Before the century's turn and nearly five decades thereafter, visitors to the lower Columbia River voiced amazement on seeing teams of horses maneuvering midstream. This remarkable attraction was known as drag-seining, a unique fishing process.
Because salmon were most numerous when ocean tides met the river channel, most seining grounds were located on the sand bars and islands in the river's lower 70 miles. Here the horses dragged seins through tidal waters up to three feet deep, until the salmon lay flopping on the sands.
Daily drenchings of the horses were not detrimental heath-wise; in fact, it has been stated they received therapeutic benefits from the water.
Seining horses knew their work well and, when given head, scarcely needed direction. After pasturing nearly three-quarters of the year, they returned season after season with the zest of vacationers at the shore. Substantial barns were built for them on pilings above the sands, near crew-lodgings and cookhouses, all surrounded by deep water during high tides.
An elderly man reminisces with delight of visiting Sand Island in the Columbia with his father when a small school lad. He rode horseback during a seine drag, and still marvels over the horse, a huge gray animal, with mottled hindquarters, and long tufts of hair feathering the fetlocks.
Seining when originated by coastal Indians was a hand-operated process. Their seines, around 300 feet long and six to eight feet deep, were woven of vegetable fibers from white cedar, spruce hemp, and grasses. When extended around schools of fish by canoe, the seine's top edge received floating support from segments of dried cedar, and was weighted vertically with disc-shaped rocks tied through center bores to the net bottom.
Early settlers respected the Indians' fishing rights, yet felt a need to help them achieve greater production, and thus introduced larger seines in the late 1800s. As the population grew along with the newly-developing canning industry, the seines, too, progressively grew in size. These required greater pulling power and equipment, so when mechanical means proved ineffectual, horse-seining was introduced in the Columbia River.
Seiners in great numbers then entered the fishery, while large canneries lined both the Washington and Oregon sides of the two to four mile wide river. On the desirable seining sites of Sand Island and Desdomona Sands there was intense competition. Horse for seining were in demand.
Two well known stock farms flourished on the Washington side. The Allen J. Goulter Ranch, near Ilwaco, raised magnificent drafters, the Clydesdale, Belgain, and Percheron, weighing around 1,800 pounds each. Besides strength and stamina, they were known for their sure-footedness on the flooded sands. One hundred and eighty head were wintered at the ranch or put to grave in bayside meadows up the North Beach Peninsula near Oysterville.
Nearby at the head of the Bay Ranch, fine horse were wintered by their owner, Albion L. Gile, from Chicona Farms at Chinook, Washington. Mr. Gile also went afield for splendid specimens of wild horses from Horse Heaven Hills, in Benton County, Washington. They adapted quickly to the work after a special training program in dragging logs about the beach, before their seining grounds debut.
All drag-seining animals were in top physical condition and skillfully trained. Their training problems varied depending on the position of the horse at the seine, and in teaching them to tow a single rope.
As soon as the tide left the low, sandy spits workable, a crew averaging two dozen men started out; Netmen, boatmen, and drivers - with teams. Various size seines were used, from several hundred feet long to over two thousand feet. A single curtain of webbing with a cork-line or cedar floats supporting the top edge, and a lead-line weighting the bottom. One end of the net was anchored ashore, while the rest carried by skiff and towed by launch, was strung out into the river current. Here the seine was brought around into a horseshoe-shaped sweep, with the tail and returned to tow horses. Two teams usually hauled in the tail ends at the beach, while five to six ends were attached to the offshore or head end, to bring the vast seines ashore. The lead-line was dragged in somewhat faster than the cork-line, forming a bagging position or "bunt" to capture the fish.
While dragging in the offshore end, teams lined up along the seine, angling from the center. Whenever breakers struck the filled "bag" creating tension on the lines, the horses backed together in a high-stepping rhythmical motion, likened to a dance. Meanwhile they kept towlines taut, to keep fish from escaping, before advancing again.
The twenties were particularly productive years. Many of today's business and professional men toiled long hours, along with the horses, earning college careers upon the seining sands. Around that time, variations of "Barney Goggle" were often chanted during the drag, the lyrics stating, "Darn the seagulls!"
In the year 1934, Oregon had 33 drag seines in operation at one time, while 24 were working on the Washington side. However, this seining was outlawed in Washington in 1935, while some years later, nearly 1949, saw the law of horse-seining in Oregon, when salmon runs began to decline.
The seining horses are gone, the sands have shifted, many fishing customs have changed. But there are many who remember a remarkable and unforgettable industry that once dominated the scene at the mouth of the Columbia River.