Monday June 5, 2023

The humble rod and reel.

Angling is among the most popular outdoor activities in the US – roughly 50-60 million Americans engage in fishing at least once per year. Along with such participation comes a huge industry – with around $50 billion in annual retail sales – that promises increased angling success by purchasing all the latest gimmicks. 

The most essential tackle, the humble hook-and-line, has existed for much longer than recreational fishing. Historically, the hook and line setup was made from shell or bone and dates back to at least 16,000 years ago. However, during the sixth century when metallurgy, or the practice of extracting and working with metals, was invented, fishing hooks were made from copper and bronze. The hooks were then attached to lines made of plant fibers, sinew, horsehair, silk, or other natural materials to haul in the bounty. 

Lead biking fishing hooks by James Blake Weiner. Worldhistory.org.

By the late 18th century, rods with line guides and simple reels were common, but it was not until after World War II that fiberglass, rather than split bamboo, became the predominant material for rod building. At about the same time, nylon monofilament fishing line went on the market. The line was smoother and thinner and could be held by ever-larger capacity reels that made casting easier and more efficient. The ease of repeatedly casting far distances spurred the development of artificial lures, which are now available in every imaginable size, style, and color and fill thousands of pages in virtual tackle catalogs. These days, rods and reels with price tags in the thousands of dollars are available to those with the means and (perceived) necessity. Available hook sizes range from a minute size 32 (about the size of George Washington’s nose on a quarter) to an enormous size 27/0, supposedly the largest hook for an actual fishing situation.

A reconstruction of a hook and small grooved pebble on a line. Emanuela Cristiani/Creative Commons.

However, bigger, stronger, and farther aren’t necessarily what the modern angler is looking for. Intriguingly, in recent years there has been a surge in back-to-basics angling. One of the most prominent methods to make a comeback is the“tenkara” method, which became popular in Japan and then beyond in the late 2000s. In what could be described as a bare-bones approach to fly fishing, a piece of line is attached to a typically telescoping flexible rod, and no reel is used. An artificial fly serves as the attractor, placed in areas suspected to hold fish within the fisher’s limited reach. This minimalist method of a stick, some line, and a hook embellished with feathers is strikingly similar to the approach Macedonian fishers used as many as 2,000 years ago. Simple, intuitive, and effective are attributes modern anglers are looking for in their pastime.

Hook and line fish sampling.

While fishing with hook and line undoubtedly had its beginnings to provide sustenance for survival, fishing for recreation or competition has been a pastime for over 500 years. It is important to note that from the start, people have recognized that fishing for fun requires a sense of responsibility. In fact, the first written reference to minimizing an angler’s impact on fish populations dates back to the late 15th century, when English nun, Juliana Berners, cautioned against catching “too much at one time.” Her reasoning was that if an angler caught too many fish at a time, they could ruin the experience for themselves or their neighbors at a later time. 

While the reasons for engaging in fishing, as well as the materials and processes used to build modern gear, have changed a lot over the past several thousand years, the basic ingredients – hook and line – have remained the same over time.

This Fish Report is the third chapter of the Fishing Through The Ages series. To read more about the history of fisheries science, please follow the link here.

This post was featured in our weekly e-newsletter, the Fish Report. You can subscribe to the Fish Report here.

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