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Ye Old Alewife Got Caught Weir?

Many historical accounts during the 1600-1700s say that fish were available throughout most of the year from the Great Lakes to the Canadian Maritime lands.

These early accounts by Jesuit missionary and pioneer explorers in the region have this to say;
”In the middle of March, fish begin to spawn coming up from the sea into streams, often so abundantly that everything swarms with them. Any one who has not seen it could hardly believe it; you cannot put your hand into the water, without encountering them. From May up to the middle of September, the cod are upon the coast, with all kinds of fish and shellfish. In the middle of September they withdraw from the sea, beyond the reach of the tide, to the little rivers, where the eels spawn and are good and fat. Two thousand shad were taken in a single night at Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, but that was nothing compared with the celebrated “widow's haul” on the North Branch, which brought in ten thousand at once. The Indians come up the Hudson River in canoes to fish, because it is one of the richest fisheries they have.”

The alewife is a species of herring which are anadromous. Anadromous fish are those which migrate upstream from the sea to spawn where catadromous fish are those which swim from lakes, rivers and streams out to sea to spawn. The front of the body is deeper and larger than other fish found in the same waters, and its common name is said to come from comparison with a corpulent female tavern keeper ("ale-wife”). This fish has been used as a baitfish for the lobster fishing industry. It is also used for human food, usually smoked. It was caught during migration up streams using large dip nets to scoop the fish out of constricted areas called weirs in the Great Lakes and rivers.

This brings us to the history of the weir in North America. A weir is a low dam built across a stream to control the flow of fish. It is a fence-like trap put in a stream for catching fish traveling both upstream and downstream. Fish weirs were used in North America for the past several thousand years with the oldest known in North America at the Maritime Archaic coastal area of Canada (ca 7500-3500 BC). Preservation of fish weirs is generally not very good, especially in streams, so the invention may be earlier still. In general, a fish weir is constructed by placing a row of wooden stakes in a V or W shape in the middle of a river, in an estuary or as a labyrinth near a coastline.

Plant materials are then wrapped around and between the stakes and the fish are herded into the area where the fish are unable to find their way back out and are captured easily. Most surviving weirs, however, are constructed of stone. The decision to use weirs affected settlement placements. Weir use shows at least semi-sedentary settlement. Since large catches are easily obtained through weir use, and weir use was widespread, it follows that fish were exploited on a large scale across much of eastern North America at least as far back as the Late Archaic.

River weirs were used during spawning runs, generally in the spring and summer along the Atlantic. Many stone weirs throughout eastern North America are described as having openings for traps, at the downstream-pointing open area. There are accounts of the use of weirs to capture fish as they traveled downstream in both active and passive manners. The passive way was using the current to carry the fish, and wedge them so close, that they couldn’t return. Fishermen then would gather the fish at their convenience. More common are descriptions where fish are driven into the apex of "V"-shaped weirs through agitation of the water upstream, this being the active way of capture.

In 1913, subway workers tunneling under Boylston Street in Boston discovered wooden stakes in the blue gray glacial clay 32 feet below street level. At the time they thought they had found one large fish weir, built 1500 years ago. Workers destroyed many of the stakes, but enough evidence was gathered to describe the fish weir as made of about 65,000 stakes over more than 2 acres of the former mud flat and marshland which was the forerunner of the Back Bay region. The size of this structure supported a community of a good number of people to build and maintain it when all the stakes had to be cut, sharpened, and driven with stone and wooden tools.

In 1939, during excavation in this same area, the stakes were found passing through the site and continuing on under surrounding streets, suggesting the existence of one very large fish weir with over 200,000 wood stakes. In 1993, it was thought that many smaller fish weirs were built and rebuilt in this area for over a millennium. The weirs were part of fish camps occupied seasonally to harvest migrations of alewife, smelt and salmon.

So Ye Old Alewife Got Caught Weir?

Look for this article in the Sept-Oct 2008 issue of Country Anglin Magazine.

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