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Florida's First Fishers

Looking back—way back—on our fishing traditions.


Early sailboats.

He had seen the school of sturgeon swimming upstream; their traditional spawning area was not much farther. Now, the Native American man waited patiently at a narrow point in the river. A weir of rocks would steer the fish close to him, and he was ready with a strong noose made of grapevine.


Sweat poured from his copper-colored skin; the warm spring sun was rising over treetops, and still the man waited. Finally, he spotted the silvery fish. They looked even larger than before, almost as long as his own body. The man remained motionless, though his heart was racing. When a sturgeon came within reach, the man quietly slipped the noose over the fish, and pulled mightily. The water seemed to explode! The startled fish dove for deeper water; the man gulped air and dove with him. Having made a vow to keep his hold, the fisherman wrestled, tugged and fought. He periodically gasped for air when the big fish rose to the surface. At last, the man pulled the exhausted sturgeon into shallow water and heaved it onto the bank. He smiled contentedly to himself. His village would eat well that night; there would be celebrating, there would be dancing. He thanked the fish for giving its life for his people.


This scene, inspired by a 1686 account by colonial writer William Byrd, depicts one of many fishing methods employed by Native Americans. For millennia, fish provided an important source of protein for these first people, and as many modern fishermen know, Florida's numerous ponds, lakes, rivers and miles of coastline provided ample year-round opportunities to perfect fishing techniques.


I've often wondered what would happen if I were lost in the wilderness with the most basic of items, such as a knife, and I wanted to catch fish in nearby water bodies using the means available to early Native Americans. So, I did an experiment—I constructed a natural fishing rig from natural items. For a hook, I used a short, angled crabapple thorn and left enough of the adjoining twig so as to tie on a line. I've often been poked by these sharp thorns and thought it would be perfect.


Want to Learn More?
Florida's First People by Robin C. Brown, c1994, Pineapple Press

The Southeastern Indians by Charles Hudson, c1976, 1982, The University of Tennessee Press

The Indians of the Southeastern United States by John R. Swanton, c1946, reprinted 1979, Smithsonian Institution Press

For a weight, I used a small shell with a hole in it, knowing that a small rock would also be suitable, and I cheated a bit by using artificial sinew for a fishing line rather than have to weave together plant fibers, as Native Americans did. After carefully knotting my rig together, I tied one end to a long stick. Then, I ventured next door to my neighbor's honeyhole—a sinkhole 30 feet deep with turquoise water and a host of bream, some catfish and at least one bass.


“Have at it,” my neighbor Paul had said earlier when I asked for permission.


“Don't worry, I'll release whatever I catch,” I said confidently.


Paul had trouble concealing a smirk.



The late Seminole Mary Johns, gigged a big snook at the age of five.

For bait, I turned over some rotten wood and gathered a mess of fat larvae of the patent leather beetle. I cut these critters into bite-size morsels for panfish and impaled a piece on my sharp, natural hook. Then, I perched myself on the steep sides of the sinkhole and slung the rig into action. I expected a fighting fish any moment, but I soon noticed my bait floating away, with minnows attacking it with abandon. After several more tries, I realized the difficulty of keeping bait on a hook that wasn't circular or barbed. There is a reason for our modern-day designs, and for those carved by early Native Americans. When I did manage to keep bait on my thorn for more than a few seconds, I did get a strike or two, but I never once hooked a fish, pointing to the need, once again, for a barbed hook. After a frustrating hour, I accepted defeat and realized that I wouldn't be eating fish if I were lost in the wilds unless accompanied by a skilled hunter-gatherer.


The hook and line was historically popular among Native Americans. Hooks were often made from turkey or deer bones and sometimes from wood, shell and thorns. Fine cordage was woven from yucca, palm fiber, Spanish moss or the inner bark of several tree species. Hooks could be tied on using deer sinew, but these had to be coated with pine pitch or bees' wax for waterproofing and to prevent fish from nibbling the sinew. Sinkers were made from shell and stone, and floats were often made of light wood, such as cypress or gumbo limbo. Trotlines and handlines were more common than pole fishing.



Bobby Henry of Tampa is one of the last Seminoles who makes dugout canoes, the traditional southeastern Native America fishing vessel.

Early Native Americans fished during a time when pollution was virtually non-existent and all fish species were generally plentiful, although evidence suggests that fish and shellfish stocks became depleted near large permanent village sites. The goal was to feed the people and, therefore, most methods were designed to catch as many fish as possible, the same methods which today are often illegal due to increased human pressure on fish resources.


Native Americans made ample use of fish traps and weirs. In coastal areas, small poles were driven into tidal bottoms and interwoven with reeds or wood splints. Limestone rocks were occasionally used. Fish could easily swim into these traps, but they had a heck of time getting out. When the tide went out, the trapped fish were easily scooped up with a net or impaled with spears.


