000, for example.)

The development of an effective marine gasoline engine (replacing rowboats or sail powered vessels) meant that larger nets could be set; by 1915, for instance, the entire Columbia gillnet fleet was motorized. Gillnets also provided fishermen with flexibility in order to pursue runs of salmon. Fishermen could move their boats to fishing grounds in front of the fish wheels and use either gillnets or purse seines to catch salmon.

Gillnets had been used by Indians, but those used by non-Indians as early as the 1880s could be as long as 1800 feet. Essentially a gill net was a rectangular piece of webbing. One end was held up by a buoy and the other end was attached to a boat. Cork attached to the top of the net allowed the net to float in the water as the boat and buoy drifted. The size of the openings in the net determined the size of salmon you would catch as they attempted to swim though the net. At the turn of the century these openings were eight inches on each side and allowed fishermen to catch the most mature type of salmon. On the Columbia River in 1930 gillnetters accounted for a little over half of the salmon catch.

Purse seiners also operated with nets. In this operation a boat set out a net (attached to some type of flotation device) and slowly made a circular route until it came back to the starting point. Then the 200 foot net was closed like a purse drawstring and thousands of fish might be hauled on board. By 1930 purse seiners were hauling in 14 percent of the Columbia River catch.

The gasoline powered engines also allowed for the large scale introduction of trollers in the competition. Operated usually by one or two people, these boats could travel up and down the coast of the Puget Sound and Washington coast and catch fish on barbed hooks run from up to six different poles. One author described the above process in the following way:

Competing fishermen eagerly sought advantages by fishing further from shore than the rest. For example, gillnetters would intercept fish before they could reach the traps; trollers would go further out to sea–beyond the reach of state regulation–and intercept fish before they would reach the gill nets. A pattern of leapfrogging evolved. Each leap oceanward involved more cost to the fishermen in time and fuel, as they chased after fish which would eventually have returned home on their own. Fishermen far from shore also preyed upon immature fish which swam in groups of many intermingled stocks that had yet to separate and head for their own rivers. Fewer and fewer fish reached the Indians waiting at the end of the salmon’s journey.

This was best demonstrated by the fact that by 1934 only 2% of the total fish catch on the Columbia River was taken by Indians. In addition to this the total number of fish on the river had already declined by two thirds. Elsewhere in the state the story was much the same.

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