BRIDGEPORT — A steady wind blew across the Columbia River a few miles below Chief Joseph Dam, creating ripples in the water and causing two submerged hoop nets to bob lightly up and down.
The sun had already set on this first day of September, and Randy Friedlander — a novice with the hoop nets — had lowered the nets into the river with ropes and pulleys more than an hour ago. “If I knew the Salmon Song, I’d sing it and we’d catch a salmon,” he said.
A short time later, Friedlander left the scaffolds where the nets were tied and climbed the steep riverbank in the dark to ask LeRoy Williams if he should attach some rocks to weigh down the base of the hoop and stop the net from bouncing. Perhaps the motion was scaring off the fish.
“The wind will die down in an hour,” the Colville Tribal elder advised confidently.
Williams knew because he’s been at this same spot every night except Sunday, every week since mid-August, teaching Friedlander other tribal members the traditional methods of fishing with hoop nets and dip nets. They fish at night, because they tend to catch a lot more when it’s dark when the fish can’t see the nets.
“This is how I fished all my life — up and down the Wenatchee River, and all the way up this river,” said Williams, who is 65. “It’s the way our people have fished for hundreds of years, and it’s just so simple.”
A Vietnam veteran, Williams spent many years running heavy equipment, first for the Yakama Indian Nation’s road division, and later for the Colville Tribes’ forestry department.
Ten years ago, he started having medical problems. “I had four heart attacks and four strokes,” he said. But he feels his strength coming back after open-heart surgery last year, and a kidney transplant in December.
Through it all, Williams continued to fish. “Every year. I still get excited,” he said.
Now, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation has hired him to test his handmade traditional nets and to teach others how to use them, so their members can help catch some of the tens of thousands of salmon expected to return to the upper Columbia River once the Chief Joseph Hatchery is up and running.
NESPELEM — When LeRoy Williams sits on the back porch of his home in Nespelem and weaves a near-perfect net from a single 300-foot piece of wire, he’s preserving the knowledge of his ancestors.
When he brings his hoop nets and dip nets to the Columbia River and teaches others how fish with them from a scaffold that hovers over the river, he’s holding onto a piece of North Central Washington history that was all but lost when the hydroelectric dams were built in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s.
But it isn’t the past that Williams hopes to preserve. It’s the future.
Williams said he’s not sure how to combat some of today’s problems on the Colville Indian Reservation, like gangs or alcohol abuse.
To this tribal elder, teaching others to make nets and to fish the way tribal members did for hundreds of years may just be part of the key.
“I feel sad for these younger people, because they’re missing out on a whole lot of tradition, a lot of culture, things that got us to where we’re at today,” he said.
Williams uses wire instead of hemp to craft his nets. The nets hang on metal hoops instead of braided willow. The scaffolds built the river are now permanent, constructed to last decades, not the makeshift tripods he once set up and took down each day, after a night’s fishing.
“Times change, and we change with the times,” Williams said. And even if the materials are newer and stronger, it’s still their culture.
Whether it’s learning their native language, participating in traditional dancing and drumming contests, or feeling the power of a salmon as it slaps on the water, knowing your own culture can bring purpose to life, he said.
He can see it in the wide eyes of the babies who come with their parents to fish with him.
He can feel it in the young people he sees at powwows, or at favorite fishing spots. They speak openly talk about not belonging to gangs, or how their extended family and friends who share their passions are their only gang.
He can hear it in the voice of his 12-year-old grandson, anxious for the start of a new fishing season.
“The snow was starting to get down, almost to where you could see the grass, and he says, ‘Grandpa! Grandpa! Come in here.’ Like at daybreak — the sun was just coming over. “’Grandpa! When are we going to that fishing place?’ “ Williams recalled.
The snow was melting, and his grandson knew the fish were getting ready to come up the river.
He tries to teach his grandchildren about the old ways — particularly old fishing methods — from the time they are very small. “That way they’ll just grow up with it. They won’t think anything about anything else,” he said.
“Whenever you talk, and whatever you do, how you play with you children, how you show them things are examples, and they’ll grow up like that.
I try to live by it, so that my children, my grandchildren, now my great grandchildren — little babies — they’ll grow up, they’ll follow their aunties and uncles.”
A few years ago, the tribe bought a commercial boat and now catch thousands of summer chinook and sockeye in the Columbia River, near the mouth of the Okanogan River. The fish are given to tribal elders and other members for food and ceremonies, and some are now being frozen to hand out in the winter.
Now, the tribe is looking for new methods to catch the hatchery fish that will return, while releasing the wild fish to spawn.
“I think it’s important to have a toolbox full of methods,” said Joe Peone, director of the tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Department.
He said the tribe plans to build more scaffolds below Chief Joseph Dam next year and offer their use to tribal members who want to fish in traditional ways. The tribe is also building a weir that will span the Okanogan River, roughly fashioned after those used by Okanogan Indians a century ago. And, they’ll test floating nets in deep waters of the Columbia River next year.
“You’re going to see the tribes doing some things you may not have ever seen in your life, but they’re things we have done traditionally,” Peone said.
When LGL Ltd., an environmental research company in Ellensburg, set out to find the best place on the Okanogan River to set up a weir, they wanted a place where the river ran shallow and wide, with a cobbley bed, said Bryan Nass, the company’s senior fish biologist.
