Recreational Fishing in England and America - Part 1
Updated: Feb 22
Spring is arriving here in Virginia. The sun is coming out, the weather is beginning to warm, and we are all feeling the urge to get out and do something. With everyone here in Virginia under a regimen of “Social Distancing” and “Stay at Home" except to go out to buy necessary items or to get exercise, we thought it might be nice to take a look at a form of outdoor recreation our ancestors practiced that does not require a group and almost anyone can do. Recreational Fishing!
Just when humans began to pursue fishing as recreation is not clear. In the 2nd century AD Claudius Aelianus, in his work On the Nature of Animals, provides the earliest description of fly fishing in Europe However, for the early Romans, fly fishing was likely to have been a means of survival, rather than recreation. The exact point in history where fishing began to be recreational is not clear. What is clear, however, is recreational fishing had developed in England by the 15th Century.
The earliest English essay on recreational fishing, published in 1496 Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle, appeared shortly after the invention of the printing press. Dame Juliana Berners, the prioress of the Benedictine Sopwell Nunnery, is thought to have been the author. It included instructions on how to make a telescoping fishing rod, fishing line, hooks, and the use of natural baits as well as artificial flies.
The art of fly fishing took a great leap forward after the English Civil War. The renowned officer in the Parliamentary army, Robert Venables, published in 1662 The Experienced Angler, or Angling improved, being a general discourse of angling, imparting many of the aptest ways and choicest experiments for the taking of most sorts of fish in pond or river.
One of the most famous early works on recreational fishing was The Compleat Angler, written by Izaak Walton in 1653 although Walton continued to add to it for a quarter of a century. It described the fishing in the Derbyshire Wye. Walton's friend, Charles Cotton, added a second part to the book in the 1676 edition.
Walton did not profess to be an expert with a fishing fly; the fly fishing in his first edition was contributed by Thomas Barker, a retired cook and humorist, who produced a treatise of his own in 1659; but in the use of the live worm, the grasshopper and the frog "Piscator" himself could speak as a master. The famous passage about the frog, often misquoted as being about the worm—"use him as though you loved him, that is, harm him as little as you may possibly, that he may live the longer"—appears in the original edition. Cotton's additions completed the instruction in fly fishing and advised on the making of artificial flies where he listed sixty-five varieties.
The earliest settlers in America’s English colonies were unprepared to take advantage of the bounty of fish available in their new homes. No fishing gear of any type was apparently brought to Virginia from England in 1607, despite the fact that earlier visitors to the New World had recorded a wealth of fish along the shores of New England and the inlets and bays of Carolina. The food stocks of Jamestown Colony including the fresh fish supply, remained precarious until at least 1623 when the colonists began to buy personal articles of fishing equipment. In 1645, the estate of Richard Wynne showed private ownership of “2 owld fishing lines and a hook” By 1676, as reported by Thomas Glover, there was sufficient importation of steel fishhooks that the Natives had begun to change their fishing methods to use hook and line.
While it is not likely that these items were being used for recreational fishing at a time when the colonists were struggling to survive, several hundred brass and iron fishhooks, of all sizes, have been found scattered throughout James Fort. Some are as large as an adult hand and would have been suitable for offshore fishing for larger fish such as cod. Many are smaller and most useful for the common fish species of the James River — perch, sheepshead, striped bass, channel pickerel, and catfish. Lead weights were attached to the fishing line, and many of these weights have been recovered by the archaeologists. The Jamestown archaeologists also uncovered a copper alloy double hook in one of the fort’s early cellars. Traditionally, this type of hook was used in Europe to catch pickerel or pike. Its presence at James Fort shows a degree of fishing specialization on the part of at least one of the colonists — perhaps a gentleman who had fished for pike in England.
Although Benjamin Franklin does not appear to have been a fisherman as an adult, as a child he was quite engaged in fishing. In fact, in his autobiography, he mentions an incident where his love of fishing got him and his friends in a great deal of trouble. The following is his account of that incident.
