Fishing Devices and a short history of the Sport

Fishing Devices and a short history of the Sport

Spring is here and for many people, myself including, this means it is FISHING SEASON!! I love, love, love to fish. As in, it is a passionate hobby I could literally do every single day from sunrise to sunset (and beyond) without tiring. And I know this from experience, having done just that while on a houseboat for over a week! So naturally in my mind when I hear the word “fishing” I instantly think of our small boat on the nearby lake with me casting my rod over and over in hopes of catching a few fish.

Roman mosaic from the Villa of the Nile at Leptis Magna, Libya. 2nd century AD

While my vision of the word “fishing” is indeed accurate, for many others “fishing” means a massive business endeavor. The distinction is critical, especially for the purpose of this blog post. Large-scale fishing for food, whether commercially or for community survival, is a completely different process with a divergent historical timeline from fishing as a recreational sport. Leisurely fishing is a blast, in my opinion, whether fish are caught or not, but thank heaven the Lathans’ survival isn’t dependent upon our haul! Therefore, it is easy to imagine our ancient ancestors striving to develop improved techniques for catching large quantities of fish. Providing adequate food in harsh climates and pre-industrialized eras was a high priority for basic survival.

With this fact in mind, the vision of those same ancient ancestors leisurely sitting by a river and casually casting a string into the water in hopes of snaring a passing fish seems a frivolous activity far too unprofitable to waste precious time. Surprisingly, this isn’t the case. While most certainly the original, primary purpose of fishing was to provide food, early records reveal that men realized the activity could also be fun and relaxing. Written references and drawings of people fishing in a casual manner are prevalent in ancient cultures, one example seen to the right.

A collection of gorges.

Early fishermen used assorted methods and objects to catch fish, including spears, harpoons, hooks, nets, and fish weirs. The earliest recorded fishing hooks (as in a device that “hooks” the fish regardless of the shape) date to around 7000 BC. Curved hooks pre-date the ability to mold with metal, as the stone-age example of a hook carved from bone seen to the right reveals.

However, the most common type of hook was the easy-to-make, straight GORGE. This type of hook is created by sharpening both ends of small sticks or bones. A narrow groove carved in the middle of the gorge secured the tied string, the distal end of which was held in the fisherman’s hand or strung on a pole. Used with or without bait, a gorge is designed to enter the fish’s mouth straight and be swallowed whole, it then turning sideways when tugged by the fisherman and lodging in the fish’s throat. The size of the gorge depended upon the type and size of fish one aimed to catch. As seen in the image below of a tiny blue gill, a gorge could be very small. Today gorges are only used by survivalist, the making of them taught as essential knowledge if lost in the wilds.


Ancient Egyptians used hooks and line to catch fish from the Nile River as early as 2000 BC. Many tombs have depictions of fishing with hook, line, and rod. The Chinese fished with hooks made from needles, line made from silk, and bamboo rods as early as the 4th century BC. Native Americans ranging the west coast were also known to engage in fishing with gorge hook and line tackle from about 5500 BC. The ancient Greek, Roman, and Macedonian civilizations used hook, line and rod tackle to catch fish. Homer wrote, in 800 BC, “Casting into the deep the horn of an ox, and as he catches each (fish) flings it up writhing.” The Biblical book of Job mentions fish hooks also. In every culture, both gorges and hooks were attached by strings to flexible sticks of ever-increasing lengths as fishermen strived to ensnare the big fish further from the shore or deeper under the water’s surface.

Fishing as a true art form and leisure activity apart from the basic need for food gradually evolved, and not primarily in the western world. It is universally agreed that the first English book printed on fishing was Treatyse of Fysshynge With an Angle in 1496, written by Prioress Dame Juliana Berners as part of the second edition of The Boke of St. Albans, which had originally dealt only with hunting. Experts also agree, however, that it was not the first book about fishing techniques (Manasollasa, for one, is a Sanskrit manuscript dating to 1127), nor was it the first English language printing of fishing information as numerous tracts and pamphlets are alluded to in later writings.

I absolutely adore the below quote from Treatyse of Fysshynge With an Angle as it perfectly encapsulated my emotions when fishing.

Solomon in his proverbs says that a good spirit makes a flowering age, that is, a happy age and a long one. And since it is true, I ask this question, “Which are the means and the causes that lead a man into a happy spirit?” Truly, in my best judgement, it seems that they are good sports and honest games which a man enjoys without any repentance afterward.

Thence it follows that good sports and honest games are the cause of a man’s happy old age and long life.

And therefore, I will now choose among four good sports and honest games: to wit, of hunting, hawking, fishing, and fowling. The best, in my simple opinion, is fishing, called angling, with a rod and a line and a hook.  ~Prologue of a Treatyse of Fysshynge With an Angle

What is noteworthy is the emphasis a Treatyse of Fysshynge With an Angle gave to fly-fishing as opposed to bait-and-hook (or “lure”) fishing. The existence of ancient hooks and gorges might appear to indicate that they came before the invention of fancy flies. Is this because delicate flies did not survive the destruction of time? No one knows for sure. There are references to “flies” scattered amid fishing writings in non-English dating well before Treatyse of Fysshynge With an Angle published in 1496, but the translations into English are sketchy, making it unclear if the “flies” are the same. All that can be deduced for sure is that when fishing became a recreational, entertainment sport, the use of individually crafted flies gained popularity. Six of the dozen flies mentioned in the Treatyse of Fysshynge With an Angle are still in use today.

