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.

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