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The Development of Fishing Tackle

Updated on October 7, 2009

Before 1850, sport fishing rods in the United States and in European markets were heavy, up to 12 feet long, and usually made in four sections that were spliced together and made of combinations of woods, frequently with a whalebone tip. Lines were of twisted or braided horsetail hairs or of mixed silk and horsehair, usually tapered to single, double, or triple strands. In about 1846 the 4-strip split-bamboo rod was developed, probably by Samuel Phillippe, of Easton, Pa. This more delicate instrument attained national popularity largely as a result of refinements made in it by Hiram L. Leonard in Bangor, Me. Between 1875 and 1900 the 6-strip split-bamboo rod became standard for fly-fishing.

The early manufacturers made their rods from carefully selected cured bamboo canes, usually obtained from Southeast Asia, where the climate produces remarkably strong canes, rich in resin. The rod sections were made of four, five, or six sawn or split strips, steamed straight, planed to uniform thickness, and beveled into tapered shapes with triangular cross sections, which were glued solidly together with the leaf nodes (joints) staggered for maximum strength. The two or three tapered sections were sanded and varnished, and joined by metal ferrules; tiptop (ring at the forward end of the rod), other line guides, and cork grips were affixed. Precise machinery was used in many of these operations, and the quality of materials and workmanship was paramount. In fly-fishing tackle, single-action reels containing about 35 yards of line were clamped to the reel seats by sliding rings at the rear of the rod's cork grips. The lines were tapered or level (untapered), braided by machine from silk threads, and hand-rubbed and polished after being coated with linseed oil or other finishes. Tapered or level leaders (short strands), tied from sections of silkworm gut, joined the bait hook or artificial fly to the line in order to make the tackle's connection with the lure as nearly invisible to the fish as possible. Tackle for spinning and for spin casting was unknown until after World War II. The popular methods were plug-casting (sometimes called bait-casting), fly-fishing, and using fly-fishing tackle to fish with worms or other small bait.

In the 1950's the development of glass fiber cloth for fishing rods of all types gradually caused a revolution in rod manufacture, because not only were tubular fiberglass rods sturdier and cheaper than ones made of split bamboo, but they could also be mass-produced in quantities sufficient for the rapidly expanding number of fishermen. A tubular glass rod is basically a bonding of clothlike longitudinal and crosswise glass fibers with a resin base, fabricated in such a way as to form a tube that is wide in diameter at the butt and tapers to a much smaller tip. Good quality results from the correct combination of many factors. Among them is the diameter of the tube, the thickness of its wall, the density of the lamination, the amount and type of taper built into the tube, and the variance in wall thickness from the butt to the tip of the rod.

Coincident with the developments in rod making were similar improvements in fishing lines. Natural fibers such as linen and silk gave way to synthetic materials such as nylon, Dacron, and Perlon, which are cheaper, stronger, and more dependable per diameter. In addition, they are longer lasting, easier to use, and much less visible to the fish. Fly lines are braided or twisted, but almost all lines for spinning and spin-casting in fresh and salt water are of mono-filament (synthetic single-strand material). The strength of a monofilament line, that is, the weight it will pull without breaking, varies from fractions of a pound to 60 pounds, depending on diameter. Other types of lines, used almost entirely for trolling, are extrusions of metals such as copper, lead, and Monel Metal. In addition, monofilament has almost entirely replaced silkworm gut for use in fishing leaders.

Reels evolved gradually from simple winch-types (intended solely to store unused line) to later refined models fitted with brakes and accessories intended to simplify control of the fish. Various types included single-action and automatic fly reels, multiplying spool plug-casting reels, and spinning and spin-casting reels for both fresh and salt water fishing.


The history of fishhooks extends over two thousand years, when they were—as they sometimes still are—made of bone, stone, shell, thorns, and any other material capable of holding a fish on the end of a line. Modern steel hooks originated in Redditch, England, about 1560. Redditch was an important needle-manufacturing region, and the father of the modern hook was the needle.

Hooks are made by feeding coils of specially formulated steel wire into machines that cut, bend, eye, and barb them when the wire is relatively soft. Then they are hardened to an exacting degree, first by being heated in furnaces specially designed for strict temperature control and then by being tempered in carefully regulated liquid baths. Usually they are then bronzed, blackened, or plated with chromium, nickel, gold, or other metals. Many different sizes, lengths, weights, finishes, and designs are available for use with different types of fish and for various angling methods. The most popular for bait fishing is the "Eagle Claw," so named because the point (barb) on the hook curves inward in line with the eye, in the shape of an eagle's claw. This design provides a direct line of pull and has superior hooking and holding qualities.

Fresh Water

In American ponds and lakes, bass fishing (for largemouth, smallmouth, white, and spotted species) is most popular. Very active on light tackle, these fish are taken on a great variety of natural baits and artificial lures. Bluegill (bream), crappie (calico bass), and perch and pickerel are also pond favorites in fishing with light equipment. Several species of trout (and char), smallmouth bass, and walleye frequent rivers as well as lakes. Fly-fishing for trout and salmon is the classic angling method in all countries where those fishes exist. Salmon and anadromous trout travel periodically from the sea up coastal rivers in the northern United States, Canada, the British Isles, Iceland, Greenland, and Scandinavian countries, providing peak sport with the fly and, in some areas, with other artificial lures and bait.

Realizing that fish seek comfortable water temperatures, fishermen try to fish lures at depths and in locations where such temperatures exist. For example, bass prefer about 70° F and stay in cool deep water on warm summer days, returning to the shallows at nightfall, when surface waters are cooler.

Salt Water

In the United States, striped bass, bluefish, and mackerel are among northeastern saltwater favorites. Farther south, red drum (channel bass or redfish), tarpons, snook, bone-fish, barracuda, permit, crevalle, pompano, and weakfish are among the many coastal species that test the angler's skill. In deeper waters in or near the Gulf Stream the abundant game fishes include sailfish and other billfishes, tuna, amber-jack, cobia, albacore, bonito, sea bass, and dolphin (not the mammal, which is properly called porpoise). West Coast favorites include striped bass, several species of billfishes, shad, yellowtail, roosterfish, mackerel, albacore, bonito, sea bass, steelhead (anadromous rainbow trout) and several species of salmon. Because many of these saltwater fishes common along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States roam widely in their respective oceans, they furnish sport for anglers in other countries as well.

The best fishing is during the running tide, especially the incoming tide, when game fish move from deep water into the shallows, creeks, and estuaries to feed. Optimum water temperatures vary widely in saltwater fishing.


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