Ancient Chamorro Fishing Tools
Varied and complex tools evident
The ancient Chamorros were very adept at fishing and used a variety of implements and techniques to procure food from the inland rivers, lagoons and open sea, including net fishing, trolling, baited hook, spearing and trapping. Fishing was both communal and individual, depending upon the prey. Because most of the materials used to make fishing implements like nets and fishing lines were wood or plant fibers, they are not found in archeological excavations the way stone, bone or shell implements like sinkers and certain kinds of fishhooks might be. Instead, we rely on historic accounts to provide information about fishing tools and their use.
The following is a list of the more widely used tools and methods recorded by archeologists and historians of ancient Chamorro culture and society. It should be noted that most of these implements are associated with Latte Era fishing practices, reflecting the diversity of tools and raw materials available for use. Although Pre-Latte inhabitants of the Marianas relied on fish and shellfish for most of their protein, information about their fishing practices is limited, mostly because of poor preservation and the scarcity of known and documented Pre-Latte sites.
Fishing tools and implements
Fishing lines (gugat, kotdet)
Fishing lines were made from the fibers of coconut husks or from the pago (wild hibiscus) tree. The coconut husks would be soaked in water first to separate out the fibers, which then would be rubbed together on the line-maker’s thighs. This had the effect of twisting the fibers together to form a strand. Several strands would then be woven together to lengthen or strengthen the line. This fiber rope or cord, known today in English as sennit, had many uses, not just as fishing lines, but also for lashing thatch together for building houses, constructing canoe hulls and attaching sails, as well as for tying together shell ornaments, jewelry and chains of turtle shell money. Coconut fiber rope had qualities that made it very strong and resistant to rotting, even in water.
In a similar way to making sennit, fibers from the bark of the pago plant would be twisted together to form lines known as pokse’. The bark of the tree would be separated from the underlying white plant tissue, cut into half-inch strips and allowed to dry before being twisted together to form strands, and then lines.
Fishhooks or floaters could be attached to the lines, or lines could be woven together to form nets. Making fishing lines and nets was a role for women in ancient Chamorro society, although perhaps men had some knowledge of making and repairing lines and nets, too.
The Chamorros used a variety of nets of different size and construction, depending on the method and kind of fish or sea creature being caught. The largest of these was the chenchulu, a type of surround net that could measure up to 400 feet wide and 20 feet high. This net was used for fishing in shallow water.
Another kind of net was the tekken, or gill net. Gill nets trap fish that try to swim through them, but instead, get caught in the mesh, usually by their gills. The mesh size of gill nets affects the size of fish that could be caught. For example, a fine or small mesh gill net would be used to catch smaller fish. The tekken was positioned between two vertical poles on the reef. When used at night, the tekken was effective for catching reef fish as well as lobsters and crabs.
Small hand nets, known as lagua’, were used by ancient fishermen and women. There were three kinds of lagua’ nets described by 19th century French explorer Louis Freycinet. The simplest one, known as lagua’ popo or lagua’ umo-suhu, was a pocket net about one-and-a-half to two feet in diameter, which was attached to a long handle or pole about five feet in length.
Another type, known as lagua’ achuman, was used when fishing with a poio, a special chumming device. The net was conical in shape, about nine feet in diameter and mounted on a circular frame. Lines would be attached to the frame and then attached together to a single drop line.
The third type was called a lagua’ pula. It was made of three sections of netting. The outer sections were about six feet high and three feet long, while the center section was about twelve feet high and twenty to thirty feet long. Together, the sections formed a large pocket net. Floats made of pago wood would be attached along the top and stone weights attached to the bottom to help stabilize and control the net. The end sections of the net were attached to long vertical poles, which were used to help drag the net onto the sandy shore. The lagua’ pula was preferred for catching juvenile rabbitfish, or mañåhak, during their seasonal runs in April and September.
Another ancient net-like fishing device was the gade’ which was used to catch small i’e’ (baby rabbitfish) and ti’ao (baby goatfish). The gade’ was constructed of two lines of coconut leaves stretched out about fifteen to thirty feet long. The coconut leaves (fronds) were split along the middle of the spine and tied together to form the lines or ropes, with the leaflets pointing out in different directions. The gade’ could be moved by a group of people.
It should be noted that the talaya, a circular throw net used today, was not utilized by ancient Chamorros. Most likely, the talaya was introduced to the Pacific Islands by the Japanese. Today, it is used to catch mañåhak, ti’ao and other small fish.