The first edition of The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton was published in 1653. Walton, and later on his friend Charles Cotton, continued to update the book for some 30 years. Considered the most famous piece of literature on fishing, The Compleat Angler was a scholarly work aimed to teach the sport, but also a charmingly written, passionate celebration of the English countryside and spirit of fishing. To date, the book has been translated and annotated innumerable times, republished over 500 times, and is the fourth most reprinted book in the English language, behind only the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, and the Book of Common Prayer.

During these centuries of fishing popularity as a sport for all ages, sexes, and social classes, improvements in fishing gear was ongoing. Fancy and realistic lures and flies were designed, drawn in detail, and published with specific instructions to recreate. Improved metals meant tougher hooks, while the study of fish species paved the way for specific lures and flies to entice. Charles Kirby, a London needle-maker, invented the “Kirby-bend hook” in 1650, the distinctive curved shape with an offset barbed point still commonly used today worldwide. Methods for plaiting horsehair, gut, and other materials into stronger lines were continually tested and improved. As lines became stronger, they grew longer, reaching a length of 26 yards, according to famed angler Thomas Barker in The Art of Angling published in 1651. As for the fishing rod, although short varieties were used, jointed rods of 16 to 18 feet were common, hitting lengths of 22 feet. The super long rods had up to six sections to pull apart for easy transport and were made from several different types of wood. Typically the wooden pole ended with a whalebone tip carved into a loop to thread the line through, the other end of the line wound around the angler’s hand. As one can imagine, even if not a fisherman, controlling so much line was incredibly difficult.

Collection of very old reels.



Early 1800 wood rod with brass reel.

Evidence exists that the Chinese developed a rudimentary fishing reel in the 3rd century CE, but modern reel design is much more recent. The first reference to the fishing reel was in the 1651 The Art of Angling by Thomas Barker. Illustrated as a small version of a standard 17th century winch reel, Barker called it a “wind” (rhymes with “kind”) that was attached to the pole roughly two feet from the handle-end with a spike or clamp. This rudimentary fishing reel was nothing more than a convenient storage place for the excessively long line. Examples of this type are in the collage above, the top-middle and bottom-left.

Throughout the 1700s, with fly fishing all the rage amongst the upper classes and bait fishing popular with everyone, commercialization of the fishing business came to England. By 1770, a fishing rod with guides for the line along its length and a fishing reel attached was in common use. The first true reel was a geared “multiplying” reel attached under the rod, in which one turn of the handle moved the spool through several revolutions. Never popular in Great Britain, such reels became popular in the United States and inspired the bait-casting fishing reel devised by Kentucky watchmaker George Snyder in 1810. Snyder’s unique skills with cutting small gears and precision engineering gave him an advantage. In the collage above, the top-left image is a Snyder reel.

In England, the predominant fishing reel was called the Nottingham reel, based on the wooden lace bobbin devised in that ancient lacemaking town. See above, top-right for an example. It was a wide-drum, ungeared, very free-running reel, ideal for allowing line and bait or lure to float downstream with the current and suitable for casting lures for predatory fish in various kinds of sea fishing and fly fishing.

These were the decades when fishing as a sport seriously took off. The demand for developing improved and wider ranges of fishing equipment escalated in line with the increasing passion for the sport. Ever seeking new challenges and better success, anglers’ wanted more. Clever inventors and Industrial Revolution technology made it possible. Mass produced hooks, lines, rods, reels, and more became common. Imports of different types of woods for rods (such as Lancewood from the West Indies, Greenheart from South America, and primarily bamboo) had a huge impact.

“Salmon Fishing” by Henry Alken, 1820

Fishing became a sport accessible to everyone. Equipment was plentiful and relatively cheap, certainly compared to many other sports. It was relaxing, as few sports were, could be enjoyed by men and women (although primarily a male activity until later in the Victorian era), and did not require physical prowess, youth, or superior intellect to excel at. Not typically competitive (except against yourself), fishing could be enjoyed alone or with companionship.

The exclusivity of the English class system so attached to most activities of the day was not as obvious with fishing, although it did exist to some degree. Wealthy or poor, one could fish. The question was how one went about it and where. So while fishing was popular with all social classes, it tended to divide into “game” fishing for the tastier salmon and trout (primarily among the wealthy landowners with their private ponds), and “coarse” fishing for all other species done by the middle and working class Englishman. These divisions were reinforced in the mid-eighteenth century during rapid industrialization and urbanization when large numbers of workers took up coarse angling on the free, public rivers and canals. Sometimes the catch might be eaten, but coarse fishing was for sport and encouraged among the industrial workforce as more contemplative and civilized compared to other working class leisurely pursuits which often involved heavy consumption of alcohol.

Another reason for the divide was time. The working-class man was less apt to have the free time to pass beside a lake or stream perfecting the art of fly-fishing. There is scant debate that pure fly-fishing was an upper class, gentleman’s sport, but this had more to do with the time required to develop the skill, the money to buy hand-crafted flies, and the access to pristine, well-stocked water bodies. Then, as it is today, fishing techniques were a personal preference. Not every man of the gentry was drawn to fly-fishing, nor was bait fishing with a hook considered “lowly.” Fishing was fishing, with skills necessary no matter what technique was used or species of fish caught.

And if one was a true, passionate fisherman, a mysterious kinship existed that transcended class.



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Heidi Longfield

My brother-in-law loved to fish not that he ever caught anything that I know of. My husband also loved to fish, and he did catch things. He fished I read.

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