Considering how common fishing has been for many years as a recreation, it is at first surprising that early American sport fishing should be so little known about and so hard to document. Until recently, most angling writers simply dismissed the years before the Civil War, saying that up to that time Americans were too busy fighting Indians, clearing farmsteads, and otherwise settling the country for such an easy-going pastime. Recent research has revised that picture, so that we know fishing has been a popular sport as long as there have been people to practice it, but it's worth looking at the reasons we thought otherwise for so long.
For one thing, the written record is slight; fishing was something one did for fun, not for publication; few fishermen, then, as now, kept diaries of their activities. Most of what was published in this country before the Revolution was either commercial or religious. Even in England, where the modern angling tradition we now enjoy had most of its origins, only a few books on fishing were published every century. Of course, there weren't many cookbooks written in those days either, but it's safe to assume people cooked a lot.
For another, commercial fishing was a major industry in the American colonies, so even though we know that great numbers of hooks were imported from England (and by the 1760's Americans were producing their own in Philadelphia and Boston), it's difficult to say how many of them were used for casual recreational outings when we know most were used by professional fishermen.
Also, fishing tackle, as any serious tackle collector knows, is terribly short-lived. It is hard to imagine a more vulnerable artifact than a narrow stick ten or twelve feet long. most of the early ones that weren't splintered or smashed in careless storage ended up as tomato stakes or beanpoles. The oldest piece of fishing gear I've seen in this country is a leather fly book in the angling collection of Princeton University It is probably English in origin and dates form the 1790's. The oldest American rod for which the date can be determined is in the collection of the American Museum of Fly Fishing; its fittings are finely polished nickel-silver, engraved with the date of 1832.
Sport fishing tackle from American history before 1860 is extremely rare, the American Museum of Fly Fishing, with more than 700 rods in its holdings, has less than ten that could be dated with any certainty before 1860. Of course other tackle, including flies that are constantly menaced by insects and hooks that rust from the day they are first used, is even more vulnerable. Other American crafts, such as quiltmaking, furniture building, or silversmithing, produced items much more likely to endure than fishing tackle. The historian who wants to learn more about early sport fishing will find little in the way of direct evidence to help in the search.
There is yet another reason, one both intriguing and a little amusing, that sport fishing is so little mentioned in early American records. Fishing, then even more than now, was regarded as a wastrel's pastime, something done by the lazy and shiftless, not something to talk about in print. As late as 1847, when Reverend George Washington Bethune (a distinguished New York clergyman) edited and published the first American printing of Izaak Walton's timeless idyl The Compleat Angler, there was enough sentiment against the sport that the good Reverend saw fit to list himself only anonymously in the first few editions, as "The American Editor."
But there was fishing, and some of it was for fun as well as for meat. Captain John Smith published a woodcut of colonists hunting and fishing as early as 1619, and scattered throughout the historical record over the next century are occasional tantalizing references to sport fishing. The Dutch were in the habit of holding regular--and very social--fishing outings at Collect Pond in New Amersterdam (later New York City) by 1650.
The great Boston bookseller Charles Goodspeed wrote a history of early American angling, Angling in America, in which he noted a number of other seventeenth-century sportfishers including a young Virginia colonist named Alexander Whitaker, who wrote a promotional tract on the colony in 1613, reporting that "I have caught with mine angle, Pike, Carpe, Eele, Perches of six severall kindes, Crea-fish and the Torope of little Turtle, besides many smaller kinds." At this early stage, Goodspeed suggested, it is difficult to tell whether the fishing was for fun, but for anyone who enjoys the sport, fishing is fun whether one needs the food or not. From the number of references I've uncovered, it's pretty obvious that a lot of people were having fun fishing by 1700.
The whole idea that Americans spent their first two centuries fighting off bears and Indians makes very little sense when we witness the splendid development of other recreations and crafts that could not have flourished in such an atmosphere. By 1720, the inhabitants of the five major colonial towns (Boston, Philadelphia, new York, Newport, and Charles Town) constituted only eight percent of the colonial population. The rest of the people lived in small unprotected villages or alone in the country. There were surely plenty of opportunities for fishing outings.
There was also a great weakening of the church's hold on the leisure life of the colonist. The historian Carl Bridenbaugh tells us that by 1690 the churches of Boston could not have seated more than twenty-five percent of the town's population; what are we to imagine the other seventy-five percent did on Sunday?