The fisga was a type of barbed fishing spear. The shaft of the spear was made of wood, and measured about eight feet long, while the barbed tip was carved from wood or bone. The tip would be either single- or multi-pronged. The fisga was used for piercing fish in shallow water by a method called ka’tokcha’, and for spear fishing while skin-diving, called etokcha’. Fisga were also useful for catching eels and crabs.
In addition to fishing in the daytime, sometimes, ancient fishermen took advantage of catching fish resting at night with a sulo’ or torch. The torch, made of bundled coconut leaves and fueled by coconut oil, allowed a fisherman to see at night. This was a technique used most during the months of August and December to catch laggua or parrotfish. By paddling along the reef, a fisherman could spot the “sleeping” parrotfish among the coral with the torchlight, and an accompanying fisherman would then take aim and spear it using a fisga. The light from the torch was also attractive to flying fish. According to 17th century Jesuit missionary Father Peter Coomans, fishermen would go out in groups, with the sulo’ raised at the bows of their canoes. It was a brilliant site, especially at night, as the fisherman set out their lines and hooks.
The ancient Chamorros used a variety of fishhooks made from oyster shell (from the genus Isognomon), turtle shell and fish bones. The hooks had two basic shapes: J-shaped and L-shaped (or V-shaped). The J-shaped hooks were generally small and made from oyster shell; some hooks had notches carved in the upper part of the shaft for the attachment of fishing lines. The L-shaped hooks were also made of oyster shell. Because of their shape, they are also known as gorges. They have to be swallowed whole so as to get lodged in the gullet or throat of the fish.
The Chamorros also made compound hooks, which consisted of two separate parts—the shaft and the tip. Both parts were made of clamshell. It is likely that this type of hook was used for pelagic or deepsea fishing.
Flying fish (gaga) were caught with special hooks made of fish bone (anutchon). Deepsea fishermen used hooks made of turtle shell attached to feather or pokse’ (pago bark fiber) lures. To catch squid, a lure made of a sinker and a shell blade covered with pieces of cowrie shells would be used. In addition to anutchon for catching gaga, Freycinet documented these traditional Chamorro fishhooks: guantas (a large hook made of swordfish bone), nutchon (a mother of pearl shell hook), and okka or si-ip (a hook used for catching dolphin, or dorado).
Sinkers and weights (katgaderu)
Sinkers and weights were used to weigh down nets and fish lines or to stabilize these items under water. Sinkers were usually made of stone and were variable in shape, including hemispherical, conical, cylindrical and globular. Often, sinkers would have holes or grooves carved onto them for the attachment of fishing lines. The talac were grooved sinkers that were conical to spherical in shape.
Of special note was the poio (poiu or acho’ achuman), which was a spherical sinker made of limestone and a half coconut shell. It was used primarily to catch achuman, a type of mackerel, by luring or “training” the fish to gradually move closer to the surface. The top half was made of an empty husked coconut shell, and the bottom half a limestone sinker about the same size or slightly larger. The limestone would be smoothed into the shape of an egg. The smaller end would be flattened, and holes bored into the top edge of the stone. A line or cord would run through the holes to attach an inverted coconut shell on top. The coconut half was filled with mashed or ground coconut, similar to chum, to attract the fish. The device was tied with a longer cord about fifty or sixty feet in length so it could be lowered into deeper water.
Fishing floats were used in hook and drop line fishing to suspend fish bait in the water. The floats would also signal if a fish had been caught—as the captured fish struggled with the hook, the float would wiggle at the surface of the water. Ancient Chamorro fishermen used hollow gourds or calabashes as floats.
Floats were also used to stabilize nets. The floats for nets often were made from puteng seeds (from the Barringtonia asiatica plant, a kind of poisonous mangrove tree).
Mortar and pestle (lusong and lommok)
Mortars and pestles in general are tools used to crush or grind materials. Fishermen used the lusong and lommok to crush puteng seeds from the fruit of the Barringtonia asiatica tree and release the natural plant poisons. Lusong and lommok were made of volcanic rock, such as basalt (atulong, in Chamorro) or limestone. Some mortars found in coastal sites are large basalt rocks that have several holes or shallow indentations where pounding and grinding took place. Sometimes a wooden pestle, called a fayao, would be used to crush the puteng seeds. The extracted poison was mixed with sand and sprinkled into tidal pools, effectively stunning the fish which would then float to the surface.
Guagua’ were baskets woven from coconut leaves that held freshly caught fish.
Knife and scraper (se’se and guesgues)
The tools most useful for processing and cleaning fish that had been caught were the knife (se’se) and the scraper (guesgues). Knives were made from stone, bamboo or shell, such as the shell of the Tridacna clam. Handheld scrapers were made of shell or stone, and were used primarily to remove fish scales.