“There was a salt marsh which bounded part of the mill pond, on the edge of which at high water we used to stand to fish for minnows; by much trampling we had made it a mere quagmire. My proposal was to build a wharf there for us to stand upon, and I shewed my comrades a large heap of stones, which were intended for a new house near the marsh, and which would very well suit our purpose. Accordingly, in the evening, when the workmen were gone home, I assembled a number of my playfellows, and we worked diligently like so many emmets (ants), sometimes two or three to a stone, till we had brought them all to make our little wharf. The next morning the workmen were surprised, on missing the stones which formed our wharf; inquiry was made after the authors of this transfer, we were discovered, complained of, and corrected by our fathers; and though I demonstrated the utility of our work, mine convinced me that, that which was not truly honest could not be truly useful.”
Most of the biographers of George Washington's life mention that he displayed a boyhood love for sports, particularly athletics. He was known as one of the finest horsemen in the colonies, and his fondness for fox hunting bordered on being a passion. But he was also an ardent fisherman. From his diaries and tackle kits that Mount Vernon owns, it is clear George Washington also enjoyed fishing for sport. Sometimes with his younger brothers, John Augustine (Jack), Charles, and Samuel.
On September 3, 1770, for example, he remarked in his diary: "Went in the Evening a fishing with my Brothers Samuel and Charles." Five days later near Mount Vernon, he, "Went a fishing towards Sheridine Point. Dined upon the Point." Washington enjoyed fishing both as a gentleman's contemplative recreation and as a practical means of securing provisions while on the frontier. His diary records successful catches of a dolphin and shark in Barbados as well as a legendary catfish in the Ohio Country.
As President of the 1787 Federal Convention in Philadelphia he presided over an assembly of some of the greatest minds ever assembled. After two tumultuous months, a special "Committee of Detail," created to prepare and report the results of the deliberation in the form of a Constitution took over. The Convention then adjourned on Thursday, July 26th, to reassemble on Monday, August 6th. Washington used this recess to get in some recreational fishing near his old headquarters at Valley Forge. In his diary, he wrote:
"Monday, 30th, July. In company with Mr. Govern' Morris went into the neighborhood of Valley Forge to Widow Moore's a fishing at who house we lodged ".
"Tuesday, 31st, July. Before Breakfast I rode to Valley Forge and over the whole cantonment & works of the American Army in the winter of 1777-¬1778 and on my return to the Widow Moore's found Mr. & Mrs. Rob' Morris. Spent the day there fishing & lodged at the same place."
"Friday August 3rd, 1787. Went to Trenton on a Fishing Party with Mr. & Mrs. Rob' Morris & Mr. Gov' Morris. Dined and lodged at Col'. Sam Ogden's - In the evening fished".
During his Presidential Tour of New England, in 1789, Washington traveled as far north as Portsmouth, New Hampshire and, in a small boat, President Washington tried his hand at saltwater fishing. The entry in his diary read:
"On Monday, November 2nd, 1789, Having lines, we proceed to the fishing banks a little without the harbor and fished for Cod; but it not being proper time of the tide, we only caught two, with w'ch, about 1 o'clock, we returned to town."
During his tenure as President of the United States, a dispute arose between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. President Washington, worn down by the partisan infighting between these two, consulted his doctor that he should get more outdoor activity. On June 6, heeding his doctor’s advice, he took Hamilton and Jefferson on a fishing trip fishing trip off Sandy Hook, NJ, hoping that some recreation together would ease the disputes between the two. Unfortunately, afterwards, neither Washington, Jefferson, nor Hamilton wrote further of the trip. Considering that the bitter rivalry between the two continued until Hamilton’s death, although the trip may have done President Washington some good, it does not seem to have done much for the relationship between the two Secretaries.
In looking at John Adams life, it appears that our second President, although concerned with commercial fishing rights, was not himself a fisherman. Even as a child, fishing was not a part of his life as he writes in his autobiography,
“I spent my time as idle Children do in making and sailing boats and Ships upon the Ponds and Brooks, in making and flying Kites, in driving hoops, playing marbles, playing Quoits, Wrestling, Swimming, Skaiting and above all in shooting, to which Diversion I was addicted to a degree of Ardor which I know not that I ever felt for any other Business, Study or Amusement.”
