You won’t believe what you are about to read. The history of fishing tackle, as we know it today, traces its roots well beyond the most vivid imagination. An ancient hook was discovered somewhere between 16,000 to 23,000 years ago made out of a natural shell material. Fish gorges have been found that date back at least 9,000 years. A gorge was pointed on either end with a narrow spot in the middle to which the line was tied and was the forerunner of today’s fishhook.
Just as a point of reference, barbed hooks were found in ancient Egypt. Hooks were crafted from a variety of materials until metal alloy was discovered about 4,000 years ago. Then, metal became the material of choice for hooks and the shape began to resemble the hooks we use today. As an example, the circle hook that we think is relatively new dates back more than 3,000 years.
The basic concepts of rod, line, and hooks go back a few thousand years. Stone inscriptions show fishing rods in Egypt, China, Greece, Rome, and medieval England 4,000 years ago. The English called them angles and that’s why fishing became known as angling. The simplest rods were branches from a tree, but early fishermen soon learned that certain woods such as ash, hickory, ironwood, Tonkin bamboo, Calcutta reed, and various types of cane were superior to others for rod construction. It wasn’t until the 1600’s that a small piece of metal was attached to the tip of the rod to guide the line and eventually more metal guides were added along the blank.
In the mid-1800s, cane became the material of choice and rods were made from six cane strips glued together. In 1913, the first all-steel rods were introduced. At the conclusion of World War II, fiberglass rods entered the market, followed later by boron fiber technology and eventually graphite.
The earliest fishing lines were crafted from vines and plant fibers along with rawhide and gut. Horsehair entered the picture because it could be braided. The Chinese developed silk lines at least 2,500 years ago and they remained a standard until at least the late 1940s. At the end of every fishing day, silk lines had to be spooled on an open drying rack, rinsed thoroughly, and allowed to dry.
Linen lines were a braid of three threads and became the choice of big game anglers because of its strength. Available in various breaking strengths, the maximum eventually accepted was 39-thread which broke at 117 pounds. Linen lines also had to be taken off the reels and dried on open racks after use, if you wanted them to last.
In the early 1950s, DuPont chemists made several important advancements in creating materials that could also be used for fishing lines. Among them was polyester, which was trademarked as Dacron and immediately began to replace linen lines. About the same time, the world of fishing lines changed once more when DuPont perfected nylon which could be extruded into a single line called monofilament.
A Chinese painting in 1195 and another in the early 1200s shows a man fishing with rod, reel, and line. The earliest reels were basically a small wheel with a handle that would allow the user to spool line as a storage device and then pull it off the spool when needed. The first written reference to a reel or “wind” as it was once called appeared in English literature in 1651. Fly fishermen were among the early users of a reel to store line.
In the early 1800s, a group of jewelers in Kentucky, skilled in cutting gears and working on a lathe to produce delicate parts, began to develop the famed Kentucky Reels. Not only were they multiplying reels, but they allowed the user to cast. A decade or two later, larger multiplying reels known as the New York Reels were being produced in the northeast. These huskier reels were used mostly for trolling.
Towards the end of the 19th century, drags were developed and installed on reels for use in salt water. Researchers tell us that spinning or fixed spool reels were initially produced over a century ago. It wasn’t until the late 1930s that the first spinning reels appeared in the United States and after World War II when they became popular.
As one looks back at the history of tackle, the basic concepts originated thousands of years earlier. When you consider the rods, reels, lines, and hooks that we use today, they are simply modern improvements of original ideas fostered by newer and newer materials along with advanced engineering and manufacturing skills. It’s still hard to believe that the methods for catching fish and the equipment used have followed the same trail that researchers tell us was blazed a millennium ago.
Author, Mark Sosin, in addition to writing a monthly column for Coastal Angler Magazine, is an award-winning writer, photographer, radio personality, and television producer. He is considered a leading educator, journalist, and one of America’s most knowledgeable fishing authorities. More than 3,000 of his articles have been published and he is currently working on his 31st book.