For offshore fishing, Chamorro fishermen relied on canoes to transport them to fishing areas and back. Although the most well documented canoes of the ancient Chamorros are the large outrigger canoes with their woven lateen (triangular-shaped) sails (called layak), the Chamorros constructed and used different kinds of canoes for different activities. Father Peter Coomans described a type of dugout canoe about sixteen feet long that was used for fishing and transporting cargo in shallow areas, as well as the larger (about ten to twenty-three feet) outrigger canoe which was used for inter-island voyages.
Freycinet described at least six different types of traditional canoes that ancient Chamorros had used. The largest of these, the sakman, was used for long voyages and deepsea fishing. Two medium-sized canoes, the lelek and duding, were used for shorter voyages and near shore fishing expeditions. An even smaller canoe was the duduli. The sakman, lelek, duding and duduli were all sailing canoes. The panga was another canoe about the size of the duduli but had no sail. The simplest canoe was the paddle-driven dugout called galaide.
Only elite Chamorros had the privilege of constructing and operating canoes. Young boys were taught from an early age how to use them, and by the time they were young teenagers, they could put out to sea and fish by themselves.
If deepsea fishing ventures were successful, the fishermen would display large pandanus banners from their canoes as a signal to the rest of the village back on shore. Upon reaching shore, the canoes would be returned almost immediately to the canoe house, and not left out in the water overnight.
Gigao (fish weirs) and ngagsan (fish ponds)
A fish weir is a type of trap or blockade that obstructs fish from leaving a particular area. Constructed in the reef, the ancient Chamorro fish weirs, called gigao, were made of rocks, although there is little definite evidence of them today. By the time of Freycinet’s visit, gigao were constructed from bamboo and wood.
Typically, fish weirs consist of a large trap, about four feet square and eight feet high, along with fence-like leaders which direct the fish into the trap. By design, gigao have a funnel-like opening for fish to enter, but not enough room for the fish to escape. Fish, therefore, would be trapped in the gigao as the tide went out, making them easy to catch by hand or by net. The ngagsan was a type of fish pond constructed of rocks to keep the fish that were caught in the gigao fresh until they were ready to be used as food or bait.
Different species of land and ocean crabs as well as fresh and saltwater shrimp appear in the natural environment of the Marianas. The okkodon panglao is a type of trap for crabs. It is made of a bamboo tube that crabs could enter but would be unable to turn around and escape. The nasa is a shrimp trap made of split bamboo and baited with coconut meat. Although the okkodon panglao and the nasa are implements used by some today, it is likely that ancient Chamorros had similar traps for catching these creatures.
Net fishing (manhalla or managgam)
Net fishing by Chamorro fishermen and women primarily involved luring, driving or blocking schools of fish in order to trap them in a net. The different nets described earlier were used for different kinds of fish. The larger nets sometimes often required the cooperation of several individuals.
Using a chenchulu or large surround net, the fishermen would lay it out in a semicircle along the reef and fish would be driven to swim through the open end of the net towards the center. The sides of the net would be raised and the trapped fish would be caught by hand or by spear. This method required the cooperation of others to haul the net to the shore. Whatever was caught was then divided into thirds—one-third would go to the owner of the net, another third for the participants, and another third to be distributed among the village. The chenculu was effective for catching reef fish such as like guili (rudderfish), tataga (unicorn fish), mafute’ (emperor) and tarakitu (skipjack).
Another method of net fishing involved using the smaller tekken or gill net. Prior to trapping, a mound of rocks would be constructed near the edge of the reef. Fish would go to the mound seeking refuge among the rocks. The tekken would be placed over the mound, trapping the fish as they tried to leave during low tide.
The lagua’ pula was used in relatively shallow reef areas and was good for catching mañåhak, or juvenile rabbit fish. Mañåhak would approach near the shore and swim in large numbers during the months of April to May, and then again in September to October. The net would be spread out by men and women and stabilized by the floaters and weights on the top and bottom. Fish were driven toward the lagua’ pula by slapping or splashing the water with hands, feet or wooden sticks.
Another communal fishing activity was using the gade’ to frighten fish and drive them towards nets or to the shore. Here, a dozen or more people would hold the gade’ and stretch it out. A pocket net would be set up on the reef. With much singing and laughter, the participants would move the coconut lines across the reef toward the pocket net. The movement and noise would drive the fish towards the net where they could be caught. These ropes could also be tied along the edge of reef channels and the movement of the leaflets would scare fish into staying within the shallow water where they could be caught more easily.
