Bare-chested, his thick braid trailing midway down his back, Rony Reed straddled a slick boulder at the edge of Ishi Pishi Falls while balancing an awkward 18-foot-long dip net.
He is one of little more than a dozen veteran Karuk tribal fishermen keeping alive a tradition passed from father to son for thousands of years.
It’s practiced now in a gray area of the law.
No one officially keeps track of the 2,000 or so salmon that the tribe can take in a good year, despite all the lawsuits and the millions of dollars spent to monitor and replenish the seasonal salmon runs on northwest California’s Klamath River and its tributaries. In a bad year, the second largest tribe in California can catch as few as 400 fish.
“Right now, their fish are not even ‘paper fish,’ ” said Neil Manji, a senior fisheries biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game. “Anything they catch, it’s kind of like ghost fish.”
Federal legislation that would have legitimized the tribe’s salmon catch fell victim to the Klamath Basin farmers’ water crisis last year. The tribe hopes to try again soon.
Around the time of the Gold Rush, the Karuks were herded into the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation with the Hoopa and Yuroks near the mouth of the Klamath.
The tribe’s nearly 3,200 members have long since migrated back upriver to their ancestral riverside homes in the Klamath Mountains as far east as Yreka, but get no percentage of the three tribes’ official salmon allocation.
That has caused tension between the tribes, although they haveunited in a common fight to get more water from Klamath Basin and Central Valley farmers.
It also led occasionally, since the 1960s, to Karuks being arrested for fishing illegally, although that hasn’t happened since the mid-1990s.
Given the religious and political land mines, neither the state nor federal government has been eager to block the Karuk’s fishing. But while the tribe keeps track internally, its salmon take isn’t officially recorded.
“Then it would have to come out of somebody’s allocation somewhere,” said Leaf Hillman, the tribe’s natural resources director. “No one talks about it because no one wants to deal with it. People have been satisfied for many, many years to pretend the issue doesn’t exist.”
The Karuk culture is centered on Ishi Pishi Falls, where the rushing Klamath River narrows for a quarter of a mile and creates a natural barrier to salmon migrating to the ocean or upriver to spawn and die. It’s the only area where the tribe now takes its fish.
The falls are created by the sacred mountain that the Karuks call Auich and others call Sugarloaf.
“It’s the cradle of our civilization, where we came from when humans were transformed,” Hillman said.
The tall, wooded bluff is home to Duck Hawk, a peregrine falcon that watches over the world in tribal teachings. A falcon shrieked out its call repeatedly as it circled overhead, which Hillman considered a good omen.
But Reed’s dip net soon broke, before he could catch a spring-run salmon. He tried again to demonstrate with an 11-foot-long net used to teach a child. It too soon broke against the rocks as he jammed it into the frothing whitewater.
The fall salmon run is best now, Reed said. On a good day, in a good year, a veteran netter can catch a hundred salmon, working to exhaustion. That far exceeds the legal three-fish daily catch for a single fisherman, but traditionally it makes sense for the tribe to send its best fishermen to catch as many as they can.
It’s a man’s job, by tradition. It’s considered taboo -- and bad luck -- for a woman even to observe the fishing.
Most salmon are given away fresh; tribal tradition calls for the fisherman to share his catch with whomever asks, even if that means splitting half a fish. The remainder is smoked into jerky, Reed said: “They call that Indian candy.”
“When my sons were babies, I took them down to the falls,” Reed said. “It’s been handed down from generation to generation -- thousands of generations.”
His youngest son, 2-year-old Ramy, recently learned one of his first words: “aama,” Karuk for “salmon.”
His 7-and 8-year-old sons will begin practicing with short nets this fall. His older sons, ages 16 and 17, are studying the fishery this summer as part of a junior biologist program. His 14-year-old daughter is learning traditional ways at cultural camps.
“We’re teaching our children as best we can,” Reed said.
Harold Tripp is one of the tribe’s master fishermen at age 51.
As a child, he learned from his elders how to cut 18-foot-long fir poles and lash them into a frame, how to bend supple white oak branches over a fire to form a three-foot hoop at the end of the fir poles, and how to string within that hoop a 6-foot-long cone-shaped, hand-tied cotton net.
The rig becomes absurdly heavy when sopping wet and containing a flopping 30-pound salmon. So a second man, called the “clubber,” stands by the fisherman’s side ready to grab the fish -- and the fisherman, if he starts to slide into the swirling rock-strewn rapids.
“You’ve got to be smarter than the fish, is what they told me when I started,” Tripp said. “You’ve got to be sneaky because they see you, they hear you, they know you’re there.”
As important is learning “the medicine” -- private prayers, spiritual and physical preparation before fishing begins, often accompanied by sprinkling herbs on the water.
“This all ties into our religious beliefs because we believe we have to get fish to our people,” Tripp said. “It’s a spiritual connection -- it’s a spiritual food.”
Tripp is passing on the traditions, and the medicine, to his own son now. Phillip, 11, already has caught 11 salmon.
Despite legal questions over the tribe’s fishing, Tripp and others believe that they have no choice.
“From the beginning of time, we’ve always fished here,” Tripp said. “Our religious beliefs are if we don’t eat some of the fish, there won’t be any more fish.
“I have to rely on faith -- we do our medicine and we catch our fish,” he said. “My grandmother told me as long as one person believes, we’re still going to be out here.”
In August, the Karuks gathered near their sacred falls for a war dance over the river’s future -- but a war dance with a difference. Non-tribal community members, environmentalists and anyone who wished were invited to attend, as they have been the last four years.
“Before you go to war, you try to figure out how not to go to war,” Reed said.
Traditionally, enemies would repeatedly challenge each other within the fire-lit dance circle, he said, “and you don’t walk away from the dance until you have a solution.”
Reed and his sons were among the dancers donning feathers and war paint as brother challenged brother, father challenged son, friend challenged friend, symbolically working through conflict and toward unity.
“In the end, everybody jumps out there [together], dancing and praying to the Creator,” Reed said.
“We’re basically praying to the Creator to make things right along the river,” he said. “We’re asking the Creator for guidance and wisdom to carry on our traditions, and deal with contemporary problems.”