The French explorer Jean Ribault described Native American fish weirs in 1562 as: “built in the water with great reeds, so well

and cunningly set together after the fashion of labyrinth, with many turns and crooks, which it was impossible to construct without much skill and industry.”


Nets, ranging from fine-meshed dip nets to large gill and seine varieties, were also popular, the nets being hand-woven from native plant fibers and deer sinew. Weights were likely limestone plummets and grooved pebbles. Rectangular turtle shell bones and seashells could have been used as gauges for making nets. Before the arrival of Europeans, smoking and drying were the only means used to preserve fish.


Native Americans made use of their extensive herbal and plant knowledge in catching fish. Dried leaves, nuts, hulls, berries and roots of certain native plants such as buckeye and Jamaica dogwood were crushed and spread on stagnant pools of water that held fish. These substances contained mild neurotoxins that would stun or stupefy fish and cause them to rise to the surface, whereupon they were easily speared or caught. No ill effects were reported from eating fish caught in this manner.


Pine lighter knots were ignited on midwinter nights and floated on the surface of a still body of water. Fish would be attracted to the light, swimming closer to the surface, where they would fall prey to a spear or arrow. Some early Native Americans had elevated clay-lined basins in the center of their dugout canoes for night fires to attract fish. Spears, often made from native river cane, were sometimes tipped with the spiked tails of horseshoe crabs and stingrays.


A large harvest of fish in a native village was often cause for celebration. In 1775, writer James Adair described the aftermath of a good fish haul from an inland fish weir: “...with this draught, which is a very heavy one, they make a town feast, or feast of love, of which everyone partakes in the most social manner, and afterward they dance together.”


Besides a good meal, Native Americans found other uses for fish. Fish remains made good fertilizer for gardens, and the scales, teeth and barbs of certain fish and rays were used as arrow and spear points. Shark teeth in particular were crafted into important tools such as saws, and the abrasive skin was used like sandpaper to smooth wood, stone and shell. The rough skin of filefish was also used as sandpaper and for emery boards.



Seminole children learn to fish at an early age.

Parts of fish were used as glue. Florida Indians used small fish bladders, dried and painted red, as ear ornaments. As one Creek man quipped, “Native Americans used every part of the fish but the gasping air bubble.”


What brings early Native American fishing to life is talking with contemporary Native Americans about their experiences. Some customs and practices have persisted. Rosemary McCombs Maxey, an Oklahoma Creek Indian and a descendent of those people removed from the Southeast on the Trail of Tears, reflects, “What I remember about fishing in the old farm pond was from my aunt who cared for me while my parents worked in the fields.... She dipped snuff, so she would spit on the hooked worm before she sent it out across the water. She said that was her blessing to the fish.”


The late Mary Johns, a traditional Seminole elder who lived on the Brighton Reservation along Lake Okeechobee, recalled in 2000: “Growing up on the Tamiami Trail, we lived at a place called Royal Palm Hammock where we had both fresh and briny water. This gave us access to many types of fish. We either gigged the fish with a single or five-prong spear, or used a fishing pole. Sometimes, we'd even wade in shallow water and chop their heads off with a machete. It was more fun to gig them.


“One time when I was about five or so, ignoring my grandmother's warning never to gig a big fish, I gigged this snook [long before it was illegal to do so] that was twice as big as I was. Well, as you might imagine, 5-year-old scrawny me hung onto the bridge railing screaming for all my worth for Grandma to come and rescue me. The harder the fish fought, the more determined I was to hang on. It never once occurred to me that all I had to do was to release the loop of string around my wrist. Boy oh boy, was Grandma ever mad at me! For days she would not let me near the water, but we did eat well for a couple of days.”


Mary's playful voice became serious when she spoke of changes to the Everglades that she witnessed, the type of changes native people have bemoaned for centuries. “Fish conservation is a concern to us now because the Everglades has been drained of the usual amount of water it takes to breed fish in abundance,” she said. “These people who made decisions to make more arable and more habitable land did not stop to consider the value of these wetlands to our food supply!”


If the ways that native people have fished and their dependence on fish have changed over the years, some ancient traditions that honor fish have not. At some Creek ceremonial grounds, a wooden fish is fastened atop a tall post for traditional stickball games, a southeastern version of lacrosse. If one hits the fish with a small leather ball, extra points are made for one's team.


During traditional rituals such as the Green Corn Ceremony, garfish jawbones that hold rows of sharp teeth are first dipped in antiseptic solution and are used to scratch ceremonial participants' arms and legs. It is part of an age-old purification rite.


Traditional Creeks and Seminoles perform lively dances in honor of the gar and other fish. In some of the dance steps, the ball of the foot is down and the back of the foot slides right to left, mimicking spawning fish.


There is no doubt that both fish and fishing were key elements in the lifestyles and ceremonial ways of Florida's first people. Reminders are everywhere. If one peruses our state's museums and history books, or talks with some of Florida's remaining native people, it is easy to imagine the pleasant camaraderie that occurred while communally fishing, and the feasting and merriment after a big catch.



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