Monday, March 11, 2013

Making Bentwood Halibut Hooks

My friend Benjamin Greené and I recently made some traditional bent-wood halibut hooks to give away as thank-you gifts to the many Haida people that assisted in his documentary film about indigenous foods called Survival Prayer. The process of making these hooks helped me appreciate both the complexity of traditional Haida fishing techniques as well as the functional beauty of the hooks themselves.

Pacific Halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) are among the largest fish native to the Pacific Northwest, reaching 8 feet in length and weighing as much as 500 pounds. Such colossal beasts require specialized fishing equipment, and the tackle used by Indigenous fishermen in the Pacific Northwest was a sort of hybrid between that used for whaling with a harpoon and fishing with a hook and line. Like Captain Ahab’s crew, Indigenous Halibut fishermen fastened their fishing lines to buoys that provided constant flotational resistance to the panic stricken leviathans. This system both allowed the fisherman to avoided potentially dangerous contact with the Halibut until it was thoroughly played out and protected the fishing gear from breaking-force strains. Further shock absorbance was provided by the fishing lines, which were braided from the elastic stalks of Bull Kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana). Nancy Turner’s book Plants of Haida Gwaii describes the elaborate process of making fishing line from Bull Kelp.

Hilary Stewart's Halibut fishing illustration
The manner in which the hooks were tied to the business end of the fishing line was very particular to halibut fishing. An anchor stone was tied to the very end of the fishing line, sometimes with a slip knot that was shaken loose when a halibut was caught. A “spreader” made from the wood of two Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis) branches was fastened a few feet above the anchor stone. The bases of each branch were lashed together forming a bow shape, and the junction point was securely tied to the fishing line. To both ends of the spreader, halibut hooks were secured on short “leaders,” that suspended the hooks a foot or two from the sea floor (See page 39 of Hilary Stewart’s Indian Fishing for a detailed illustration of this system). The flexibility of the Spruce spreaders further increased the shock absorbency of the entire fishing rig.

There are various styles of traditional halibut hooks, but the ones that I think are the most elegant are made from Yew (Taxus brevifolia) wood that is bent into a “C” shape. I had some scraps of Yew left over from a digging stick project, and milled them into ½ inch thick square staves that were about 20 inches long, taking care to cut along the grain lines. I soaked these for several days, and then made plans to meet with Benjamin to bend the staves into the proper hook shape.

Yew wood is very dense, tough, and stiff. It is prized for bow making wherever it is found, and was also used by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest for clubs, splitting wedges, and tool handles. Bending such a stout wood requires steam. Traditionally, yew wood staves were steamed inside of kelp stalks that were heated on hot rocks. Benjamin and I modernized the process with a steam kettle and plastic bag. We placed the wood inside a long tubular plastic bread bag, and secured the open end of the bag to the mouth of the tea kettle. You might think that the steam would melt the plastic, but it doesn’t (although if you are using a gas stove, be careful not to melt the plastic on the flame!). After 45-60 minutes of steaming, the wood was nice and flexible, and we quickly bent it around some molds that I had prepared.

The result wasn’t always too pretty at first, since many of the bending fibers frayed out, but for the most part, the frays were small enough to sand or carve off. We tempered the wood by baking it in the oven at about 300 degrees for 20 minutes. Heat treating is really important because it drives off the moisture that makes the wood pliable. Traditionally, the tempered hooks were then sealed with mountain goat tallow to prevent the seawater from re-softening the wood. Doubtful that our hooks were going to actually be used, we skipped this step for fear the hooks might become the subject of more fly than human admiration.
A sharpened bone barb ready to be lashed on

The barbs of these hooks are traditionally made from either wood or bone, and since I had some deer bone, I cut it into thin strips which we sharpened and lashed to hook with artificial sinew. Traditionally, spruce roots were used for the lashing.

Halibut hooks are specifically engineered for halibut. My mentor, Clan Chief Kwaxsistalla told me that the gap between the end of the barb and the top of the hook should be the thickness of your thumb, because that is thickness of a good sized Halibut's lip. Fish that are too big--and likely to break the hook or line--have a lip that is too big to fit into the hook, and fish that are too small can’t get their mouth over the barb. The long curving tip of the halibut hook helps deflect the mouth of the fish to the right part of the hook and makes it impossible to snag the bottom, seaweed, or the wrong part of the fish. Modern tackle may benefit from stronger materials like steel and Dacron, but they aren’t nearly as tuned in to the nature of Halibut. I even argue that traditional gear is more sustainable because it targets moderate sized fish, sparing the large reproductive females and undersized juveniles.

Finished Halibut hooks

After a few days of work, Benjamin and I had a dozen finished halibut hooks to show for our labor.

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  2. Hi
    Very interesting article on the halibut hooks,thanks ! one question
    I bought an antique halibut hook like the above one,possibly 1900 's or so, but it is open, too wide in my opinion,where the bone is to the other side it is about 4 inches now ,and I would like to narrow the opening to a more traditional look, would you recommend the steaming process above or should I forget about it for risk of breakage etc.
    many thanks for your time and advise....
    Best regards