Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Monday, January 31, 2011

Fishing for History or Trying My Hand at 19th Century Angling

     I wouldn't call myself an avid fisherman although I have fished off and on all my life. I had an old bamboo fly rod thrust into my hands long before I was a teenager. My father, on the other hand, was an avid fisherman, so I can thank him (the thruster) for getting me started. A few years ago I decided it was time to get back into it but this time with a different take. I thought to myself, what was it like to be an angler in the early to mid-19th century? Could I possibly recreate that early tackle and learn to use it effectively?

Currier and Ives
1860's Trout Fishing
Check out that suit !
     This is a fun project to talk about as a lot of us have had the chance to go fishing. I also think it's safe to assume there's a broad base of similar experiences out there. People like myself, who are more than a little bent on history, might even be curious about the ancient beginnings of angling. There seems to be at least a couple of us out there who even want to "experience" fishing at a pre-industrial , low-tech level. I find this quite comforting that I'm not alone but for the time being, we early angler types are few and far between. Since recreating period angling is a quiet and personal sort of experience, it might be a little harder to sell it as an option to the warrior / reenactor  crowd. I did uncover a lot of information and sources to help me build my period fishing  kit, so I think it's within the grasp of the hobby-historian to do this.

      First things first, I wanted to know who out there is, or has been, fishing in a 19th century fashion. I stumbled on Hank Trent's website Fishing Rod . Hank had put together a pretty convincing impression of an 1860's angler for a one time Civil War reenactment event back east. His site had some basic information and lots of primary sources he had used to pull it off. It was a good starting point but I wanted to go a little further. I wanted to scratch build my own authentic tackle and use it to catch fish. A little later I found Paul Jones and his Historic Angling Enterprise . Paul's site is full of goodies and getting better all the time. He is a great resource for things like horsehair and silkworm gut line and he also has period appropriate flies. His booklist includes some of the best titles on the subject. Paul even encourages people to make their own hooks and sells what you need to do it.

 1850's American Angler
image courtesy
The Daguerreian Society
     I continued my internet quest for information on early tackle and made some great discoveries. The American Museum of Fly Fishing is a must visit. I wish I could see their collections in person but they do at least feature some of their exhibits on line. There are also many sites that focus on Angling History. I found Dr. Andrew N. Herd's site to be quite helpful,  A Fly Fishing History and I stumbled on a great article on gut line at Midcurrent. Little by little, I was amassing the parts of the puzzle but I still lacked a clear plan.

     One name that I kept coming across in my research was Thaddeus Norris, sometimes refered to as the father of American Angling. When I learned that his "The American Angler's Book" was reprinted by Derrydale Press, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. As I suspected, this would become my bible and an invaluable aid to formulating my strategy for the project. Honestly, I couldn't get enough of it. At the time this book was first published in 1864, most of the literature on angling, up to that time, had come from England. The influence of the English style of Angling on the Early American fisherman was undeniable but Thaddeus wanted to celebrate a distinctly American version. What gave me a charge was that Norris made his own rods and promoted that very self-made fisherman I wanted to become. His detailed descriptions of tackle and how to make it was just the ticket I had been looking for. This was going to be fun but there was still a ton of work to do.

Thaddeus Norris
aka Uncle Thad
The Father of American Angling

      What I was looking for beyond Norris' book were pictures of actual surviving examples of early 19th-century tackle to study. Hopefully this would help me decide what I needed to reproduce and what I could buy. I thought that antique tackle auctions might be a good place to start and I was right.           Mullock's Auctions  in the UK is an amazing resource for early gear. You will see some of the rarest of reels, rods, creels, flybooks and all kinds of scarce period fishing minutia. On this side of the pond you have   Lang's Auctions although I found access to their past auction items is limited unless you're willing to pay.

Mullock's Catalog Cover
Mullock's Auctions UK
     In the collector's books department I found  A.J. Campbell's book, "Classic & Antique Fly Fishing Tackle" is full of eye-candy and great information. I also found a great site that helps collectors ID old rods, with some classic examples worthy of study. I know that there are tons of books and resources out there but this is what I found to get me started

     . My final decision on a reel was to go ahead and  purchase an antique. I was looking for a plate mounted, small brass winch, around 2" in diameter, if I could be so lucky. Something mid 19th-centuryish would be fine, since it appeared these cheaper, simple little reels were produced for at least 50 years. Well, lucky I was, thanks to Ebay, a little prize reel  from an overseas dealer, was mine for a price. It turned out to be not quite ready for service until I unpeened the pillars, tore it apart and rebuilt the ratchet. But hey, the price was right and I was off and running. Before I launched into crafting the rod ala Norris, I decided to focus on a creel.

On the Mokelumne River, Calaveras County,
with my creel on my hip and
net on my backl
Photo Andrew Quist 2010
     From what I could gather, the classic creel of the early to mid 19th-century would be commonly made of split or whole willow not wicker. The hole on the lid would be centered and the classic body shape could be what we call "pot-bellied". I'd never made a basket before but what the heck, this could actually be fun. After surfing around on the net for a basketry source, I found Bonnie Gale and her English Basketry Willows. What a lucky find. Ms. Gale not only had the correct willows for sale but she had a pattern for a creel !! With a little tweeking, the pattern worked for me just dandy. Norris said that your creel should be large enough for a bottle of claret! I just love this guy.

