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Raking Them In – Brownsville Bears Fished for Oolichans

November 17, 2015

The earliest colonists to arrive in British Columbia often remarked on the ease with which native people fished for oolichans. The small fishes, also called eulachons (Thaleichthys pacificus),  filled the Fraser River each spring on their way to spawn. First Nations fishers used a rake to “sweep” the oolichans into their canoes.

It was not until springtime,1888, that we find the following report, datelined New Westminster, suggesting that a Brownsville bear, whom we will call ursus adversus – (roughly translated, it’s “the bear over there”) – rumored to be the most intelligent of all bruins on the mainland – one day while gazing down at his empty outstretched paws and pondering the lot of all beasts of the forest – had caught on to the notion of using his claws in the same manner.

“Yesterday several bears were noticed to come out on the beach on the opposite side of the river at different times. The reason of bruin’s daring exploit is probably on account of the oolachans which are now running in the river. A little later on in the season bears may be noticed to come to the shore of the river for these fish quite frequently, and then will be the time for some of out city Nimorods to show what they can do.”

Unfortunately, under the pressure of increasing demand, people soon decided they were smarter than the average bear.

“The old plan of catching oolachans, millions of which are now running in the river, with a long pole to which is attached twenty or thirty sharp nails in a row, has been for the greater part done away with, and as a substitute a fine net of some 80 or 100 feet in length is being used. This is a much better method of catching these beautiful little fish, as more of them are obtained with about half as much work.”

In former times the run of oolichans, arriving before the salmon, proved an important early source of sustenance for whales, seals, birds, people, and of course, Brownsville bears.Thousands of seagulls followed the oolichan run for 100 km up the Fraser. Spawning grounds stretched from Matsqui to Laidlaw. Their spent carcasses covered sandbars down to the mouth of the Fraser River.

Nowadays the oolichan run on Fraser River has been so depleted as to have become barely noticeable.


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