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Catching up with an age-old tradition

Study traces change over time of hand-carved Northwest Coast halibut hooks.
A view of the carved upper arm on an early Haida Gwaii halibut hook with spruce-root cordage and an iron barb. Purchased in 1906 by George Heye, the carving depicts an unknown being — possibly a wolf — with long, human-like arms, attesting to the Haida belief that all creatures are human under their skin. The prominent ribcage is in keeping with the longstanding Northwest Coast tradition of showing both internal and external anatomy. (Photo courtesy Jonathan Malindine)

It floats just off the seafloor, buoyed by yellow cedar and by encouraging words the fisher speaks down the line:

“Go down to halibut land and fight!”

Known as ýagw táawaay in Haida language, náxw in Tlingit, wood halibut hooks were once fished by indigenous peoples up and down the Northwest Coast.

While largely replaced at sea by steel circle hooks, wood hooks are still made as art — carved, as were older hooks, with images of animals and people who change shape or shift easily between land and sea.

The few who actually fish wood hooks today say that traditionally-sized hooks tend to catch smaller halibut — “chickens,” not “barn doors” — that weigh between 20 and 100 pounds.

It’s hard to know why, says Jonathan Malindine, a PhD student of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara who recently published a study in the journal Human Ecology of 143 wood halibut hooks largely collected in U.S. museums.

Perhaps the wood hooks were sized to target male halibut, which are relatively small, rarely reaching a metre long, said Malindine, making for a more sustainable catch.

Smaller halibut are also easier to land — the largest females can weigh up to 550 pounds — and they usually taste better, too.

“If I had to choose a halibut, I’d chose the smallest one I could see,” said Malindine, adding that the hooks do exclude the very smallest halibut, under 20 pounds.

Before studying anthropology, Malindine worked in Ketchikan and Bristol Bay canneries in Alaska, where he also seine-fished salmon and worked on dive boats. He finally got hired off the water to sing at a bar in Craig.

Living on Prince of Wales Island, Malindine often saw decorative wood halibut hooks indoors, but didn’t know what they were.

“They’re always hanging with the carved side up and the barbed side down, and that’s not how they are fished in the water,” he said, noting that rather than simply hanging down in the water, the hooks are weighted down by a stone.

“The basic idea is that they float up, perpendicular to the seafloor.”

Only after he dreamt about a giant halibut with a big hook in its face and drew a picture of it for a Haida friend did Malindine learn what he was seeing hanging on so many walls.

Most of the older hooks that survive are made with an upper, barbed arm of yellow cedar and a lower arm of heavier yew or alder.

Spruce root, and later seine twine were used to bind the arms together so they open in a kind of ‘V’ shape.

Another type, the ĉibud, uses a single piece of U-shaped bentwood. (Last year, a study done by Jonathan Scordino with the Makah Tribe of Neah Bay found brass replica ĉibud attract less by-catch than modern circle hooks.)

On both types, a baited barb is made to point backwards, so it will stick in the halibut’s jaw when it tries to spit the hook out of its mouth.

Originally, the barbs were made of bone — usually from a bear femur, the strongest bone available.

As hooks got waterlogged or a bone barb was changed out for an iron nail, the fishers added cedar splints to make sure the hooks still floated right, ready to catch a bottom-dwelling halibut.

For his study, Malindine photographed and measured 143 hooks, most of which are stored in two major Smithsonian museums.

Many came from Haida Gwaii, and although it’s impossible to confirm exactly when they were made, they were collected as long as 150 years ago.

But before he went to the museums, Malindine spoke with Jon Rowan, a Tlingit master carver from Klawock, Alaska, and others who carve and fish wood halibut hooks today.

“I don’t believe in anthropologists doing studies that involve native people if they have no interest in them, or studies that provide them with no benefit,” said Malindine.

Before finishing his paper, Malindine self-published a hardbound book with colour photos, dimensions, and museum records showing 39 of the earliest hooks he could find on museum shelves.

“That step was really important to me,” he said.

Copies went to Jon Rowan, Leslie Isaacs, Donald Gregory, and Tommy Joseph, three of whom teach halibut-hook carving to students in Alaska.

The main finding of Malindine’s paper is that over time, as fishers switched to steel-circle hooks, wood hooks got larger and more decorative. His analysis also suggests early hooks were somewhat larger in Alaska than on Haida Gwaii — perhaps because they more frequently targeted larger halibut to dry and store for winter.

But Malindine says the most interesting part of the study was simply to gather many details about wood halibut hooks in one place. Many go well beyond form and function.

“Jon Rowan, he’s real quick to highlight the spiritual aspects of fishing with wood hooks,” he said.

“As soon as you catch a halibut on a wood hook, it changes you — it’s a special act, you’re doing something so age-old.”

From interviews, Malindine and others learned how early fishers would “talk down the line” in a kind of good-luck prayer. Many hooks are carved with transformational images associated with shamans and magic.

As well as being lighter, fishers preferred resinous, yellow cedar because halibut are said to like the smell.

Francis “Amps” Carle, the Haida double-fin killer whale leader who passed away last year, showed Malindine the five early hooks that were handed down to him.

Rowan, Vaughn Skinna and a few others also follow tradition by fishing hooks they carve themselves, even though they could well be lost to the deep.

Malindine’s paper shows one of Jon Rowan’s hooks carved with a mountain goat transforming into an octopus — and marked by the teeth of a halibut he successfully caught.

“He’s an astonishing guy,” said Malindine.

“It’s nothing to him to go fish five, six at time, like it’s no big deal.”

To see photos and notes on all the wood hooks in the Smithsonian collection, visit and search for “halibut hook.” Readers with questions for Malindine can email him at

An early Haida Gwaii halibut hook purchased by James G. Swan for the Smithsonian in 1883 depicts an unknown being. What appear to be rings on the shaft may represent either a spinal column or trachea. Features spruce-root cordage, nettle-fibre twine, and an iron barb. (Photo courtesy Jonathan Malindine)