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Trappers' Corner: Fish Poisons
© 2006

roscoe This article is presented as another option for feeding yourself in the wilderness. It is highly illegal, but it works. It is a system as old as mankind, but is now considered highly ecologically unsound.

Fish poisons are not highly toxic chemicals from oil factories, but are made of natural plants found in the wild. There biggest problem is that they will poison or stun almost everything in the water, including fish. Ancient Native American tribes used this system to catch large numbers of fish to preserve for a long, cold winter, or a large tribal fish fry. So can you.

You must be sure, however, that you don't pollute the entire water source and thus ruin the chances of getting any fish the next year. Or longer. Small ponds can be irretrievably damaged by the irresponsible use of fish poisons. Your poison will also flow downstream in rivers and creeks, possibly damaging someone else's water and food supply. Getting caught poisoning fish now-a-days will get you arrested for poaching. These chemicals will generally break down in sunlight.

Below is a short list of indigenous peoples and the plants they used to poison fish:
Source Primitive

Location or Tribe Common Name, (Latin Name)Part used
Catawba, Cherokee, and DelawareBlack Walnut (Juglans nigra)Bark and green nut husk
Yuchi and Creek Devil's Shoestring, (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus)Roots
Horse Chestnut, (Aesculus hippocastanum L)Fruit, twigs and buds
CherokeePolk Sallet, Polkweed, (Phytolacca americana) Berries
Central and coastal California Turkey-Mullein, (Eremocarpus setigerus) Leaves
California Buckeye, (Aesculus California) Nut or fruit
Soap plant, soap root, (Chlorogalum pomeridianum)Bulb
Pokeweed, Polk sallet, (Phytolacca americana)Leaves
Indian Turnip, (Arisaema triphyllum) Leaves
Wild cucumber, Manroot, ( Marah fabaceus) Seeds

Of the two types of fish poisons I will mention today, neither one affects the edibility of the fish, but only affects the fish's respiratory system. Nobody eats fish gills or air bladders, so it is not a problem.


You may remember from the article on soap making, the saponing was a step in the manufacture of soap. Saponing and Saponins refer to its ability to foam up. In fact, to determine whether or not you have selected the correct plant in the family of Saponin poisons, all you have to do is to grind up the seeds or plant parts and place some into a sealed glass jar. Shake the jar up and check for its ability to foam up. A lot of foam is good for fish poisons.


Plants containing rotenone are the second most utilized as a fish poison. Rotenone is an alkaloid toxin, in a group called flavonoids and stuns fish by impairing their oxygen consumption. The plant is toxic only to cold-blooded creatures and is found almost exclusively among the family comprised of legumes (Papilionaceae, Mimosaceae, Cesalpiniaceae). Rotenone is also used today as an insecticide.


Fish-poisons (also known as piscicides or ichthyotoxins) were very commonly use throughout American history and are particularly interesting because they are used for an area effect rather than against an individual target. A multitude of plant species are known to possess chemicals toxic to fish, and evidence suggests that certain plant species have different effects depending on which variety of fish are targeted.

A general rule is that fish-poisons are only effective on relatively small fish. Two main molecular groups of fish poisons in plants, the rotenones and the saponins, as well as a third group of plants which liberate cyanide in the water, account for nearly all varieties of fish poisons. The rotenones and saponins are used in small enough doses that they are harmful to fish, but not to humans who eat them.

There is a third type poison but these poisons can affect the edibility of the fish, so I am only going to tell you about one plant that is available. See the WARNINGS to follow. You have enough problems without poisoning yourself by mistake.


In humans, Saponins normally break down in the digestive system and must enter the bloodstream to be toxic. That makes people with ulcers susceptible to the toxic affects of saponins. Fish, however, take in saponins directly into their bloodstream through their gills. The toxin acts on the respiratory organs of the fish without affecting their edibility. Saponins also cause the breakdown of red blood cells that help the toxin to spread quickly. Even though the effects of the poison are powerful, they are not usually fatal. Fish that are washed away into untainted water revive, and can return to their pre-toxic condition. Because of this, the fishermen would have to gather the stunned fish quickly as they floated to the surface

Saponins are one of a group of glucosides found in many plant species with known foaming properties when mixed with water. Saponins lower the surface tension of water allowing the formation of small stable bubbles. Saponins have been used in modern times in the manufacture of fire extinguisher foam, toothpaste, shampoos, liquid soaps, and cosmetics and to increase the foaming of beer and soft drinks.

Plant Families that contain significant saponins are: Amaryllidaceae, Convolvulaceae, Dioscoreaceae, Lamiaceae, Lecythidaceae, Liliaceae, Loganiaceae, Meliaeae, Menispermacea, Papilionaceae, Solanaceae, Sapindaceae, Sapotaceae, Scrophulariaceae, Solanaceae, Verbenaceae. I mention this for the botanists in the group. There are also other family groups with greater or lesser saponin content.


Rotenone is a naturally occurring chemical with insecticidal, acaricidal (mite and spider-killing) and piscicidal (fish-killing) properties, obtained from the roots of several tropical and subtropical plant species belonging to the genus Lonchocarpus or Derris. It is a selective, non-specific insecticide, used in home gardens for insect control, for lice and tick control on pets, and for fish eradications as part of water body management
When rotenone is introduced to the water by crushing or mashing the appropriate plant parts (usually the roots) fish respiration is damaged and they are forced to gulp air at the water surface where they are vulnerable.