My rod with the English reel and my fly-book
photo Andrew Quist 2010
      No more procrastinating, it was time to craft the rod. Norris recommended starting with square stock wood strips for the rod's sections and shaving them round but I chose straight-grained round dowels instead. I decided to make it a three piece rod that would finish out around 12'. With the master's guidance, I made the butt section out of 4' of ash, the middle section out of 4' of hickory and the tip 4' section would be a combination of materials. That final section started with hickory, spliced to rent (split in 4 sections) and glued bamboo, spliced to a final few inches of solid bamboo. All the sections were tapered according to Norris' plan. I made all the ferrules from flat brass sheet and left the wooden spike of the earliest styles. All the guides were to be floppy brass rings that I had to hard-solder together. The butt section was shaped in the classic cigar-shape swell near the base. I inletted a section near the base for the reel plate and slipped on the sliding brass rings that I had made to secure the reel. I decided to dye the butt and middle sections with India Ink and leave the final section natural. With the rod complete, stained and fitted together, I lashed all of the guide rings in place with silk thread and gave the rod several coats of varnish. It all seemed a "little" homey but I think that Thaddeus Norris would have approved. It was a whippy little devil too. That was a discovery right there. Not at all like a modern rod.

     The typical fly line of the period was made of braided silk, usually in a tapered form. With the current mainstream interest in classic early 20th century tackle, they are still being made but the new lines are quite pricey. I decided on an affordable vintage line that I restored with a mixture of linseed oil and varnish.The line that Norris recommended was a combination of horsehair and silk. That wasn't going to happen but at least I was close. Silkworm gut leader material is unfortunately obsolete but you can still get it from people like Historical Angling Enterprise or take your chances on Ebay. It was in use until after WW II, when Nylon line began to take its place.  Gut is amazing stuff as it has to be soaked before it's in a usable state. I keep mine wet with little baffles of damp felt, layered in an old shoe polish can. To store my flies, I created a Fly Book based on original examples I had studied. It's literally a leather book with parchment ( I substituted Tyvek ) pages that have little envelopes to keep the flies in order. The flies are tied on a blind eye hook (no loop) and snelled with a short piece of gut line. With the snoods coiled around the fly, they tuck neatly into the book. I'll get into the period flies shortly. Lastly, I had to come up with a proper net to land those luckless fishies. I steam-bent a strip of oak into a circle and turned a wooden handle with brass fittings to attach to the loop. I had an old cotton net that belonged to my Dad and since it was still serviceable, I put it back to work on my new/old frame.

Another view of my fly book,
rod and an assortment of
snelled flies
photo Lindy Miller 2011
Cowdung Replica with Period Illustration
Fly Anglers on Line
My Cowdung Replica After a Few Tmes Out
     Fly tying is an artful craft that when pursued seriously, demands both intense study and strict attention to detail with the highest level of commitment of both your time and energy. All I wanted to do was create some accurate, historically-based flies that hopefully might actually catch fish. As that fly-fishing kid, I had used an old Herter's Fly-tying Kit to make a few flies. I can't even remember if they caught any fish at all . The amazing thing was that I still had the vice, pliers and the "How To" book. At least my primitive tools gave me something to build my new tying kit on.  In Norris' "The American Angler's Book", there is a chapter on recommended flies with suggested materials, so I wasn't at a complete loss and had somewhere to start. Then I found Fly Anglers on Line and their Archive of Old Flies. They have preserved many recipes and show a photo of the reproduction fly next to the original period illustration. Way cool and very helpful. After my wife bought me new tying materials and I scored some vintage blind eye hooks, I decided to wade in. I found that most of the 1860's flies I studied, turned out to be wet flies. Wet fly fishing appears to be the ancient style that travels back in time to the very roots of angling when some Macedonian first tied feathers on a hook. The period patterns I decided on were , Yellow Sally, Red Hackle, Jenny Spinner, Coachman (not royal), March Brown, Cowdung, Bee, and Grouse Hackle. I've yet to give any of these a real test but it's been promising so far. I did catch a couple of small rainbows on Beaver Creek in Calaveras County last year on a Cowdung. This year I've  promised myself to continue in my efforts to learn from our Angling Past and enjoy my recreated gear, if I could just learn how to carry that 12' pole through the brush. By the way, I don't normally fish in costurme but it made for some fun photos.

     As a footnote to this post, I have to recommend the viewer to check out Michael Hackney & Friends. Their project to recreate the fishing gear of president Martin Van Buren was incredible. I had already created my current 1860's fly fishing tackle and even my 1830's coarse fishing version ( a future post) when I stumbled on Michael's site. You will enjoy reading about the collective efforts of several craftsmen that led to a dynamic display of replica tackle for the historic Van Buren estate. Keeping our history alive, that's what it's all about. Fish On !!


  1. Nice post. I'm an avid fisher and being able to read your post about it's history is really great. I'm glad you have shared it.

  2. I think what you are doing is great. I am a retired historic site administrator, who is getting back into fishing. I will use the information you have provided here for my own research. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and resources.

  3. Mr. Miller, could you contact me at jkeeling864@yahoo.com? I am creating a program on 19th century angling at the living history site at which I work. Would like to pick your brain some, as I want more involved that just a cane pole with a corncob float. Thank you in advance.

  4. Great info lived your article, how's the fishing