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How Did Vikings Fish?

How Did Vikings Fish?

The Vikings were often associated with ruthless battles and ferocious raids at the beginning of the Middle Ages. However, they did not spend all their time in bloody combat – they were also well-versed in farming and hunting techniques to sustain themselves. 

Although they depended on a simple diet for sustenance, they sporadically indulged in fish and meat. 

In this article, we will learn how Vikings used their fishing methods to prepare and catch fish successfully, which became a predecessor to modern fishing techniques. 

Did the Vikings Like Fishing? 

According to archaeological evidence, fishing played an important role in the Viking’s economy. [1] 

After several excavations, numerous pieces of their fishing equipment have been found in the ruins, graves, and ancient towns. 

The Scandinavians were accustomed to all kinds of extreme temperatures. When it was impossible to cultivate crops in sub-zero temperatures, most of them developed fishing, hunting, and woodsmanship skills that had to be maintained all the time. Since they spent a lot of time on the water, fishing formed a major part of what Vikings ate.  

Archaeological evidence confirms that they were skilled fishermen. Vikings have been known to consume every kind of fish the sea had to offer. [2] From herrings to whales, they had an extensive food palate! 

Leiv Eiriksson discovers North America artwork.
Leiv Eiriksson discovers North America
Christian Krohg, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Viking Fishing Methods

The Viking age fishing equipment was quite limited if we compare them to the range of the modern world. 

Since a relatively small amount of equipment has been recovered from the past, it is difficult to completely analyze the Viking fishing practices in the medieval period. 

They enjoyed a wide variety of fish – freshwater fish options like salmon, trout, and eel were popular. In addition, saltwater fishes like herring, cod, and shellfish were also consumed extensively. 

The Vikings employed unique fishing methods to enrich their fishing economy, some of which are listed below. 

Fishing Nets 

Haaf-netting is one of the most prominent fishing techniques practiced in the Irish Sea. [3] Contrary to the rudimentary way of catching fish with nets, haaf-netting was a practice that involved 16 feet of meshed wire over a 14-foot pole. 

According to many historians, when the Norse arrived in the Irish sea, the Nordic mariners developed a fishing method that was more suited to the local tides. [4] In this method, the Nordic fishermen did not cast lines from the comfort of their boats. Instead, they stood in the water carrying the haaf-netting pole simultaneously. 

This method created a soccer goal-like structure trapping unsuspecting salmon or trout in its trenches. This process is also known as Haafing. 

Although an effective method, it can be time-consuming, according to modern-day netters. These fishermen had to stand for hours on end in the cold water as the fish swam headfirst into their legs from all directions. 

The thrill of the haafing season-inspired Nordic fishermen to test their limits! 

Spears 

In the Middle Ages, fishing was usually carried out in dug-out canoes and nearby sea bed areas. 

Spearfishing and angling were not uncommon among Viking fishermen. It has been speculated that along with fish hooks and fish prongs, spears were also made from sharpened branches. 

They were iron-shaped prongs with a specific sharpness in the bow-shaped area. It is believed that the fisherman mounted two arms on the long pole, and eels were simultaneously skewered. 

Net Floats and Sinkers 

Along with fishing nets, net floats were also widely used in Nordic countries. These floats were made from rolled birch bark which was usually low-density. These floats were built to last a long time and were a great alternative to other fishing traps, including a fishing rod or fishing line. 

Net sinkers were made from soapstone, and their typical picture looked like pieces of flint with holes bored through with wooden sticks inserted into these large holes. These pieces would be attached to the net fabric, maintaining buoyancy while catching fish seamlessly. 

How Did They Prepare Fish? 

Although grains and vegetables were vital to a Viking diet, fish and meats were greatly enjoyed by their palettes. While domestic animals were bred in farmhouses and easy to prepare, fish needed to be smoked, salted, and dried before they could be served on the table. 

Fermented Greenland shark meat.
Fermented Greenland shark meat
Attribution: Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons

Vikings prepared salted fish in the following ways: 

  • They cut the heads and gut of the fish and cleaned the parts thoroughly. 
  • The fish parts were then stored in layers in a wooden vessel with enough salt to separate their layers. 
  • They were stored in these vessels for a couple of days 
  • Next, they dried off the salts and made an incision across the tails with a sharp knife. 
  • The fish was then tied up into pairs by the tails using a flax thread 
  • After this, it was again hung up on a strong string and dried outside for a week. 
  • When it was ready to eat, the fleshy portions were separated from the bone or cut into thin strips with the help of scissors. 

This rigorous process required as much effort as it takes to catch fish in the sea bed. 

Conclusion 

The Vikings were ahead of their time despite being a prominent group in the Middle Ages. Fishing was more integral to their economy than agriculture, making it one of the most common occupations in the Viking age. 

The Vikings were skilled in many areas and employed their unique techniques in different niches.

Header image courtesy: Christian Krohg, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (added overlay modern man with thinking bubble)