Maño’cho’ describes a way of fishing by hand. This was possible for certain kinds of parrotfish and wrasses. For example, the marbled parrotfish, which lives in sea grass, could be caught by hand by running them down at low tide. Wrasses as well were fairly easy to catch when spotted by the pile of coral they would build around themselves as they hide in the sand. Women, in particular, were known to use this method.
Women had other methods for catching fish. Lalagu, or tickling the fish, involved feeling among rocks and crevices to find the fish and grab it. As soon as the fish was removed from the water the woman would quickly bite into its head and kill it, then place it in her basket (guagua’). Shrimp were often caught this way as well.
Lalagu was a skill that required patience and quickness. There was the danger that the fish, especially eels, could bite back. If bitten, the woman would have to remain calm long enough to allow the animal to release her hand or finger as it repositioned itself. Once released, the woman could then fix her hold on the fish and kill it.
Women also used a method of “tricking” fish into a basket. This method was called umefohmo’. First, rocks or coral would be placed in a large basket. The basket would then be laid near a group of rocks where fish were hiding. The woman would start removing some of the rocks around the fish. The fish would rush from its hiding place and swim into the basket to hide among the rocks in there. The woman would then pick up the basket with the rocks and fish, taking both from the water.
Ka’tokcha’ was a type of spear fishing in shallow water. The individual would stand in shallow water, and taking aim, quickly thrust the spear into the fish. Because of the refractive effects of light passing through water and air, the target fish’s actual position would be different from its apparent position. The fisherman had to be careful to aim below the fish’s apparent position in order to hit it.
Another method of spear fishing while skin diving, known as etokcha’, was also used in ancient times. Chamorro fishermen would swim with eyes open underwater and, depending on the size of the fish, would use either an underhand (for small prey) or overhand (for larger fish) thrusting motion. To medicate their irritated eyes afterwards, the fishermen would use drops of juice from the nanasu (half-flower tree).
Guasa’ was a method of poisoning fish to make them easier to catch. The poison was extracted from puteng seeds from the fruit of the Barringtonia asiatica plant, which grows in mangroves. The Barringtonia fruit is fibrous and has a single seed. The mature fruits would fall off the tree but because of their buoyancy, they float. The puteng seeds would be removed from the fruit and ground with a mortar and pestle. The extracted poison was then mixed with sand and placed in tidal pools to stun the fish to the surface. Apparently, the poison did not affect the flesh. The stunned fish would be scooped up by hand or with nets. A variant of this method involved using poison obtained from scraping the skin of the balati, or black sea cucumber.
Ma batsalla or batannga refers to the trolling method used by the ancient Chamorros. A line of hooks attached to a lure would be drawn behind a sailing canoe. Trolling was used mostly to catch pelagic fish such as bunitu, gaga, batto (marlin) and mahimahi.
Freycinet described a method known as kinatchit gumahga, whereby a master line supported by small gourds (taguadyi) would be stretched out, and shorter, lateral fish lines would be attached, each spaced about six feet from the other. This method was used exclusively for catching flying fish.
The Spanish missionary Fray Juan Pobre de Zamora in 1602 described Chamorro fishermen using floating drop lines to catch flying fish. Going out in groups in their canoes, each fisherman would have his own rig of a gourd float tied to a line and a two-prong fishhook. One prong would have young coconut meat attached to it, and the other prong would be baited with a small fish or shrimp. Releasing their rigs into the water, each would watch his line for signs that flying fish had been caught. This method was very effective at catching large numbers of fish. The first of the catch would be eaten raw, and the next baited onto larger lines and hooks and cast over the stern of the canoe. These larger lines were also used to catch mahimahi, blue marlin and other large fish.
Edipok referred specifically to fishing in a tidal pool or from a cliff. Fishing from a cliff would require the use of a fishing pole (pisao). The word edipok is more commonly used in the Northern Mariana Islands than on Guam.
Lulai was a type of fishing on a moonlit night, using a hook and line. Sometimes, a fishing pole was used. Chopped bait would be thrown in the water to help attract fish and make catching them easier.
The acho’ achuman was a poio or sinker device used to catch fish in deeper water, especially achuman, or mackerel. Using this tool required patience and time. The limestone sinker was attached to a half coconut shell with a cord. The fisherman would then chew coconut and fill the coconut half of the poio with the mash by spitting into the holes of the coconut shell. The device was lowered to a depth of about sixty feet, and shaken to release some of the mash to attract the hungry fish. The fisherman would return to the site at the same time daily for weeks or months, each time pulling the poio closer to the surface. Eventually, the fish were lured to the surface where they were easily caught with the lagua’ achumen, a conical shaped net about nine feet in diameter. The net would be lowered carefully under the poio and the feeding fish, and then lifted up. Any fish who escaped the net could eventually be caught as the lagua’ was lowered again and again until the desired amount of fish were brought up.
