Primitive/wilderness skills · Survival

Fish heads, fish heads…

We just finished our second Hunter-Gatherer weekend class taught by Sam Coffman of The Human Path. This time our class was primarily devoted to primitive fishing techniques.

Having survived the previous weekend on nothing to eat for a day and a half other than grasshoppers and roasted prickly pear cactus, the group of 10 hunter-gatherers were ready for war.

Throughout the day Saturday, we worked diligently to make fish hooks out of bone and mesquite thorns; a large woven fish trap made from river cane; smaller minnow traps made from soda and water bottles; and bamboo fishing spears. We also built a large stone fish “weir” in the river – the idea being to create a small pool into which fish would swim but then once trapped, would be confused by the small opening and not be able to swim back out.

two-pronged bamboo fishing spear
Sam demonstrating the finer points of spear fishing.

It was a hot day, but we were determined to have dinner this time. Having suffered the pain of a cactus diet the last time, there wasn’t anyone more keen on fishing than me. I had even purchased my first-ever fishing license in preparation for the weekend. I’m pretty sure I speak for everyone when I say we weren’t going to give up easily.

After spending the morning crafting our fishing implements, it was soon time to procure a feast fit for a king. Into the knee-deep water of the San Gabriel river we set out, spears in hand, seeking the sunfish that darted in schools through the sun-bleached limestone, while our instructor, Sam, tried bow-fishing with a juniper bow he had made earlier in the day, hoping to nab the large catfish that was rumored to swim in these parts.

After several attempts, we discovered that you get at best three shots at spearing a fish before the sharpened bamboo tips will break off against the rocks. And given the fact that fish reflexes are faster than at least most of ours, and accounting for refraction, the odds were really against us. So sadly, the spear fishing adventure (as well as Sam’s bow fishing efforts) proved to be a bust. Worse yet, as alluring as our fish traps might have seemed to us, the fish outwitted us, and instead seemed to take pleasure in ganging up in their little fish schools just to taunt us all.

Lesson one: out in the real world, it might not be a bad idea to carry fishing line and hooks in your emergency supplies/bug out bag. Or a big net. Oh, hell, bring both.

bucket of grapes
Muskadine grapes are amazing! (count the feet and hands going for them!)

While we had been bravely attempting to spear fish, another group led by Vickie (our gracious property owner as well as fellow classmate) had chosen to practice their skills hunting the wild muskadine grape. We heard tales afterwards of the group having to dodge large metallic objects racing by on the road, but fortunately they returned largely unscathed, and we were all excited by their bucket full of the juicy purple prey.

But soon we had to face facts: it was around 6:00pm, and despite all of our efforts, nary a fish had been caught (other than a few tiny ones in the minnow traps). A few people had caught crawdads, but four crawdads among 10 people wasn’t particularly reassuring. Happy about the grapes, but disappointed by the fishing, we were heading back to our camp when one of Vickie’s daughters innocently asked:

“Why are you guys all fishing down there when all the fish are upstream?”

With that announcement, there was little hesitation. As tired as everyone was, a group left immediately in pursuit of greener pastures, while three of us headed to camp to (attempt to) start a fire.

Caught in the shallower pools of a river in extreme drought stage, it turned out that the fish upstream were easier to capture, and with the large group, they were able to trap a number of fish for dinner.

Lesson two: when possible, always, always talk to the locals about possible food sources.

Back at camp the fire starter crew wasn’t so successful. I tried the hand-drill again, and then went back to the bow drill, using wood harder than sotal for my spindle. Although I could get the spindle hot, I never could get smoke or an ember. Fortunately, once the group returned, Osakwe was able to get us an ember, and at least my fire building skills were sufficient to get our cooking fire going from that.

Lesson three: never go anywhere without several different ways of making fire such as a lighter, matches, fire stick. Being able to start a fire with a single match doesn’t do you any good if you don’t have matches.

Then it was fish time. We agreed as a group to cook the majority of them in a stew. That meant there were lots of fish that had to be cleaned, and each of us took our turn at gutting and cleaning them. I’ve never gone fishing before, but it wasn’t so bad. The fish were small, and many had died after being trapped. So all I had to do was cut off its head, slice off the fins and gut it. It wasn’t pretty, but I think I did pretty good for a city girl.

The biggest dilemma we faced as a group ended up being what to do with the fish heads.

Growing up, my mom taught me the valuable skill of how to avoid ordering fish at a restaurant that would be served with the head attached. I also learned from her that if you didn’t successfully navigate the menu, you could gracefully drape a napkin over a fish head so it wouldn’t stare at you as you ate.

But that night, I was a different person. Firefighter Brian and I led the chant (and song):

fish head
Roly poly fish head.


After the song, and arguing (successfully) that the fish heads would add flavor to the stew, in they went.

About now I’m guessing there’s a vegan reading this who has become outraged by our gratuitous fish killing and disrespectful singing about fish heads. That vegan will be happy to learn about the instant karma Brian received for his callousness.

As the rest of the fish were being cleaned, Josh used the butt of his knife to quickly dispatch one of the remaining fish, and fish brains went flying through the air…. and hit Brian on the face, chest, and – worst of all – went right into his mouth.

Roly poly fish heads, indeed.

Lesson four: always check which way your fish is facing before killing it.

Lesson five: You never know when the classics from Dr. Demento might come in handy.

All in all, it was a fantastic dinner. The stew (which was supplemented by a handful of potatoes, onion and tomatillos Sam provided), along with a cobbler made from the bucket of grapes, with mesquite/pecan flour and a few dried cherries also provided by Sam, turned out to be meager but satisfying. In fact, the combination of muscadine grapes and dried cherries was so intensely flavorful that I recommend it should be repeated in more controlled conditions.

hunter-gatherers in debris hut
What’s the record for the number of hunter-gatherers who can fit in a single debris hut?

To end the weekend, we build shelters – the frame of a wikiup, a deluxe-model debris hut large enough for a family of 5, and a bed made from wood and raised over a hole in the ground that would provide warmth and protection from dampness (as if either would be necessary on a hot dry July weekend!). We also learned some new snares for small game and birds, though none of those were put into actual practice.

In sum, it was another difficult and challenging weekend for everyone, but at least we had fish (heads). Yum!


Photos by Chris Hyde, Vickie Honeycutt and Jackie Dana:


One thought on “Fish heads, fish heads…

  1. My daughters had so much fun fishing with the hunter-gatherers that they returned the next day to catch and release more small fish. They were worried about the increasingly warmer water as the depth of the water diminishes day by day due to the drought. So, at her birthday party on Monday, my daughter and many of her teenage friends went back to the shallow fishing hole and caught a couple of half-filled buckets of fish…and took them downstream to the deeper, cooler parts of the river and released them…the circle of life…

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