But let's look at the actual fishing that they did. Except nearest the cities, where sanitary conditions often left much to e desired, the waters teemed with fish. In the South there were the popular warm-water species, such as catfish, bass, and the like. In the North, even on the very edge of New York, there were trout in great numbers. Farther north, in New England, there were Atlantic salmon in numbers to make the most outrageous modern fish story seem plausible.
Tackle was often primitive: a long, supple branch of hickory or, in the South, cane Reels were rare, and one fished at a distance by using a longer (sometimes twenty feet or more) rod to reach farther. Most fishing was done with bait, but by the 1780's there were at least three commercial outlets for flies in Philadelphia alone, so it is safe to assume that fishing with artificial lures was gaining popularity by then. Finer tackle was in demand much earlier, as is revealed in a letter that William Penn's daughter wrote to her brother in England in 1737.
In fact, America's first angling club, The Schuylkill Fishing Company, was established on the Schuylkill River near Philadelphia in 1732, a remarkably early date for such a formal society to begin. The Company, always more a social than a sporting organization, still exists today and has received wide publicity for its lavish tradition of rich banquets.
Sportfishing in America by the time of the Revolution was well established, if not widely written about. It may have been most advanced, however, in Canada, where British officers, who were invariably gentlemen of leisure and social standing back home, brought their most sophisticated fishing tackle with them to fish the wild northern streams fro salmon and trout. The first known American fly fisher was the distinguished English naturalist Joseph Banks, who caught trout in Newfoundland in 1766 Others, mostly officers, followed him and occasionally wrote home about the great fishing they found.
General public approval of such activity must have been quite wide by the 1700's in America. In 1743 a clergyman named Joseph Seccombe published, in Boston, the text of a sermon he had delivered to a group of fishermen, A Discourse utter'd in Part At Ammauskeeg Falls, in the Fishing Season. 1739. It was, as the subtitle pointed out, a defense of fishing as "business and Diversion inoffensive to God, and necessary for the Comfort and Support of human Society" And in 1747, no less a character than Benjamin Franklin published a new printing of an older book in English, which included a woodcut of an angler talking to a fish he had just caught. The fish tries to persuade him to release her until she is larger, but the angler demurs, observing that "whatever I could catch, I had rather take it away, than leave it behind me." This is followed by the "Interpretation," which reads "Never let go a Certainty for an Uncertainty." One of America's earliest fishing stories is also attributed to Franklin, who tells of passing a fisherman seated by a brook.
After 1800, American angling begins to come into full light. The Sketch Book, Washington Irving's masterful collection of stories that appeared in 1820 and gave America its first top-flight literary figure, contained a marvelous essay, "The Angler," which revealed Irving's own fumbling attempts at fishing as well as his appreciation for the sport's literature and its more gifted practitioners. Within a decade we had our first sporting periodical, The American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, which gave horsemen, hunters, anglers, and others a common forum to share their experiences. With the coming of the Turf Register and the first few American fishing manuals, the American fisherman took a big step toward independence. By 1830 they no longer had to order anything from England; American reel makers were just then perfecting new reels of a precision and craftsmanship beyond anything the Old World had produced, and American rodmakers were at least equaling their British counterparts.
One of the signal achievements of my directorship of the Museum was the acquisition of that rod, which in the rarified marketplace of antique angling gear was a real bargain at $2,000. As Webster memorabilia it is a novel little treasure, but as an angling artifact it is a priceless historical landmark; the ferrule are of the finest nickel-silver, worn to a soft pewter-like glow by use and time. The original rod was in four pieces, a total of sixteen feet long. The tip section has been lost, but the other three sections and the leather case survive in extraordinary condition for a rod of such age. The ring that held the reel in place is engraved elegantly, the most ornate script, "Daniel Webster, Marshfield, Mafs." For a fishing historian, who has so little to go on in the way of artifacts from early America, the rod is a unique window to the past. Gripping it with two hands, as a rod of that size would have required, one imagines Webster's hands in the same positions as he skillfully maneuvered a baited hook through a deep pool on the Potomac or trolled carefully off Martha's Vineyard. On those terms, with visible evidence at hand, early American angling doesn't seem all that different from modern American angling. It certainly must have been as much fun.