Historians and the general public think of the Indians who lived across the Upper Missouri Country in the 1800s as predominantly bison hunters. This isn’t entirely true. Many of the tribes actually practiced a mixed form of subsistence that included not only the pursuit of bison, but also the cultivation of crops, the gathering of wild fruits and vegetables, and fishing.
The Upper Missouri River once teemed with fish. Bigmouth buffalo, black bass, northern pike, perch, bluegill, and mooneye swam in the river’s clearer, calmer waters; while channel catfish, shovelnose sturgeon, pallid sturgeon, and spoonbill inhabited the river’s darker places.
The Indians mostly targeted channel catfish because of its abundance and because of the ease with which it could be taken. They also preferred channel catfish because of its sweet tasting flesh.
To catch channel catfish, the Indians built fish traps.
The Arikara and Hidatsa erected their fish traps in the pools immediately downstream from the Missouri’s points. A point referred to a section of the riverbank that jutted out into the main channel. The most prominent points, often accompanied by powerful eddies, were located at the downstream end of long cut banks, where the main channel turned and began its transit to the other side of the river. At these locations, spiraling water flowing off the tip of the points scoured deep pools. And these pools held large numbers of fish, which darted out into the main channel to grab a passing morsel and then returned to the pools to lie in wait for the next meal. The tribes built their fish traps at the upper edge of the pools, just below the points, and flush against the bank line.
An Indian fish trap consisted of long willow branches placed close together and stuck upright into the riverbed in the shape of a circle. The section of the trap abutting the bank line did not consist of willow branches, since the steep bank itself served as an obstruction. On the downstream side of the trap existed a narrow opening for the fish to enter the enclosure. A crude willow gate lay nearby on the bank to close the opening at the proper time. Once the enclosure and gate had been made ready, an Indian angler tossed bait into the trap, usually meat or offal. He then sat down and waited.
The sound of splashing water indicated the trap had filled with fish. The fisherman then grabbed the willow gate, waded into the river outside of the trap, and placed the gate over the opening, trapping all the fish inside. He then waded back to shore, picked up a wicker basket or wicker scoop, stepped off the bank line into the enclosure, and waded in among the fish, scooping them up as he moved along.
After the fish trap had served its purpose, the Indian angler took it apart, not wanting to block the upstream migration of fish or accidently ensnare fish in an unattended trap.
Edwin Thompson Denig, Five Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri, Sioux, Arikaras, Assiniboines, Crees, and Crows, ed., John C. Ewers, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961), 48-49.
Above photograph courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck, ND.