The History of Angling

Part One: Ancient Fishing to Early Rods and Reels

Ancient Fishing

In 2007 the remains of a human who is thought to have lived around 40,000 years ago were found in the Tianyuan cave near Beijing, China. Isotope analysis of the remains found that he lived on a diet which included freshwater fish, proving that humans caught fish forty millennia ago. Fishing is therefore an ancient practice, and while there are many new innovations and technologies used in fishing today, the fundamental practice of catching fish as a source of food has not changed.

Angler on a Wintry Lake by Ma Yuan, 1195
Angler on a Wintry Lake created by Ma Yuan in 1195 is one of the earliest depictions of an angler fishing with a rod, reel and line.

There are plenty of historical reports of ancient cultures and people fishing as a way of gaining food to feed their populations. Cave paintings that are at least 15,000 years old show that humans used barbed poles and spears to hunt for fish, and paintings on tomb walls and pictures on papyrus show that the ancient Egyptians used woven nets, baskets and harpoons to catch fish such as Nile perch, catfish and eels. Mosaics display ancient Romans using hooks and nets to catch fish, and it is also thought that fishing was an important part of ancient Greek culture, although the low status of fishermen meant that it was not well recorded by the Greeks. In 2016 the academic journal Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences found that fishing hooks had been found in Sakitari Cave in Okinawa Island, Japan. The hooks were carved out of sea snail shells and were estimated to date back 23,000 years, making them the oldest known fishing technology ever discovered.

Fishing for Pleasure

While there is evidence of people fishing for food going back tens of thousands of years, recreational fishing – that is fishing for the pure enjoyment of catching fish – cannot be traced back quite so far. The oldest reference to fishing for sport comes from the essay Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle by Dame Juliana Berners published in England in 1496. The full essay can be read here.

Izaak Walton
Izaak Walton

Another famous book on fishing was The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton, first published in 1653. Walton provided a detailed guide to fishing, including advice on how to catch the most common fish in England’s rivers, where to find the best bait, and how to cook fish once they had been caught. The book was initially successful, and a further four editions we re-published during his lifetime. Following Walton’s death interest in the book waned, but in 1750 the book was reprinted again. Multiple reprints followed and the throughout the 1800s it was reprinted hundreds of times. By the year 1900 The Compleat Angler had been translated into over twenty different languages and was one of the best-selling books of all time. Today The Compleat Angler has been 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.

Early Rod, Reel and Line Fishing

Until the mid-1600s fishing rods consisted of a length of wood with line – usually horsehair – tied directly to the end. At around the same time Walton was writing, anglers were beginning to experiment with a metal ring or loop attached to the end of the rod which allowed a running line to be used. In The Art of Angling – published in 1651 – Thomas Barker wrote of using a line twenty-six yards long to catch salmon. However, these lines were used to trot a bait or lure down a flowing river, and the act of casting out, as we understand it today, had yet to be developed and reels (or ‘winds’ as they were known) were simply devices to store excess line. Terminal tackle was also advancing during this time. By the early 1700s, metal fishing hooks were commonplace, with inventors such as Charles Kirby using their knowledge of manufacturing needles and pins to lead the way in hook design. Indeed, the fundamental design of Kirby bend fishing hook, which Charles Kirby developed over three hundred years, ago is still in worldwide use today.

Kentucky Reels
Kentucky reels manufactured in 1904.

Multiplier reels were developed in America throughout the 1800s, with the Kentucky reel becoming the first reel that was truly capable of casing a bait and sinker a reasonable distance. These reels were initially made by watchmakers and jewellers who had experience of cutting gears and precision engineering. Once these were developed machine produced copies soon followed and the mass-produced, mass-market casting multiplier had truly arrived, although hand-built Kentucky reels continued to be made and sold until the 1940s. The different types of fishing which emerged led to the demand and development of different types of reels: anglers using lures and spinners from piers and jetties wanted small, light multipliers, while big game fishing led to large-capacity multipliers with powerful drag systems. In Britain, the Kentucky-style reel never gained any real popularity. Instead, the Nottingham reel took prominence. Consisting of a simple free-running wooden spool with the handle directly attached, companies such as Slater, Allcocks and Reuben Heaton soon sprung up to make the reels in large numbers. Many of these reels are collector’s items today. The Nottingham reel revolutionised British sport fishing, and modern fly reels are still based on the same basic design. The Malloch reel, developed in Scotland, was another innovation. The ingenious design allowed the reel to be rotated sideways so it could be cast much like a fixed spool reel, and then rotated back again to be reeled in like a centre pin reel. In turn, this eventually led to Holden Illingworth inventing the fixed-spool reel in the early 1900s. The design featured a spool that permanently remained in one position for casting and then used a bail arm to wrap the line around the spool when reeling in. Modern fixed spool reels are still made to the same design.

Adverts for fishing tackle from 1897.

All other aspects of fishing technology were improving as the 1800s continued. Fishing hooks were now being made for the mass market, and horsehair lines had given way to lighter and stronger silk and flaxen lines. Rod technology also improved over this time with the heavy woods such as oak being replaced by lighter, flexible wood imported from abroad. Lancewood from the West Indies and Greenheart from South America were successfully used to make fishing rods, but it was bamboo that became far and away the most popular. Techniques were developed allowing strips of bamboo to be glued together to create a rod that was stronger and yet lighter than a single bamboo cane. Angling had finally arrived as a sport that could be enjoyed by all, and its popularity began to grow and grow.

 >>>>> Continue on to Part Two: Modern Fishing Equipment