Recreational Fishing in England and America – Part 2 - Equipment
Updated: Feb 22
In our last post, we took a brief look at the history of recreational fishing, with a focus on England, Colonial America, and the Early United States. Today we are going to look at the sorts of equipment that was in use in the 18th and early 19th centuries by recreational fishermen.
Equipment for 18th and Early 19th Century Fishing
The Pennsylvania Gazette
August 30, 1764
Just imported in the Philadelphia Packet, Captain Budden, from London. . . 3 and 4 joint hazel, dogwood and bambus fishing rods, best Kirby hooks untied, best round and common hooks , 3 and 4 joint solid rods, 6, 8 and 10 stave reels of fishing lines, flies on gut, best and common hair lines, ditto with Kirby hooks , best silk ditto, common and best Kirby hooks tied, . . .
The first fishing rods were nothing more sophisticated than hazel, or any other flexible wood or reed, about 6 feet long with a horsehair line of about the same length fixed to the tip and a hook whipped to the end of the line that stayed there until a fish broke it off. The first description of a longer rod is given in The Treatyse of Fishing with an Angle in 1496, the author of which describes a 14-foot two section rod with a hollow bottom section in which the tip could be stored. Two centuries later, although short rods were still in use, jointed examples of up to sixteen or even eighteen feet had become common. The line was either attached to the tip using a loop to loop connection or fed through a single loop whipped to the tip, the other end held by the angler.
By the early 1700s, a wide range of materials was in use, ranging from ash or willow for the butts, and hickory or hazel for tops, to juniper, bay tree and elder for butts; and yew, crab apple and blackthorn for tops. The adventurous fisherman could even try some new-fangled Indian stuff called 'bambou cane' for the construction of his tops. By 1770 a rod with guides for the line along its length and a reel were in common use in England. This innovation gave anglers much greater control over the fish.
The most common configuration of lines for course (bait) fishing in the late 18th and early 19th century would be a horsehair “main” line, attached to the pole. Attached to that would have been a twisted silk “ground” line tied to the hook. For fly fishing, it would be a tapered twisted horsehair line with a horsehair snood (leader) attached and the snood attached to the fly.
Another material used for leaders was silkworm gut, a natural material that, by comparison with horsehair, was so remarkable for translucence, flexibility, and strength that it would eventually come to dominate the sport. Gut was the raw material from which the larvae of the silkworm spun silk. When this larva reached the growth stage at which it would start spinning its cocoon, it had two long, thin sacs or “envelopes” running longitudinally the length of its body. Each sac held a tightly bundled mass that when unwound, stretched, and properly treated would make a single strand about twelve to fifteen inches in length — just right for a tippet, or, if several were knotted together, a whole leader
Oddly enough, silkworm gut struggled for a place in the eighteenth-century British angling marketplace. For one thing, the gut, being a natural substance, varied wildly in quality and size. For another, gut seemed absurdly expensive to self-sufficient anglers who could clip all the line and leader material they needed from the tails of their neighborhood stallions. Finally, gut was simply different. Anglers at the time, unlike today’s consumer-conditioned fishermen, fished the way their great-grandfathers had, and many would have seen little reason to change.
But by the early 1800s, the silkworm gut market flourished, and a minimum set of standards for quality appeared. Though several countries grew silkworms, Spanish gut dominated the top-end market. In fact, in 1845, the American fishing writer John Brown warned anglers away from obtaining gut manufactured in the silkworm’s native country of China.
Iron hooks also have a long history. The Romans, for example, created networks of small iron pits to sustain the huge demand for swords and spear heads that their armies created, making hooks as a byproduct. However, the history of the modern hook really begins with the discovery of how to make steel.
The first mention of the use of steel to make hooks is in The Treatyse of Fishing with an Angle, published in London in 1496. The English had known about Steel for a long time but, until the blast furnace was invented in the early 15th century, most of it, except for small quantities produced from the Swedish ‘Osmund’ method (a superior iron from Sweden used for making arrowheads, fishhooks, and clockworks), was quite soft. The author of the Treatyse gave a very detailed description about how to make spade-ended hooks from square needles and, unless a reader knew a friendly blacksmith, he would have had no choice but to follow the instructions since tackle shops were still several hundred years in the future.
