(Mis)adventures in primitive fishing

While working at my 9-to-5 job during the week, my mind has a tendency to wander (not infrequently in the direction of outdoor pursuits, as you may have guessed). Last week, I got the idea of making a functional primitive fishing rig from a single plant/tree using my camp knife as the only tool. I thought this would be a good way to put some basic primitive/bushcraft skills to use in a practical application. When the weekend rolled around, I hit the woods to see what I could do.

Before I get into it, let me say that this project was based on my limited knowledge and experience, as well as the resources available at the time and place. There are probably many different (i.e. better) ways to approach this!

The plan was to first find and harvest a willow sapling/branch.

Then cut off the branches.

Slit the bark from top to bottom and remove it (this is most easily done in spring/summer).

Then split the bark into thin strips.

At this point, I would normally scrape the green outer bark off the white inner bark and then boil the inner bark for a while with the outer bark scrapings and some wood ashes added to the water. I didn’t have time for all this, though, so I only scraped off most of the outer bark.

Next, carve a “gorge hook” from one of the branches.

Then spend the next few months making several meters/yards of fishing line from the inner bark (see this post for info on making cordage). I should mention that willow bark cordage like this tends to dry out by the next day, so it should be processed further to keep its flexibility and strength (so far, I have tried both waxing and oiling, which seem to work well). Anyway, after getting the line started, slightly untwist the loop end, slip the gorge hook in and twist the line back again. Then untwist the next twist up the line and insert the hook in there as well, finishing by twisting the line back again. Eh, I’m not sure if I’m explaining this very well!

Try to finish the line before it gets too dark or you lose consciousness due to a lack of blood, which the mosquitoes, black flies and gnats have been drawing from you for the past several hours.

The next morning, wake up to find yourself wet inside your bivy sack and sleeping bag liner because you didn’t put up a shelter overhead and got rained on for hours (at least the rain kept the mosquitoes at bay!). Er, I mean clean up the ends of the pole, carve a notch around the top end and tie the line to it. You’re done! (or so you think….)

When I was finished, I still had lots of bark left over to make more cordage with.

So far, so good. But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding, so it was time to see if it could catch a fish. I intentionally started with an overly large hook, figuring that I’d probably have to whittle it down until I got the size right. I took a small piece of bread and smushed it around the gorge hook and line, making sure the hook was nearly parallel with the line (yes, that is a mosquito in the shot; there were swarms of them around).

It appeared that the hook and bait were too large for the small fish to take into their mouths (I could see them in the shallow water), so I whittled down the hook.

Having remembered that perch prefer worms over bread (though roach readily take both), I found a worm and used a piece of it.

After making these changes, I was getting some serious bites! I was surprised by how sensitive and responsive the rig was. It was at this point that the project took a (hopefully temporary) nose-dive. Again and again, I could see a fish take the baited hook into its mouth and tug on it, but each time it would spit it out again. They just would not swallow it! With this type of setup, as opposed to a curved hook, the fish has to fully swallow the sharpened stick so it gets stuck inside the fish (which, by the way, is why you should not fish this way unless you plan on dispatching and utilizing the fish).

So why weren’t the fish swallowing the bait?! The reason, I suspected, was that the line was too thick and rigid. It gave the fish the sensation that they were trying to bite a piece off of something larger, but could not. As I said, I suspect this to be the reason. I’ve never tried anything like this, so only more trial and error will tell.

The next day, I used some of the extra willow bark to make a much finer and more flexible leader which the fish will hopefully not detect as easily. Then I spliced it into the existing line and attached the hook (which, as you can see, I had modified further by blunting the short end). The splice point is the “left corner” you can see in the second loop. I will try the rig like this and, if fish swallow it, but the hook doesn’t catch, I’ll start over with a larger hook and whittle it down until it’s just right.

To be continued!

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14 comments on “(Mis)adventures in primitive fishing

  1. Ron says:

    Well, at least you should get a solid “A” for the effort!!!
    Wouldn’t it be possible to whittle a hook from a branchbase? That way you’d get a “decent” hook.

    • Thanks. 🙂

      Sure, I could whittle a curved hook, although I think in this case the problem was not the straight hook, but rather the line. I think I will experiment with the straight hook until I get it to work and then I’ll try some other hook designs as well.

