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

Saturday, September 14, 2013

In Search of Spinning Caterpillars and Spoon Minnows, 19th Century Angling Redux

    As my journey to recreate early angling implements continues, I'm often reminded of the mysterious origins of some of today's tackle. Take lures as a good example.  Known in the 19th century as "artificial baits", some historians believe that early American anglers avoided them in favor of natural baits. I've also read that a change in attitude didn't come about until American tackle manufacturers like Julio Buel started marketing artificial baits after 1848. One popular story has it  that Buel came up with the idea of a spoon bait after witnessing how a fish responded to a teaspoon accidentally dropped in the water.  Some have him making spoon baits for friends as early as the 1820's after his serendipitous discovery.

First American Patented Lure
J.T. Buel's Arrowhead Spinner
April 6, 1852

     Even though it's popular to assume the spoon is 100% American,  I think there's a possibility it  may have been sprung from different locations around the same time.  Some contemporary literature suggests it came out of Sweden early in the 19th century (see "The Fisherman's Magazine and Review", Jan. - Oct. 1865, Vol. 2, Chapter XIII).

    Contemporary evidence also suggests that American anglers were, at least to some degree, using available British baits before the introduction of domestic patented baits in the early to mid- 1850's. The focus of  this post will be the British spinning caterpillar bait known as the "Kill Devil" and the earliest form of an "American" spoon bait that I could find.

   My introduction to the Kill Devil aka the Artificial Caterpillar, came from an illustration in the 1823 edition of T.F.Salter's "The Angler's Guide", seen below as number five.

Illustration from Salter's 1823
The Angler's Guide

   It gets even better, as Salter goes on to describe in detail (see below) how the Devil is made, suggesting that these baits may have been homegrown as well as a commercial product..

Note the use of leather for the body and the way
it's shaped, with the tail downward.

          As I continued my research, I discovered additional information on this bait in John Jay Brown's "The American Angler's Guide or Complete Fisher's Manual for the United States" 1849 edition. In Chapter XXXII on page 327, Brown writes, " An artificial bait called a Kill-devil, which has been in use a number of years in England, has been proven successful with some of our sportsmen, in trolling for trout or pike. In appearance it is similar to a caterpillar: the body is composed of coarse thread windings finished over with the most gaudy silk colors and wound with silver tinsel: the hooks, numbering seven, are arranged according to the usual minnow rigging; the tail is composed of tin or bright metal, split up or bent at an angle, to insure swift spinning. They are made strong and durable, and their cost is trifling: they are worth a trial."

From Brown's 1849 The American Angler's Guide
Page 318

      Brown included this  illustration of the Kill-devil and although similar to Salter's it lacks the intentionally curved body and resembles a minnow bait more or less.

     I decided there was enough information to create my version of a Kill-devil bait. For my example I chose kid leather for the body and tin for the tail. In order to produce the curved form of the body, I experimented with various patterns until I could roll the leather up into the desired shape.

     My plan was to glue and then sew the leather edges down secure. It would have been easier to make a straight body with an internal wire armature but I like the idea of a softer, more natural body for Mr. Fishy to chomp..

     Once the body was sewn, painted and the tail attached, I crafted a brass wire staple/loop for the front. An antique box swivel was added before I crimped the staple into the leather.

My Replica Kill-devil #1

     All that was left was to wrap the tinsel and rig the hooks. For the tinsel, I used waxed silk thread  first, to get the pattern and then followed with the more fragile tinsel.

    For the hooks, I bound blind-eye hooks into two doubles and one treble (the requisite seven hooks), all tied with silk thread onto plaited horse hair lines.

My Replica Kill-devil #2

    I was pleased enough with the way it turned out, that I made another one in red. Seen here next to Salter's original illustration. These baits haven't had their chance to kill any fish yet but I did take them out and drag them through a running stream to check their action. I discovered that the bent shape is an important factor in making them spin. In fact, they spin like crazy and with all those hooks flying, they have to snag a strike.

   The next project was to recreate an early Yankee spoon bait. Even though the spoon idea is often credited to Julio T. Buel,  his first patent of  April 6, 1852 is not really for a spoon but rather a spinning bait, know to collectors as the arrowhead spinner. In the text of the patent, Buel  states, "I do not claim what is called a spoon minnow .....these having been used before." We may never known whether he got the idea of a spoon from one dropped in the water but he was likely making spoon baits when he opened for business in 1848. Evidence suggests that maybe others were making them as well.

    In Brown's 1849 "The American Angler's Guide", Chapter VII on Spoon Baits, he states, "It was first invented and used by a gentleman in the vicinity of Saratoga Lake for Black Basse." Brown goes on to describe how this unnamed gentleman altered a spoon bowl by adding a swivel at one end and then soldered a pair of hooks to the concave side on the other end, after cutting off the point of the spoon.  I wondered, is this the earliest American spoon bait ? Was the "gentleman" Buel ?

Spoon Bait Illustration from Brown's
1849 American Angler's Guide

Note the watch stem swivel

     Brown continues, " It has since been made-up in various styles, with one two and three hooks and is made with silver plate or brass on the convex side, and painted red (decidedly the best color) on the concave."

My Replica

Concave side painted

    For my replica version of this early spoon, I cut out the shape from nickel silver sheet stock and then pounded out the form. I could only guess how the watch stem swivel worked but it seemed to have turned out fine. The hooks were made from hook wire I purchased from Paul Jones of Historic Angling Enterprises. A great source by the way for early angling material and information. After soldering the hooks in place, as in the illustration, I painted the inside with red enamel.

     I think this first spoon turned out well but I'm going to make up some smaller versions to fish with. Who knows if this is truly the "first" spoon bait but it's undeniably primitive next to what came later. All in all, both were fun projects. Thanks for looking and I always appreciate your comments.

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