What is a fish weir?
Fish weirs are long, low rock walls built in the riverbed, extending from opposite shores and shaped like a giant funnel pointing downstream. They are the visible remnants of an ancient form of community fishing practiced by the Cherokee hundreds and possibly thousands of years ago. Amazingly, the ancient weirs held up over the centuries and still exist across Western North Carolina’s wide, gently-flowing valley rivers.
How did they work?
To work a fish weir, a long line of women and children would form a chain across the river and scare the fish downstream. The fish would be forced into the ever-narrowing funnel and eventually into a trap waiting at the mouth of the weir. Basket frames were likely constructed out of river cane and loosely woven with branches and cane strips to fill in gaps.
Historical accounts, oral tradition and trial-and-error efforts of re-enactors have pieced together a picture of how the weirs were likely operated. The women would sometimes tie branches to long river cane poles and smack and swat the water as they moved through the water toward the weir.
When were they used?
Weirs were likely used during low water periods, since high water can both obscure the weirs and make it more difficult for the people in the water, said Mark Cantrell, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has been a student of fish weirs.
Since Cherokee villages were stationed along river banks, Cantrell surmises the Cherokee would easily know when a migration was moving up or downstream.
“If they looked out and saw a pod of these fish they would say ‘Hey, let’s go out and herd these things down,’” Cantrell said.
While funneling fish into a downstream trap is the commonly known use for weirs, they also came in handy when fish migrated upstream to spawning grounds. Migrating fish naturally hug the shoreline where currents are gentler. When the fish confront a weir, its diagonal line forces them closer and closer to the shore, Cantrell said.
Fish traps could be placed at these constriction points. While the fish could wriggle over and through the weir, it would delay them enough to make fishing easier, Cantrell said.
How much did they catch?
While the weirs had the ability to rake in huge numbers of fish, the Cherokee were sensitive not to over-harvest.
“They had generations of experience. They knew about how much their community could take and have that fish population sustained,” said Russ Townsend, a tribal historic preservation officer in Cherokee. “They would occasionally take in abundance and not take again for a couple of months.”
Cantrell said the weirs offer a clue to just how many fish once lived in the river — far, far more than today. There must have been massive numbers of fish migrating up and down the river to make a weir harvest a worthwhile undertaking, enough to feed a village not only that day but to store.
“They are visible evidence that there were once large migratory fishes in abundance,” Cantrell said of the weirs. “It gives us an idea of what our restoration goals should be.”
Who used them?
Fish weirs occurred in great numbers. One stretch of the Little Tennessee has 13 weirs over seven miles that are still visible today. Fish weirs were likely controlled by the clan or village that constructed them. There are some records of the Cherokee leasing use of the weirs to settlers. Later, when land was taken from the Cherokee, government appraisers assigned dollar values to the fish weirs when calculating compensation they were due. That’s a sign fish weirs were considered a tangible asset under the ownership of a particular family.
White settlers, of course, were quick to take up the use of the weirs. Along the Tuckasegee in Webster, Jim Allman has heard stories about his great-grandfather using a fish weir in the river beside their farm as far back as 1864.
“He would trap fish in the fall of the year and salt them down for winter,” Allman said.
Rather than forming a chain across the river to rake in a big harvest, Allman’s great-grandfather would set a trap at the mouth of the weir and see what turned up. His grandfather continued the practice until 1947, when the law changed making it illegal to trap fish.