Three hundred years ago a Pamunkey Indian would prove himself brave by wading into the Pamunkey River to rope a giant sturgeon by the tail.

"That man was counted a cockarouse, or brave fellow that wouldn't let go, till with swimming, wading and diving he had tired the sturgeon and brought it ashore," wrote an English visitor to the tribe in 1705.

The Pamunkey still wrestle fish from their river, but these days they do it with gill nets and 14-foot johnboats. For a month each spring fishermen from this small tribe that once ruled much of Virginia and Maryland, spread their drift nets across the changing tide to catch the shad and herring that are, like the Pamunkey, no longer so plentiful.

"On a good tide you might catch 35 to 40 fish. Sometimes you catch hardly anything," said Tecumseh Deerfoot Cook, 83-year-old chief. His tribe lives on an 800 acre reservation 30 miles east of Richmond.

For Chief Cook and the Pamunkey, shad and herring fishing is both part of their livelihood and a link to a way of life that was already ancient when the first European settlers arrived to discover and then steal their land.

In 1607, when Captain John Smith and his colonists began settling Jamestown, the Pamunkey were the largest and most powerful tribe in a confederacy of 34 tribes. Wars and smallpox decimated both the Indians and the traditional life style.

There are now an estimated 9,000 Indians living in Virginia, but barely 200 live together on either the Pamunkey or nearby Mattaponi reservations.

Instead of farming, fishing and hunting as their ancestors did, the contemporary Pamunkey are more likely to commute to Richmond to work as mechanics, bakers and nurse's aides.

"People often ask me about why our people move away," said Chief Cook last week during a break in the fishing. "It's simple. They have to do that to make a living."

Chief Cook, son of a former chief, is one of the most photographed men in Virginia. Once a year for 42 years, Cook has danced on the steps of Richmond's state capitol in ceremonial buckskins and feathered headdress.

The Pamunkey and Mattaponi make a present of game to the governor each year in lieu of taxes under terms of a 1677 treaty.

"It doesn't have to be more than a snowbird, as long as it's something wild. One rabbit will pay the tax," said Cook, who is possessed of a sardonic sense of humor.

Three years ago when the Pamunkey failed to bag a deer for Gov. John Dalton, the governor said that was fine since his son had gotten his own deer that month with a bow and arrow.

"I guess I could shoot a bow and arrow, too, if I could get a paleface to teach me how," said Cook.

Cook still fishes the shad run on the Pamunkey as he has for more than 70 years.

This spring he is especially pleased to be on the water again because of a recent threat to that practice. Last winter Virginia's Marine Resources Commission recommended closing the Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers to all net fishing in an effort to preserve the dwindling numbers of striped bass that are spawning there this time of year.

"If they take the fishing on the Pamunkey River away from us, they might as well shoot us," said Cook at a public hearing on the proposal. "If this law goes into effect, I guess I'll just spend the rest of my life in jail because I'm going to keep on fishing."

The regulation was relaxed to allow the netting of shad and herring.

Cook is one of the few Pamunkey who has not had to travel far for his livelihood. For more than half a century he has worked as a hunting guide on a corporate estate that has changed hands three times during that period.

"They've sold me with it each time," said Cook. "People seem to think you can't have any luck hunting unless you have an Indian guide. That's fine with me. It keeps me in a job."

Other tribal members have not been as lucky. Mildred Moore, also known as Gentle Rain, makes pottery that is sold at the reservation's trading post. But because the reservation is far from the beaten path, that income is not sufficient for the widowed mother of a 16-year-old daughter. So Moore commutes 40 miles each day to work in a hospital as a nurse's aide.

John Langston is a 54-year-old Pamunkey who left the reservation as a teen-ager to work in Richmond as a baker.

He returned to the reservation a few years ago, but still commutes to Richmond where he operates a machine that lays the cream filling inside Oreo cookies.

Because Langston works the afternoon shift, he had his mornings free last month to fish for shad.

"Most of the guys who fish are retired," said Langston, who sells his fish each day to buyers from Richmond who wait along the shore for the boats to return.

The Pamunkey used to hold an annual fish fry after the shad run had ended. Langston says they had to stop a few years ago because all their profits were being eaten up by modern-day Pilgrims.

"It just got so big, we didn't know who half the people were," said Langston. "I guess we have too many friends."