EXCLUSIVE: Quw’utsun spear fishery endures, with some modern twists
‘It is unique to us. We’ve been practicing this for thousands of years.’
Harold Joe drives his pickup truck across a bridge over the Cowichan River used seasonally by Quw’utsun fishermen to spear salmon.
He unlocks a steel gate, drives a few hundred metres upstream along a dike, then parks and removes his spear from the box of the truck.
Joe prefers to fish alone, from the river bank.
Individuals fishing on the bridge — one of two on Tzouhalem Road — can lack experience in the old ways and a sense of etiquette.
“There’s a process,” he says. “You have to wait and give the other spear fishermen a chance. If there’s eight spears and 10 fish, you each pick one. ‘Ready, now!’ And you all throw.
“They’re too anxious.”
Salmon migrating upstream to spawn also present a bigger target when viewed from the side rather than from above on the bridge.
We walk a short distance in the crisp morning air, watching the autumn leaves drift down and listening to the melting frost drip off a forest of cottonwoods.
“Colder than a mother-in-law’s kiss,” says Joe, taking a drag on a cigarette.
He likes to fish early in the morning and shortly before dark.
Fish are more likely to move when the tide’s up. When it’s sunny, they tend to “sit tight” in pools. Cloudy and rainy days are best.
Joe stands atop a three-metre-high bank on the south arm of the Cowichan River, mist rising from the water, and readies his spear for action.
“I’m going to get you to stand on my right. I throw left-handed.”
The Quw’utsun spear begins with a wooden shaft — a round, three-metre Douglas-fir pole. “We just go to Home Depot and pick them up. It’s quicker.”
A nine-metre length of nylon rope attaches from the top of the shaft to Joe’s left wrist so that the spear can be retrieved from the river after a throw.
A wooden handle tied to the top of the shaft offers a good grip.
The bottom of the spear consists of two tempered-steel points, slightly flared, and tightly bound to the shaft with strong twine.
The tips of the points come off when the spear hits a salmon, sinking into the flesh to help prevent escape, but remain attached to the spear with rebar wire, more nylon rope, and flexible rubber from a bicycle inner-tube.
“You could pull in a car with that thing,” he says.
Harbour seals and sea lions chasing fish upriver take their chances running the gauntlet.
“It is unique to us,” Joe says of the spear fishery. “We’ve been using this practice for thousands of years.”
In past decades, the points of the spear were fashioned from the sharp tines of elk antlers.
“When colonization came we turned everything bone into metal — blades, knives, axes.”
The biggest salmon he’s caught in the river was a 34-pound chinook. “I speared it right in the back. It pulled me in, pulled me down, and shot up and I finally got it in.
“I started spearing when I was nine. I’m 60 now. So pretty much all my life. Older cousins would train us by bouncing a bike tire by us — really fast — and we had to throw sticks to get it through the tire. If we got the tire, we got the fish.”
Concerned that so much history was being lost through the passing of elders, Joe attended film school at then-Capilano College in North Vancouver in 2000 to “start preserving history, stories and legends,” and generally portray his peoples’ way of life.
Joe is a producer with Orca Cove Media, which released the 2021 documentary, Tzouhalem, about the controversial late Quw’utsun chief.
“It’s not easy,” he says of the film business. “Hard to get funding. Brutal.”
He has three grown children — a daughter, and two sons who also enjoy fishing.
While men do the vast majority of spear fishing, that wasn’t always the case, Joe says.
“Women used to do it back in the day, in the 1800s. People used to talk about the ladies going out and harvesting because some of the men would be up in the mountains hunting elk or deer. The women would be down here. They learned how to harvest salmon. Nowadays you don’t really see it anymore. The odd young lady’s out there. That’s great.”
For more than two hours, Joe roams one stretch of riverbank after another like a frustrated grizzly bear, plowing through the water in hip waders, spear poised for release.
Few fish are spotted.
“It’s pretty slow because 90 percent of the fish are up,” he says.
None are speared.
“If I had to survive this way I’d be dead by now.”
Time to pack up and drive to the main north arm of the Cowichan River.
A mature bald eagle sits on a branch watching our movements, while a red-tailed hawk carves lazy circles in a powder-blue sky.
The bony remains of a salmon on the shoreline hint at potential.
“Do you have Polaroid glasses?” he asks. “It helps you see them.”
As the sun rises further above the broad arched back of Mount Tzouhalem, it casts Joe’s shadow further out into the river, making the salmon warier.
The chinook have already migrated upstream. Fisheries and Oceans Canada reports that as of October 18 a total of 12,642 chinook had migrated past the counting fence on the Cowichan River, 150 metres below the Allenby Road Bridge.
Coho and chum are still moving through the lower river. Coho is the preferred fish, although chum is good for smoking.
Coho also move upriver more quickly. “Look how fast the water is moving. And they’re moving fast. You need perfect timing.”
Salmon are ideally speared about three to four metres from shore. The degree of difficulty only increases beyond that point.
Joe repeatedly throws the spear out into mid-stream, but the fish prove elusive. He hits a coho, but only one of the tips enters the fish. It gets away. “It was a nice one.”
He takes off his jacket and sweater. “We’re getting serious now, Larry.”
Joe spots the flash of a spinner lure attached to a chum’s back, evidence he’s already eluded one fisherman — soon to be two. “I couldn’t even hit that. Damn.”
The sun shimmering off the river also makes spotting the salmon more difficult.
“They’re getting smart, starting to move to the other side.”
After an hour, he says it’s time to “cheat.”
Joe backs the pickup down to the water’s edge, and stands on the lowered tail gate to gain a better view of the fish. Several more throws and — finally — success. The points of his spear penetrate the belly of a chum and Joe hauls it ashore. “Done,” he says.
It’s unknown how many fish are taken in the spear fishery.
“One guy can maybe get five or six in a whole day.
“When I was younger, I saw some of the older relatives get 10 to 20 in a day. Chum were by the hundreds, thousands through here. The banks would be thick with dead, rotting carcasses.
“You don’t see that anymore. Never.”
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— Larry Pynn, Nov. 10, 2023