“They catch salmon with net or darts. Their nets are made of nettle fibers and are from eighty to one hundred fathoms long. Their darts, or harpoons, are made of two pieces of curved bone, in the middle of which they bind a small iron point about half an inch long. The bone pieces are tied firmly together and are separated at the top to hold the shaft, which is a long pole with two forks. When these hit a fish…“[more].
— Gabriel Franchere, 1810
Fishing provided the lifeblood of Chinook subsistence and culture. Annual fish runs of salmon, sturgeon, steelhead trout, eulachon and herring were eaten fresh and smoke-dried for winter consumption or trade. A number of explorers and traders witnessed Chinook fishers near the mouth of the Columbia in the early 19th century, and recorded their observations. Gabriel Franchere described Chinookan dip-net fishing in fall and summer in 1810, noting that fishers built stages over waterfalls to dip-net upriver sites. Between 1811 and 1814, Alexander Ross wrote about eulachon (smelt) fishers who used scoop nets or rakes to harvest the fish and then smoke-dried and skewered them to trade to people living in The Dalles, Oregon. In 1857, James Swan published drawings of salmon seine fishers and described detachable gaff hooks, the most common tool used by Chinookan sturgeon fishers. The prized sturgeon were then steamed in an earth oven or smoke-dried for later consumption.
Other food sources and trade items included clams collected in Willapa Bay and the meat, blubber and oil harvested from whales, seals, sea lions, and porpoises. The Chinook and their southern neighbors traded these items and used the oil extensively with dried foods.
Historically, the Chinook began the fishing season with a ritual—the First Salmon Ceremony—that required removing the heart for separate cooking and cutting the fish lengthwise for roasting, or breaking the body into pieces for boiling.Today, the tribe holds this ceremony at Chinook Point (Fort Columbia), reaffirming the historic significance of place and the ongoing value of fishing. A creation tale, “The Story of South Wind” explains the origins of this aged ritual.