Pages From the Past – Tidal Fish Traps

The images below are taken from the Encyclopedia of Diderot, a 32 volume work, assembled by over 140 contributors between 1751 and 1777. It was meant to be a broad summation of existing knowledge and was composed of 70,000 articles and hundreds of engravings covering commerce, agriculture, domestic activities, the arts etc. We can be thankful for the articles and illustrations because a lot of contemporary writing of the time did not cover such subjects as the construction of a working fishermans nets, for instance. These topics were deemed to be too mundane to be dealt with.

In this post I have three examples of tidal fish traps. All three of these are fixed in place and depend on the receding tide to leave fish behind, captured in the different obstructions the fishermen have created. The beauty of tidal fish traps is that they are very low maintenance once they are constructed, particularly if stone is used in their construction. You simply need to check them after the tide has gone out, and pick up your catch.

Siting them requires familiarity with the way the currents run as the tide moves out. Selecting a bay sheltered from prevailing winds means that your structure is less likely to be prone to storm damage. And finding a stretch of shore that is habitually used by feeding fish, whether due to structure, vegetation or the effects of currents is important.

Let’s take a look at three tidal fish traps I have selected for this post.

Structural uprights are driven into the sand and then pliable vines or willow (or similar) branches are woven between the uprights. The V shape funnels the fish to the collection point as the tide flows out.

This trap takes advantage of a slightly sloping beach to increase the funnel effect. It uses natural materials that are almost everywhere close at hand. The same principles could be used if you had rebar and netting available. Or loose rubble to form the wings.

Here we see two examples of the same form, constructed of two different types of material.

Two styles and construction methods, but the same baffle and funnel combination. The long straight section channels the fish to the open mouth of the trap and the inward curving walls directs them away from the opening. The fish trap on the  left in the picture is constructed of vertical supports and pliable branches of vines woven together.

Dry laid stone blocks prevent fish from escaping and small outlets allow water a path out.

You can just make out the outlet openings low on the horizontal walls, on the water side of the trap. They could have gratings in them to prevent fish from escaping. Obviously this tidal trap could stand the pounding of waves or a storm surge. Of particular note is how this trap takes advantage of natural features of the landscape. Blocking off the relatively narrow opening between the two rock outcroppings takes advantage of the much wider expanse of seaside shore line potentially occupied by fish at high tide.

So a couple of takeaways from the images above. The range of materials that can be used for constructing this type of fish trap are wide ranging. These are just a few examples. Think of the various kinds of fencing material that could be used. Everything from chain link, to poultry, to the various sizes of mesh could work, depending on fish species targeted. Uprights could be posts, rebar, piping etc. Walls could be loose stone, any of the various types of blocks, logs, or even plastic piping secured between uprights.

Familiarity with the specific section of coastline is important. Water flow paths during tides, species available for harvest, and seasonal changes in fish behaviour etc. all will affect your potential catch.


Fish Traps and Fish Dams on the Caney Fork

I was doing some research in the process of gathering material to update my book “Survival Fish Harvesting,” which is currently available on Amazon and I found a reference to fish traps found on the Caney Fork of the Cumberland River in 1769. Actually they found a series of traps or fish dams and presumed that they had been placed there by the natives. This incident is described in the book “The Caney Fork of the Cumberland” uploaded on a website maintained by Daniel Hanston who graciously gave me permission to use the info and image from his site.

The Need for Multiple Traps

What is of particular interest to me is that the book describes how there were a series of traps, reinforcing the concept that it’s not enough to have one trap, one source of vegetables, one source of fruit, water, energy or whatever. A harvester has a range of planned sources of anything that is essential to them.  Bestselling author Robert Allen wrote the book “Multiple Streams of Income” promoting the concept of not putting all of your income eggs in one basket.  This is the same idea.

Early deeds that describe the land along the Caney Fork of the Cumberland describe at least nine different locations, typically in shallows, where the traps were constructed. They were of a unique design as well. Check the image below.

One of a series of fish traps found on the Caney Fork of the Cumberland in 1769.

The gently angled slats in the center allowed the current to push fish up out of the water. The water current was strong enough to do that because the rock dikes diverted a higher level of flow towards the slats. Here is the description from the book:

“Loose rock dams were built out from each bank of the river to a wood structure supporting poles or slats at an angle of about 30 degrees, spaced about 2” apart.  Even though the rock dams were not water tight, the level of the river was raised so that the velocity of the water through the slats was quite rapid.  Small fish passed through but the large ones were caught on the slats and due to the water pressure could not get away.  As Jim Baker of Campaign used to say, “It was just a matter of walking out to the trap and picking up a mess of fish for supper.”