Ancient Chamorros used a variety of interesting techniques to catch parrotfish. Using the sulo’ to illuminate parrotfish sleeping among the coral at night and then spearing them was one method. Another method, that used a live parrotfish as a decoy, was applied during the daytime. If a live parrotfish could not be obtained, a freshly salted one would work, but it needed to be weighted down with a stone in its stomach. Taking the live fish, the fisherman would drill a hole in the lower jaw and pass a long cord through it—the procedure did not harm of kill the fish, but it would not be able to bite through the line. The fish would be tethered by the cord and released back in the water to swim as far as the length of the cord would allow. Other fish would be attracted to the fish’s movement and try to attack it.
There were two ways in which the fisherman would capture the attacking fish.
In one method, a fisherman would first lower a circular net tied to a drop line and weighted with sinkers. He would then play the decoy fish over the net. The fisherman would then draw the net up and around the attacking fish. The second method was that the fisherman would attract the target fish with the decoy, drawing them closer to his canoe. Then, he would draw the decoy back into the boat and quickly tie a noose or slipknot on its line. The decoy fish would be returned to the water and the fisherman would use the noose to catch one of the attackers. Although this method was slower, the decoy fish could be reused until a small number of fish was caught. The fisherman could either keep the decoy fish or the last fish of his catch in a pond for later use, up to about a week.
The ancient Chamorros were able to capture turtles without the use of implements or nets. Basically, turtles were caught by flipping them over on their backs, making them unable to swim properly and escape.
Mañåchang were only allowed to fish for freshwater eels, which in ancient times, were considered taboo for the elite chamorri caste to eat or catch. In addition, because of their low social status, mañåchang were forbidden from using fishing tools and spears of the upper caste. Instead, mañåchang used sticks to either pierce the eels or hit them with clubs.
Crabs and other crustaceans
The ancient Chamorros used barbed spears to catch crabs and other crustaceans. Male crabs were caught only at daylight, while the larger, tastier female crabs were captured only at night. Sulo’, or torches, were used to spot the female crabs who only emerged in the evening hours.
Shellfish and mollusk gathering
Women and children usually collected edible shellfish and mollusks, including octopus (gamson), turban shells (pulan), nerite snails (pedis), and clams (tapon) along the shores. Oysters and giant clams (hima or Tridacna), which had shells that were useful for fishhooks and other tools, were obtained by diving underwater off the shoreline.
For further reading
“Archaeological Studies of the Latte Period,” edited by Mike T. Carson, PhD, Micronesica, Volume 42 (1/2), University of Guam, March 2012. Accessed 24 July 2012.
Amesbury, Steven S., Frank Cushing and Richard Sakamoto. Guide to the Coastal Resources of Guam: Vol. 3 Fishing on Guam. University of Guam Marine Laboratory, Contribution no. 225. Mangilao, Guam: University of Guam, 1986.
Coomans, Peter. History of the Mariana Islands: 1667-1673. Trans. Rodrigue Lévesque. Occasional Papers Series, no. 4. CNMI: CNMI Division of Historic Preservation, 2000.
Cunningham, Lawrence J. Ancient Chamorro Society. Honolulu: The Bess Press, 1992.
de Freycinet, Louis Claude de. An Account of the Corvette L’Uranie’s Sojourn at the Mariana Islands, 1819. Occasional Historical Paper Series 13. Trans. Glynn Barratt. Saipan, CNMI: CNMI Division of Historic Preservation and University of Guam Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, 2003.
Driver, Marjorie G. The Account of Fray Juan Pobre’s Residence in the Marianas 1602. MARC Miscellaneous Series No. 8. Mangilao, Guam: Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam, 1993.
Hunter-Anderson, Rosalind and Brian M. Butler. An Overview of Northern Marianas Prehistory. Micronesian Archaeological Survey, Report Number 31. Saipan, CNMI: Department of Community and Cultural Affairs, Division of Historic Preservation, 1995.
Russell, Scott. Tiempon I Manmofo’na: Ancient Chamorro Culture and History of the Northern Mariana Islands. Micronesian Archaeological Survey Report No. 32. Saipan, CNMI: Division of Historic Preservation, 1998.