Rotenone is classified by the World Health Organization as a moderately hazardous, Class II. Rotenone is believed to be moderately toxic to humans with an oral lethal dose estimated from 300 to 500 mg/kg. A lowest lethal dose of 143 mg/kg has been cited in a child. Clinical experience seems to indicate that children, in particular, are rather sensitive to the acute effects of rotenone.

Human fatalities are rare, perhaps because rotenone is usually sold in low concentrations (one to five per cent formulation), and because its irritating action causes prompt vomiting. If the dust particle size is very small, and can enter deep regions of the lungs, rotenone's toxicity when inhaled may be increased. Acute local effects include conjunctivitis, dermatitis, sore throat, congestion, and vomiting. Inhalation of high doses can cause increased respiration followed by depression and convulsions.

Rotenone is rapidly broken down in soil and water: its half-life in both is between one and three days. Nearly all its toxicity is lost in five to six days of spring sunlight, or two to three days of summer sunlight. It does not readily leach from soil and it is not expected to be a groundwater pollutant.


The Cherokee were adept at catching fish for food.

They did, however, routinely employ poisons from several native plants when fishing. The drugging of fish was practiced during the dry months of late summer and early fall when waterflow in mountain streams is often low, thereby creating a series of small pools with high concentrations of fish. The two plants commonly used to stupefy fish were yellow buckeye ("Aesculus octandra") and goat's rue ("Tephrosia virginica"), which is also known as devil's shoestrings or catgut.

Buckeye nuts were ground up and thrown into the pools of water. The poison thereby released was aesculin. This toxin caused the fish to float to the surface where they were easily collected in long-handled baskets made for that purpose.

Goat's rue is still common in open or waste areas throughout the old Cherokee country. Easily recognized as a member of the pea family by its pinnate leaves that bear 17-29 leaflets, the silky-hairy plant (1-2 feet high) displays bi-colored, irregularly-shaped flowers (yellow base, pink wings) throughout the summer. The Cherokees and other Indian tribes in the southeastern United States collected goat's rue and ground it up on posts resting on the bottom of a pool. Shortly after the ground plant fell into the water, paralyzed fish would float to the surface for collection. The toxic substance in goat's rue is rotenone, which is the principal ingredient in various insecticides and modern fish poisons. By attacking the nervous system of the fish, rotenone did not poison the meat in any way. The prehistoric Cherokees also speared fish, caught them with lines and bone hooks, shot them with bows and arrows, and grabbed them with their bare hands. But their most productive tactic involved the use of the rock weirs and fish traps.

Located throughout the southern mountain region wherever the Cherokees located their large villages alongside major streams, these devices allowed for huge quantities of fish to be taken at one time. Weirs were constructed where the water was swift. Two converging, wall-like alignments formed a V-shape. Facing downstream, the V-shaped structure funneled fish into a wicker or log trap. Harvesting the fish swept into the traps was a piece of cake. When the catch was heavy, "they make a town feast, or feast of love, of which everyone partakes in a most social manner, and afterwards they dance together," recorded the 18th century Cherokee trader and historian James Adair. The Cherokees especially liked to catch freshwater catfish, which could be cleaned but not skinned and smoked over a fire. The smoked and dried catfish provided valuable protein during the winter months. The white settlers who replaced the Cherokees were not so foolish as to let the productive fish traps go to waste. They sometimes built their own, but for the most part they used those that their predecessors had constructed.

For the Cherokees it was a community project. Each family would contribute so many days working on the trap and share in the harvest. They constructed their trap at the mouth of the V-shaped opening by sinking huge locust logs to make a shute. Then four or five layers of white oak sticks, like tobacco sticks, would be laid down so that the fish would roll under them and get trapped.

Sourc Smoky Mountain


There is a third family of plants that potentially could be used to poison fish, as well as other animals including humans. This is the Aroid Family of plants. Of those listed below, only one has been referenced as being used to poison fish: The Jack-in-the Pulpit. A strong word of caution here. If you elect to use any of these plants to poison fish, be sure that the fish are cleaned and gutted carefully, and that all traces of gills and lungs are removed. If any of the residue from the plant remains on the meat, then you could possibly ingest some of it and poison yourselves or your family.

Anthurium: ANTHURIUM
Colocasia: TARO
Dieffenbachia: DUMBCANE (Mother-in-Law Plant)
Philodendron: PHILODENDRON
Symplocarpus foetidus: SKUNKCABBAGE

These plants contain some form of Raphides Crystals, or Calcium Oxalate poison. The entire plant may contain these toxins. Animals or children who accidentally ingest these plants, or plant parts, may be subjected to acute gastric and breathing problems, that potentially could lead to death.


I would personally use fish poisons ONLY AS A LAST RESORT. The impact on the environment could be catastrophic. I don't want to kill all the fish in the pond, I only want to eat a few to survive. The use of fish poisons by Native American Indians seems to have been used to feed very large groups of people...and then only for special events. Back then, the population of the country was very low compared to nowadays, so the impact would be less on other people. You seldom worry about your neighbors when the closest ones are 50 miles away.

Rivers and streams back then had many more fish than there are now. Our industrial and farming pollutants have seen to that. I can't justify using fish poisons now except to totally eradicate unwanted fish from a privately owned pond. I guess I'm not hungry enough yet.

In an upcoming issue, I'm going to present yet another option for collecting fish that uses an (almost) renewable source of energy to stun fish into being easily netted. I'll hold you in suspense until I get all my data ready for an article. Until then, keep the data in this article handy. You never know when you WILL be hungry enough to need this information.