Thomas Jefferson, known for his interest in anything that he came upon, made no exception for fishing. Monticello researchers have compiled the following references to the sport of fishing from Thomas Jefferson's correspondence and memorandum books.
1774. "A seine for my fishing place below the old dam should be 30 fathom long & 10 f. deep in the widest part. Will take 50 lb. twine @ 10d sterl. pr. lb. The knitting is 20d currcy. pr. lb."
1776 August 23. "Pd. for fishing tackle 20/6."
1777 April 22. "Pd. for fishing reed 1/."
1777 May 27. "Pd. B. Calvert for fishing rods 2/."
1780 July 4. "Pd. for fish hooks 36/."
1791 May 31. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "An abundance of speckled trout, salmon trout, bass and other fish with which [Lake George] is stored, have added to our other amusements the sport of taking them."
By the end of the first congress, in the spring of 1791, Thomas Jefferson desperately needed a vacation. He had suffered near-constant migraine headaches for the past six months; one source of them may have been his growing struggle with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who had views opposite to Jefferson’s on almost every issue facing the new government. On March 13, 1791, Congressman James Madison wrote to propose that they make a tour together as far to the north as they could go and return within a month. Madison’s suggestion offered a welcome respite.
As they travelled north, they came to Lake George. On May 29, 1791, Jefferson’s journal burst with “honeysuckle, wild cherry . . . black gooseberry, Velvet Aspen, cotton Willow, paper birch ... bass-wood wild rose... abundance of sugar maple.” The hemlock was covered with “moss of a foot long generally, but sometimes 4 [feet].” Strawberries were “now in blossom and young fruit.”
His account of their two days on Lake George covers geography, geology, climate, and wonder at the scarcity of inhabitants. The waters he found “very clear.” He also recorded historical lore, that a stony precipice overhanging the lake was “famous by the name of Roger’s rock, the celebrated partisan officer of that name (Col. Robert Rogers of Rogers’ Rangers) having escaped the pursuit of Indians by sliding down it when [it was] covered with snow and escaping across the lake then frozen over.”
Jefferson and Madison did more than make journal entries; they went fishing. The “abundance” of fish “added to our other amusements the sport of taking them,” the Secretary of State wrote. They caught salmon trout “of 7 lb. weight,” speckled trout, Oswego bass “of 6 or 7 lb. weight,” rock bass, and yellow perch.
Jefferson also spent considerable time and money setting up fishponds on his estate at Monticello as shown by entries in his diaries and account books presently held in his collections at the University of Virginia and Monticello. The biggest problem that he seemed to face was bringing fish to stock his ponds from the rivers without them dying before they got there.
Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery
By the last decade of the 18th century, for gentlemen, fishing had become an accepted method of sport – and a source for a tasty stream-side meal. By the time the 19th century rolled around, it was just natural that when outfitting for their trek across the Louisiana Territory that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would include fishing tackle.
From the fishing tackle that is known to have been taken on the expedition, and from the journals kept by Lewis, Clark, Ordway and others, it appears that coarse fishing (bait fishing with pole, line and hooks, a line tied to a limb or other pole, a hand-line, or with a trot line) was the method of fishing practiced by the Lewis and Clark men who actually fished. Considering the scarcity of space for equipment and provisions that an expedition like this faced, it perhaps not surprising that there is no mention of a fishing pole (here the term refers to a “store bought rod or pole”) being used during the course of the expedition, or included in the equipment purchased for the trip.
While there are several references to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark personally fishing, apparently for pleasure or at least recreation, the absence of any notation by either of them relating to “angling” (fly fishing or with a lure) or any nature of sport fishing equipment makes it a reasonable assumption that no rods or reels or other more sophisticated tackle was available to them once the expedition was underway.
The official records of goods purchased by Lewis, Clark, or others for them or at their direction, which are considered to be very comprehensive make it clear no one purchased a fishing reel (the stave reels noted in the inventories are not fishing reels or winches, but rather round or flat line holders make from wood, sometimes ready fitted with hooks and perhaps a cork and weight, for fishing), a rod, or other useful “sporting or angling” tackle (including fly lines, flies or lures) other than hooks, lines and fish spears.
