Poisoning Fish to Gather Food

poisoning fish

Yucca or soap weed

First, I want to start by saying that this post is for information only.  This method of poisoning fish is illegal in all 50 states and most countries.  The only time I would ever consider using it would be in a life or death situation.

The American Indians used a variety of chemicals found in plants to stun fish.  They would then float to the surface and be collected for food.  The ingredients in the plants affected the fish when it passed through there gills and deprived them of oxygen.

The active ingredient are released by mashing the plants, which are then introduced into the water. Poisoning fish is best done in stagnant pools or slow-flowing streams and rivers.  This allows the chemicals to concentrate their power without being washed away or diluted by a strong current.

Although primarily used in freshwater areas, Californian Indians also used this technique in saltwater inter-tidal pools, where they would collect trapped fish, octopus and shellfish.

The most common plants used for poisoning fish contain saponin, a glucoside poison.  This chemical is usually in the stem or wood and is distributed among several plant families (Amaryllidaceae, Convolvulaceae, Dioscoreaceae, Lamiaceae, Lecythidaceae, Liliaceae, Papilionaceae, Sapindaceae, Scrophulariaceae, Solanaceae, Verbenaceae, and others).  Plants containing saponin are also known as soap plants because they can often be worked into a lather.

Saponin normally breaks down in the digestive system of humans and must enter the bloodstream to be toxic, but fish assimilate saponin directly into their bloodstream via their gills.  Fish poisoned by saponin are knocked out and float to the surface where they can easily be collected.  Eating fish poisoned by saponins does not normally affect humans.

Large numbers of indigenous tribes across the Americas used saponin poisons from many different plants for poisoning fish.

Black walnut

Black walnut

  • The Catawba, Cherokee, and Delaware made a fishing poison from the ground bark of Black Walnut trees, Juglans nigra.
  • The Yuchi and Creek used the roots of the Devil’s Shoestring, Symphoricarpos orbiculatus, and the fruit, twigs and buds of the Horse Chestnut, Aesculus hippocastanum L..
  • Cherokee tribes used the berries of Polk Sallet, Phytolacca Americana.
  • The Costanoan Indians of the California area used the pounded leaves of Turkey-Mullein, Eremocarpus setigerus, and the fruits of California Buckeye, Aesculus californica, as well as the entire crushed Soap Plant, Chlorogalum pomeridianum; Indian Hemp, Apocynum cannabinum; Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana; and Indian Turnip,Arisaema triphyllum .
  • In the southwestern US Yucca, also known as soap weed roots were used for fishing.  This also is a good substitute for soap.

Keep in mind that if you ever have to use this method of fishing, it may produce more fish than you can eat.  Be prepared to preserve the rest.

Like I said at the beginning, this method of fishing is illegal, don’t get into trouble.


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One Response to Poisoning Fish to Gather Food

  1. In addition to poisoning fish, California buckeye seeds was also sometimes used by local Maidu and Miwok Indians as a food source when the local acorn crops were scarce. As I understand it, they were dried, mashed, and then thoroughly soaked in water to remove toxic alkaloids. When there was no discernible bitter taste they were safe to eat and were cooked into a mush or porridge that is very bland (tasteless).

    Dried buckeye seeds are on display, along with other local Indian stuff at the El Dorado County Historical Museum next to the fair grounds in Placerville,
    Hangtown Frank

    Hangtown Frank

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