  2. Duncan says:

    That’s pretty impressive! Looks like excellent work. I hope the experiments continue and go well. I’d like to see you pull in a nice fish on a completely hand made rig. I imagine that that would be a pretty fantastic feeling.

  3. wgiles says:

    Are you certain that primitive people actually caught fish this way? It seems like a lot of work. Seriously, I think that the stiffness and thickness of the line would be a serious drawback. Some of the problems might be due to timing. In the early spring, I can throw a line in the water and be pretty certain of a Bluegill strike, because they are so aggressive. I’ll have to wait for the next chapter.

    • From what I have seen on the Internet, read in books and viewed in bushcraft shows on the subject, the gorge hook was definitely a successful piece of primitive fishing gear (see this: http://www.woodcraftwanderings.org/fishing.html and this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtBmPUFqKrg ). What you see in my blog post is my first attempt at anything like this, so I kind of just had to “start somewhere” and work from there via trial and error. I did mention in my post that I think the line on my rig was too stiff and thick, which is why I made a leader that tapers down considerably. After I reduced the size of the hook, everything about the rig seemed to work perfectly except for the swallowing issue, which is why I focused on thinning the line. I’m confident that once I get the hook size and line thickness/stiffness worked out, this rig will catch fish!

      As for it being an issue of timing, I’m certain it’s not this. Based on my experience fishing that lake, the perch are aggressive eaters almost throughout the day. Because of the shallowness and sandiness of the area where I wash fishing, I could actually see the fish aggressively approach the bait, take it into their mouths, feel them tug on the line for a while and then spit it out. Then another fish would go for it, ad infinitum.

      As for it being a lot of work, well, what wasn’t a lot of work for primitive people? They pretty much had to make everything they needed and catch/hunt/grow everything they ate. Making the rig I made took time, but not an inordinate amount of time. And now that it has been made, I can use it repeatedly until it breaks/wears out/etc.

      Please do stay tuned for the next chapter! 🙂

      • wgiles says:

        I don’t disagree with you, except the part about “what wasn’t a lot of work for primitive people”. Sure it was work, but it wasn’t as hard for them as it is for us because they were taught how to do this from an early age. I’ve seen a craftsman build a table in a day entirely by hand, from logs. The difference was understanding the tools and practice. I know this is your first trial run and you want to learn. That’s great and I hope that you have some success to report, but even if you don’t, the fact that you have tried makes it worth doing. It’s very difficult for us to learn old skills when there is no one to teach us.

        • I guess I didn’t express exactly what I was trying to say. 🙂 First off, I would never insinuate that since a primitive skill might be difficult for us to do at first, it must have been difficult for early people to do all the time. I also didn’t mean that everything primitive people did was “hard work”, but it was often “a lot of work” in the sense that they had to take the time to make things out of the materials around them (which often required a lot of processing). Yes, they learned skills from an early age, and making things then came naturally, but it still often took a lot of work to make a functional tool (e.g. flint knapping, bow making etc.). From taking classes and reading books on anthropology years ago, I learned that the average hunter-gatherer spent about 4 hours per day on what we would call “work”. Not bad, eh? 🙂 But that time was often spent making and fixing the items used in daily life, in addition to hunting, fishing, gathering etc. So you could say that they did a lot of work to make the things they used.

          The craftsman you mentioned may not have worked excessively hard to make the table, but if he worked for a day make it, he put a lot of work into it, didn’t he? In any case, it’s “a lot” compared to screwing together something from Ikea! 😉

          As for my primitive fishing attempt, it would be considered “a lot of work” compared to going to the store and buying fishing gear, but I don’t personally feel that it was a lot of work (despite my joke), and I don’t think a hunter-gatherer would either. 🙂

          Thanks for the comments!

  4. what’s happened to the photos?

  5. Wow thank you for taking us along on the trip.
    With such a buggy hook, I imagine you could tie a few feathers to it and catch a fish that way as well. Must have been a rewarding project.

  6. […] a month ago, I wrote about my first experiments in primitive fishing. Since then, I haven’t done too much more testing with the rig I made for one reason or […]

  7. […] cut cordage, slice tomatoes, bacon, potatoes, carrots and onions (edit: make a snowshoeing pole, make a primitive fishing rig etc.). If I choke up on the handle, the balance is fantastic and I can do finer work pretty easily. […]

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