“We certainly had a whole series of criteria we were looking for, and that had to do primarily with channel configuration and hydraulics,” he said.
After much study, they chose a spot just below Malott, he said.
Turns out, it was the exact same location where Okanogan Indians had constructed a fish trap a hundred years ago. Nass said he couldn’t find an Indian name for place, but settlers refered to it as the dugout fish camp.
The temporary weir that LGL is now building and plans to test this month and next summer will not be made from saplings and branches, but instead from steel, aluminum, and plastic. But like the Okanogan Indians, they’ll be looking to trap the fish as they head upstream.
For the testing stage, biologists will look at how the weir changes water flows, erosion, and fish behavior. They’ll watch fish from under water to see how they approach the trap, and what they do, if anything, to avoid it. They’ll assess how vigorous the fish are, and whether they can trap some species — like hatchery chinook — while letting others go.
In its testing stage, the weir will be under operation for five to seven days at a time, 24 hours a day, and then taken down.
Peone said this year’s tests were delayed until September because the river was too high. This month, they’ll be making sure the weir works and then take it down. Testing will continue next summer.
If the tests are successful, the tribe will apply for permits to install a permanent weir that can be used at certain times to catch salmon, including those raised at Chief Joseph Hatchery.
Dip nets and hoop nets
The tribe is also testing methods so that individual tribal members can catch fish without leaving the reservation. Tribal members who want to learn how to make a traditional hoop net or dip net, and how to use them, will have the opportunity in November. Williams has been hired by the tribes to travel to each of the four districts on the Colville Indian Reservation to offer his knowledge.
Williams said he learned the skills from his uncles — Lewis and Smitty Weipah — Wenatchi Indians who were his mother’s brothers. “They made me learn. ‘It’s going to be up to you some day,’ they said. ‘You sit down and watch and listen, and learn.’”
So he did watch and learn. And today it is up to him to teach other members of the Colville Tribes this tradition. For many years, he taught his own sons, and grandsons, and any friends who wanted to tag along. Now, he’s been charged with the duty to re-teach the members of 12 different bands on the reservation who lost those skills when Columbia River dams limited their access to fishing, and many tribal members abandoned these old ways.
Since mid-August, Williams has been testing his handmade gear from two new 26-foot long scaffolds that the Colville Tribes built this summer. Usually he’s with his son, Mylan, and they’re teaching anyone who wants to join them.
In the first couple of weeks, several people came to learn, and many brought their children. “We’ve had about six come that have never even seen this before. They couldn’t believe it,” Williams said.
The hoop net measures up to eight feet in diameter, and is attached to a long piece of netting. The net is then roped to a pole that’s tied to the scaffold and lowered vertically into the water. The current pulls the net downstream, and pushes it out like a balloon. When a fish swims in and hits the net, the pole jiggles.
A dip net has a much smaller net attached to a 33-foot pole to reach way out into the deep water. A string running the length of the pole tells the fisherman — who’s fishing in the dark — which side the net is on. When a salmon swims in, a buckskin tie that’s holding the net open comes undone and the net slides around the loop and closes shut.
Using it is no easy task, Williams said. “It’s a balancing act.”
The tribal elder said his two sons can run ten nets at the same time, and that keeps them busy through the night.
“When they’re done in the morning, that’s when the work starts,” he said.
They haul the fish up the bank and put them on ice in coolers waiting in the back of their pickup trucks.
If there are kids there, that’s their job, Williams said.
“When i was a little kid, while my uncles had fun fishing, I had to pack it up to the pickup. Then I had sons and I went out and fished and they had to pack it up to the pickup. They’re all taking their turn,” he said.
When the fish are packed, they drive home and clean the fish and the women filet them and put them in the freezer while they clean their coolers and other gear to be ready for the next night.
“Nobody sleeps until everybody’s done. That’s part of our culture — everybody pitches in,” he said.
The new hatchery
Peone said Chief Joseph Hatchery, and an agreement with the state that brings more fish to the upper Columbia, will mean plenty of fish for everyone, including non-tribal sports fishermen. Now under construction, the hatchery is scheduled to be completed next year, in December, and will ramp up to full production of 2.9 million spring and summer chinook over the next three years.
Tribal officials say that by conservative estimates, between 22,000 and 36,000 additional spring and summer chinook will make their way over Wells Dam, just south of Pateros.
That’s about the same number of adult chinook that have passed over the dam for the last three years, fish counts show.
Peone said he hopes that when sports fishermen see the new scaffolds on the Columbia River or any of the new methods the Colvilles are using, they’ll understand that the tribe is exercising its fishing right, and are fishing within the boundary of the Colville Indian Reservation.
“I think scaffolds are a good icon for tribal fisheries, but people in the upper Columbia haven’t seen scaffolds for so long — it’s been generations,” he said.
Peone said he wants everyone to have a role in the new fishing opportunities from Chief Joseph Hatchery — including sports fishermen, individual tribal members and the tribe as a whole, in order to provide salmon for those who can’t fish themselves.
“It’s pretty exciting. The tribe is rekindling the old traditions, and old traditions make tribal culture,” he said, adding, “Everybody’s culture is important. We would never undermine someone else’s culture. It’s a practice that represents their identity.”
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512