As the book states, these traps “…were fragile and easily washed out. ” I don’t see the slats surviving spring runoff. O the other hand, it wouldn’t have been too hard to reproduce the center portion. The rock dikes weren’t going to move.

Harvesting Bullheads

I wanted to let you know about a website devoted to catching bullheads. Many fishermen look down on bullheads, referring to them as “mudcats” and disdaining them as bottom feeders. The website I am going to point you to will dispel that notion.

Check out a few quotes from the “About” page of Bullhead Fishing 

“While conservation and common sense limits to harvest are important, bullheads breed at such a rate that they are one of the most sustainable fish species for harvest in America.  In many instances they are under harvested in many small bodies of water leading to stunted growth.  So sensible harvest can actually be helpful to many populations”

“Due to how prolific the bullhead is, access is available to almost anyone that will extend a bit of effort.  Unlike many forms of fishing that can be extremely expensive, bullhead fishing can be done by anyone at any income level.  Gear is minimal and in general while they can be helpful boats are simply not required”

“To encourage the use of bullhead in sustainable food production systems.  While the bullhead is highly unlikely to be farmed on commercial scale, its toughness, ease of breeding, food value, growth rate and willingness to eat just about anything makes it  great species for hobby and small scale aquaculture and aquaponics.”

Now all three of those quotes strike me as hitting pretty close to what I would call Survival Harvesting principles.

Just for your interest, the Bullhead Fishing website was created and is run by Jack Spirko, the voice and owner of “The Survival Podcast.” Jack has been running his podcast since 2008. It is pretty much the most successful podcast in this field. I’ve got a lot of respect for Jack and his site has a ton of info you would probably be interested in. Look him up and give him a try.


Stone Fish Traps or Weirs

Stone fish traps are among the most ancient of structural harvesting techniques. The fact that the oldest known manmade structure on the planet is a fish trap should tell you something about their ability to provide protein.

A series of hand laid stone barriers and ponds have been dated back to a period of 40,000 years ago. The traps stretch across a bend of the Barwon River near Brewarrina in New South Wales and were in use until 1968. A concrete weir was put in place to create a reservoir of water for the local area, which was prone to drought. It did prevent drought but it also put an end to the travel of fish upstream, and that stopped the regular catching of fish in the traps.

The stone fish traps of Brewarrina, New South Wales are reported to be 40,000 years old

Finally, in 2012 a fish ladder was installed that allowed the weir to be bypassed by spawning fish, and once again the traps are in use, allowing locals to harvest perch, Murray cod, black bream and other species.

Traps are  frequently repeated. River weirs or traps require shallow water. If a shallow stretch of river occurs, you might as well make the best of it. See the image below.

Maximizing production from a stretch of shallow water on a river requires multiple trap locations

This image from the Darling River in New South Wales provides a different example of multiple trap placement.

Multiple stone fish traps designed to maximize catch from this shallow stretch of the Darling river

In the image above, fish enter from the upstream side and are funnelled down into the narrow catchment area to the left or downstream end of the trap.

Stone fish traps come in different types and styles. Those found on rivers or shallow areas in lakes typically serve the purpose of funnelling fish into smaller and smaller areas where they can be grabbed, netted or speared.

After funnelling fish into a smaller area, they are easier to spear.

One of the most unique stone fish traps of the world is to be found in Penghu County, Taiwan.

By padai – photo, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Designed to take advantage of the daily changing tides, with this trap it is easy to see how fish coming ashore with the rising tide are funnelled into the catch area and can be much more easily be harvested as the water recedes. It is only necessary to visit the stone trap at specific times of the day to take advantage of it’s working.

The stones form a broad walkway over a meter wide and can handle the daily tide change and even heavy seas.

It is not uncommon for a narrow strait to separate two sections of land. When the tides flow into and out of the strait, depending on the rise or fall of the land, simple weirs can provide traps to catch ocean creatures.

Two simple lines of stones effectively cut fish off from the deep water as the tide rolls out.

It is not hard to extract principles of operation from these examples. Using moving water to assist in concentrating fish numbers into smaller areas or to strand them completely makes it far easier to harvest them. All that is required is access to shallow stretches of water or tidal flats and portable stones.

Of course, fish traps can be made in multiple ways. In future posts I will cover both older and contemporary techniques of fish trap manufacture. Check back again for more info. Fish Harvesting