Hooks first became available in British tackle shops in the seventeenth century. Although the general standard of hooks was superior to what it had been in the days of the Treatyse, the quality was still low by modern standards. Everything changed once Charles Kirby set up his shop in Harp Alley in London in 1650. Kirby sold the best hooks on the market for decades and did not lose his advantage until the crucible process for steel making became widely known. Outside the capital, it was much harder to get hold of excellent quality hooks but, by the eighteenth century, the situation began to change, and Kirby hooks were being exported around the globe along with those of many other suppliers.
In America, steel fishhooks arrived with the early colonists. As we talked about in our last post, archaeologists working at the site of the original fort at Jamestown, have found steel fishhooks that date to the early days of the Virginia Colony. They were also available throughout the 18th century as evidenced by their use by fishermen throughout the 1700s such as the young Ben Franklin, the advertisement from the Pennsylvania Gazette, including Kirby hooks, that we began this post with, and later by the likes of George Washington.
The first detailed account of how to make a float appeared in The Treatyse of Fishing with an Angle in 1496. The method recommended in the Treatyse was to bore a hole through a shaped cork with a hot iron. A horsehair line passed through the hole and a quill pushed in from above trapped the line. The size of line and the weight it had to carry determined the size of the float.
The next mention of a float isn’t until 1577, in The Arte of Angling whose author recommended using two cut swan quills, pushed one inside the other, with short cylinders of swan quill slid over each end to trap the line. This type of float is extremely sensitive and made it easier to detect fish that tended to take the bait gently. After that, the pace of development increased considerably - for example, the self-cocking float (one that is weighted on one end to stand upright) was described early in the eighteenth century and there is even a reference to a night fishing float for carp, the light being provided by a couple of glow-worms!
Most 18th and early 19th century references to fishing reels in America are talking about a “stave reel”. The bill of sale endorsed by Captain Lewis in May 1803 in Philadelphia for the purchase of fishing tackle included an item listed as "8 stave reel." A stave reel is an open wooden frame, shaped similarly to a ladder, around which the angler wound the line for storage. It may or may not have a hole in the middle to allow insertion of a dowel or handle (see illustration). This sort of reel seems to have been the predominate form of reel in America until well into the 19th century.
Modern reel design dates to 18th-century England. The Nottingham Reel, the predominant British reel of the day, was based on the wooden lace bobbin devised in the lace-making town of that name. It was a wide-drum, free-spooling reel, ideal for allowing line and bait or lure to float downstream with the current and even suitable for certain kinds of sea fishing.
The first true modern reel was a geared multiplying reel attached under the rod, in which one turn of the handle moved the spool through several revolutions. Although not popular in Great Britain, such reels became popular in the United States and inspired the bait-casting reel devised by Kentucky watchmaker George Snyder in 1810.
What can one say about natural bait and bait fishing? Bait fishing, also called still fishing or bottom fishing, is certainly the oldest and most universally used method. Egyptian art from approximately 2000 BC shows figures fishing with rod and line. Writings from Roman times talk of using flies, spiders, worms, fish, raw or cooked, and meat.
Common natural baits that fishermen use often mimic the natural pray of the fish they try to catch. The most common natural North American baits are worms, minnows, crayfish, cut-up fish, leeches, bread and bread dough, small pieces of vegetables (corn kernels, etc.), cheese, grubs, maggots, crickets, and grasshoppers.
In reading the journals from the Lewis and Clark expedition, we learn about a couple of “unexpected” baits – leftover buffalo and deer spleen. Tuesday June 11, 1805
“Goodrich, who is remarkably fond of fishing caught several douzen fish of two different species…they bite at meat or grasshoppers”. – Lewis
Through further reading we learn that, while at this point in the expedition, bait was plentiful and easy to come by, when grasshoppers or leftover buffalo were not available, Goodrich kept some melt (spleen) of a deer handy, expressly for fishing.
