Wildlife: Historical Fish Story

  • Wed Sep 23rd, 2020 1:31pm
  • Life

By Pat Neal

It can be educational to look back at the history of the Olympic Peninsula and realize how much things have changed. One of the most vivid accounts of what was once known as “The Last Frontier” comes from Private Harry Fisher, a member of the 1890 O’Neil Expedition which set out to explore and map Terra Incognita,” the rugged mountains between Hood Canal and Quinault.

O’Neil sent four men from the expedition to map Mt. Olympus which three of the men climbed on September 22nd. A fourth, Private Harry Fisher got lost and separated from the group. He decided to head west alone down what he later be determined to be the Queets River. His supplies consisted of flour, bacon, bear fat and some salt. He also had a knife and 36 rounds for his revolver. Fisher cooked grouse in bear fat finding it surprisingly good and after spearing a salmon he declared it better than bear or dog meat.

Fisher reported that sleeping along the Queets was like “a camp in Barnum’s Menagerie as far as sleep was concerned.” Between the thrashing of the salmon in the river and the breaking of brush by the large animals hunting the salmon he had a hard time sleeping.

On Sept 26th, Private Fisher was hailed by an Indian who was also named Fisher. He offered the Private a canoe ride down-river. Fisher described the Native American method of taking salmon. How his friend could nail a salmon 20 or 30 feet away with a forked spear. When his host had speared six large salmon, he quit fishing. Fisher describes his “staunch friend” watching the many splashing salmon with “Pride, as a farmer would his cattle.”

A recent float down the Queets River revealed a far different world than the one described by Pvt. Fisher. There are no homesteads or fish drying racks. There are no V-shaped ripples in water four feet deep made by giant king salmon swimming upriver in uncounted hordes.

You have to wonder how in a few short years our rivers could be fished into extinction. It might have something to do with a Native American legend about where the salmon came from in the first place.

It was believed the salmon came from a big house at the bottom of the ocean where they lived in human form. When it was time for the run, they put on salmon robes. The salmon runs were a voluntary sacrifice for mankind, the animals and the forest. That as long as the salmon were treated with honor, their bones washed and returned to the river, the fish would run forever.

To say we do not treat our salmon with honor these days is an understatement. Instead of treating our salmon with honor we treat them like a crop picked from a garden that we don’t plant. Predictably the harvest has gotten smaller.

We have not allowed enough spawners up the rivers to fulfill their role as the most important part of the eco-system by feeding the watershed with their bodies. Our rivers used to stink with dead salmon during the fall run. In the last few years, our rivers have become sterile and silent. The fish have become threatened or endangered.

In the last 20 years, the Salmon Restoration Industry has spent somewhere over a billion dollars attempting to rescue 15 endangered steelhead and salmon populations in the Puget Sound Region with no corresponding increase in fish populations. Still, we continue these same vain efforts. Einstein said repeating the same failed experiment was the definition of insanity. Today we call it salmon management.