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About Ojibwe Fishing

Fishing was an industry which happened throughout entire year.

In the late spring, the people would usually move directly from their sugar camps and gardens to a place where they could fish. If they didn’t choose to attend the annual sturgeon runs on Rainy River, they would undertaking fishing near the site of their summer camp, where fishing could be done all summer long. Autumn fishing season was important as well, as it was during that time the people would secure a large supply of fish for winter use. Traditional knowledge said that the fish would come close to shore in November, just before the lakes froze. When this happened, the women would set their nets and make a good haul.

Fish could be caught were secured by a variety of means.

​One of the most important methods of fishing was the use of seines ― fishing nets that were hanged vertically in the water with floats at the top and weights at the bottom edge. The ends would then be drawn together to encircle the fish. This method secured the largest results in both number and variety of fish caught.

Spearing was another popular method of fishing ― especially at night, using a torch as bait. The torch used in night fishing consisted of a stake about 4 feet long which was split at the end, strips of birch bark about 6 inches wide and 18 inches long being placed in this slit and fastened in such a manner that, the stake (or pole) being upright in the canoe, the birch-bark strip extended over the water and threw a light on the water. The light would attract the fish and the fisherman could see the fish and spear them while he himself remained invisible. The largest fish were speared and were best secured at night.

In some cases, fish traps were also used. These included small traps used in catching small fish and a large form of trap known as a “sturgeon rack” for catching large sturgeon. Small traps were made of twigs and branches of trees and were placed in shallow water where the current would carry the fish into them. Sturgeon traps were similar, but larger and quite complex ― sometimes encompassing the entire river in some places.

Standard fishing using fishhooks was usually used in the summer. The earliest fishhooks were made of deer bone carved into a hook shape. After European contact, fishhooks were made from wire or metal. Wood or bark bobbers could be used. Sinkers were usually made from small stones. Trolling was also done during canoe trips. This was accomplished by twisting a line around the wrist and then around the canoe paddle, which moved the line through the water as the canoe traveled along the lakes or rivers.

During winter, fish would be speared through the ice using a decoy as bait. The decoy fish were made of wood with a tail of birch bark and body weighted with stones (or later lead). Some skill was required in making the decoys so that they floated in the water perfectly. Fishing was done by cutting a hole in the ice and lying beside the hole while covered by a blanket. One hand was used to move the decoy so that its movements would be as lifelike as possible, with the spear ready to strike at the proper moment.


Learn more at: Buffalohead, Priscilla K. 1983. “Farmers, Warriors, Traders: A Fresh Look At Ojibway Women.” Minnesota History 48 (6). Saint Paul: 236–44.; and Densmore, Frances. 1929. “Chippewa Customs.” Bulletin. Washington: U.S. Govt. print. off.

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