The Missouri River has a plentitude of fish. Modern-day anglers seek to catch wily walleyes, ravenous northern pike, big catfish and even paddlefish. Rough fish also abound, including buffalo fish, goldeye, and bullheads.
In former days, Native Americans harvested fish from the mighty Missouri. Some tribes depended heavily upon fish for food, while others did not. One of the tribes, the Hidatsa, used fish traps, drags, or fishhooks.
On this date, in 1908, the Bismarck Tribune published an article about Hidatsa fish traps, written by Ernst Reinhold Steinbrueck. He’d been invited to the Fort Berthold Reservation to examine a Hidatsa fish trap in a Missouri River side-channel. His guide was Edward Goodbird (1869-1938).
Fishermen built the trap using sticks from diamond willow trees, each stick being about eight feet long and 1½ inches thick. They placed the tall sticks in the shape of a circle near the riverbank. Between these willow poles, they fastened a “kind of webbing, made of smaller and thinner willow sticks closely tied together” so that the river water could pass freely through while entrapping fish. At the lower end of the trap was a gate about 3 feet wide which “served as the entrance for the fish.” Fishermen closed the gate when the fish-trap had been filled with sufficient fish.
The Hidatsa wanted catfish, so the bait consisted of putrid carcasses of dead animals. Fishermen tied the bones to one of the willow poles to keep the rotten meat from drifting outside the trap. The Hidatsa knew that the “stronger the odor” of the bait “the more attractive” it was to the fish.
Two men typically watched the trap overnight, silently using signals so as to not scare away wary catfish. When enough fish filled the trap, the fishermen carried them onto the riverbank for cleaning. The men were very careful to avoid catfish stings, so they would “keep very quiet in all their movements and not even whisper,” for at the slightest noise the catfish could stretch their sharp, pointy fins and cut the fishermen’s skin.
The Hidatsa ate fish on the day they were caught. They preferred catfish boiled rapidly, but oftentimes broiled smaller ones on a stick.
These fish-trap enclosures allowed the Hidatsa to supplement their typical diet of corn, beans, squash, big-game and bison meat, in times long past.
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.
E.R. Steinbrueck, “The Fish Trap of the Hidatsa Indians,” Bismarck Tribune, August 9, 1908, p. 9.
Bella Weitzner, “Notes on the Hidatsa Indians Based on Data Recorded by the Late Gilbert L. Wilson,” Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. 56: Part 2, 1979: p. 199-210.
Carolyn Gilman and Mary Jane Schneider, The Way to Independence: Memories of a Hidatsa Indian Family, 1840-1920 (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987), p. 335-336.