Although Americans did not widely embrace fly fishing here in America until well into the 1830s, we know, based upon the advertisement from the Pennsylvania Gazette with which we opened this article, that flies were being imported into this country as early as 1760. Because of this, we will supply some information on the flies and their construction materials.
One of the earliest references to fly fishing is from the Roman Claudius Aelianus near the end of the 2nd century. He described the practice of Macedonian anglers on the Astraeus River:
“...they have planned a snare for the fish and get the better of them by their fisherman's craft. . . They fasten red wool. . . round a hook, and fit on to the wool two feathers which grow under a cock's wattles, and which in color are like wax. Their rod is six feet long, and their line is the same length. Then they throw their snare, and the fish, attracted and maddened by the color, comes straight at it, thinking from the pretty sight to gain a dainty mouthful; when, however, it opens its jaws, it is caught by the hook, and enjoys a bitter repast, a captive.”
The earliest “modern” work on fly fishing is The Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle. It included dressings for twelve flies for trout and grayling intended to suggest naturals insects of English rivers–a watershed concept in the history of the sport. These included the dun fly, stone fly, and wasp fly.
Written in Britain in 1600 by John Taverner Certaine Experiments Concerning Fish and Fruite, while not directly addressing fly fishing, was the first written description of the phases of mayfly development from nymph to dun, and to note how trout feed on the nymph. In 1676, Charles Cotton, Cavalier poet, aristocrat, and companion to Izaak Walton, became the founder of modern fly fishing and fly making with the twelve chapters titled Instructions How to Angle for Trout and Grayling in a Clear Stream that he contributed to Walton’s fifth edition of The Compleat Angler. In this second section, Cotton explains which flies to fish with for each month of the year and tells how to make them.
The Art of Angling, written by Charles Bowlker and published in 1747. It includes patterns for at least 38 different flies, black & white illustrations of 30 of them, as well as general instructions for tying flies. This book marked the beginning of modern fly dressing and dominated angling technique and fly tying in the second half of the eighteenth and the early 19th centuries.
The materials used in this period are not appreciably different from those used today, except for the lack of modern synthetics used by so many modern tyers. According to Bowlker, you should:
"Procure the fur of seals, moles, and water rats; black, blue, purple, white, and violet goat’s-hair, commonly called mohair; camlets of every colour; furs from the neck and ears of hares; also, hackle-feathers from the heads and necks of cocks, of the following colours, red, dun, yellowish, white, and black; feathers to form the wings of flies are got from the neck, breast, and wings of the wild mallard, partridge, and pheasant; also, from the wings of the blackbird, brown hen, starling, jay, landrail, swallow, thrush, fieldfare, and water-coot; also, peacock's and ostrich's herl. Provide also, marking silk of all colours; gold and silver flatted wire or twist, a sharp knife, books of every size, a needle, and a pair of sharp-pointed scissors."
This brings our review of early fishing and fishing equipment to a close. Obviously, there is much more to this subject than we have covered here, but our space is limited. For those with an inclination toward Living History this could be subject which the public would find both interesting and engaging the public at living history sites. Especially at site with access to rivers, streams, or ponds. For those interested in pursuing this further, you can obtain period fishing lines, hooks, floats, and flies from sources such as Historic Angling Enterprises in Troup, TX.
We hope you found this series of posts on recreational fishing in America both informative and thought provoking. If you did, please take a moment to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post) 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.
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Bowlker, C. (1826). Bowlker's Art of Angling. London: Longman, Rees, & Co.
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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.
Pepys, S. (1905). The Diary of Samuel Pepys. London: MacMillan & Co., Ltd.
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Santella, C. (2019). Fishing with Lewis and Clark. Retrieved from The A Position: http://theaposition.com/chrissantella/fly-fishing/440/fishing-with-lewis-clark
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.
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