The fishing equipment that the expedition is known to have taken on the trip includes the following:
1. Items requested by Lewis as personal requirements: 4 Groce fishing Hooks, 12 Bunche of Drum Line, 12 Bunches Small fishing line assorted.
2. Items requested by Lewis as Indian presents: 40 fish Giggs such as the Indians use with a single barbed pint—at Harper’s ferry, 3 Groce fishing Hooks assorted.
3. Supplies from private vendors secured by Lewis: Fishg. Tackle from George Lawton, $25.37.
Lewis recorded in his journal one of the members of the expedition, Silas Goodrich, from Massachusetts, as fishing:
“Goodrich, who is remarkably fond of fishing caught several douzen fish of two different species…they bite at meat or grasshoppers”. Tuesday June 11, 1805 – Lewis
Three days later Lewis reported that:
"Goodrich had caught a half a douzen of very fine trout and a number of both species of the white fish. These trout are from sixteen to twenty three inches in length, precisely resemble our mountain or speckled trout in form and the position of their fins, but the specks on these are of a deep black instead of the red or goald colour of those common in the U.’ States. These are furnished long sharp teeth on the pallet and tongue and have generally a small dash of red on each side behind the front ventral fins; the flesh is of a pale yellowish red, or when in good order, or a rose red.
Lewis also took part in the fishing as reported in these journal entries:
"Having nothing further to do, I amused myself in fishing and caught a few small fish; they were of the species of white chub mentioned below the falls, tho’ they are small and few in number. Wednesday, July 10, 1805 – Lewis
Fly Fishing in America
In the 18th century and before, references to fly fishing differed from “course” (or bait) fishing by use of the tern angling. If one were angling, then it was assumed that one was fishing with flies or some other form of artificial lure. The earliest record of fly fishing in America comes from an October 1764 letter from a R. (possibly Rodney) Home that is in a collection at the University of Virginia.
Home appears to have been a member of the entourage of George Johnstone, the first governor of the new West Florida Colony. This British acquisition was one of the results of the Seven Years (“French and Indian”) War. Home apparently arrived with the governor “ten days ago yesterday” and, as short as his time in Florida had been, Home had already sampled the local fishing:
“We have plenty of salt [?] water trout & fine fishing with fly in the fresh water Rivers of which we have a great number . . .”
Other evidence of American fly fishing includes newspapers and manuscripts from the 1770s described the sale of flies in stores in Boston and Philadelphia, as well as a commercial fly tier in Philadelphia as early as 1773. Pennsylvania-born George Gibson, in a series of articles on fly fishing published in American sporting periodicals between 1829 and 1849, reminisced vaguely about having begun his fly-fishing career on the limestone streams of southeastern Pennsylvania in about 1790.
In our next post we will look at recreational fishing equipment up through the early 19th century. In the meanwhile, we hope you found this post on the history of recreational fishing in America both informative and thought provoking. If you did, please take a moment to join our blog community (button in the upper right corner of this page) and let us know your thoughts by posting a comment. We also invite you to return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier posts.
Berners, D. J. (1827). The Treatyse of Fysshynge Wyth an Angle. London: William Pickering.
Bowlker, C. (1826). Bowlker's Art of Angling. London: Longman, Rees, & Co.
Butterfield, L. E. (1961). Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, Vol 3. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Chernow, R. (2010). Washington, A Life. New York: Penguin Books.
Franklin, B. (1818). The Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia: William Duane.
Historic Jamestowne. (2019). Fishhooks. Retrieved from Jamestowne Rediscovery: https://historicjamestowne.org/selected-artifacts/fishhooks-2/
McNamee, G. (2011). Aelian's No the Nature of Animals. San Antonio: Trinity University Press.
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Washington's Mount Vernon: https://www.mountvernon.org/preservation/collections-holdings/browse-the-museum-collections/object/w-2201e/
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Pearson, J. C. (1942). The Fish and Fisheries of Colonial Virginia. The William and Mary Quarterly, (Vol 22, No. 4), 353-360.
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Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. (2019). Fishing. Retrieved from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello: https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/fishing
Venables, R. (1827). The Experienced Angler. London: T. Gosden.
Walton, I., & Cotton, C. (1797). The Complete Angler. London: F. and C. Rivington.