A century of piscatorial progress

The ‘good old days’ of fishing were not always as good as imagined, and those returning to those days might miss modern fishing equipment. A survey of the advances in fishing equipment and in fishing conditions during the 100-year history of Field and Stream magazine is presented.


COME WITH US BACK THROUGH A CENTURY OF AMERICAN ANGLING, where you’ll quickly find that the good old days for which most fishermen yearn were in many ways not good at all. Along the way, you can forget about your high-tech sonar and graphite rods, not to mention your outboard motor, because early in this trip we’ll be rowing hard against wind and tide. It’s the only way to go. We’ll be using early reels, of course, even though they cause incessant tangles in our braided silk or linen line, which we have to replace

anyway because it seems to rot between weekend trips.

We might try bass fishing with surface plugs, but can’t because they won’t be invented for another few years. Sure, we could go trout fish- but with wet flies only, because that’s all we have. Not that it makes any difference; your fly fine won’t float in the first place. And when you suggest a little salmon,’ trolling in Lake Michigan, we’ll say, “Sorry. There won’t be any salmon there for another seventy years.”

By the time we return to 1995 and the 100th anniversary of FIELD & STREAM, it should be obvious that in terms of tackle and tactics, modern anglers have never had it so good. Here are just a few highlights from our collective fishing history that led to the good days we’re enjoying right now.

1895-1900:

Level-Winds and Fishing Dry

IN 1897, A KALAMAZOO, MICHIGAN, bait-caster named William Shakespeare, Jr., patented a level-wind device and started the fishing-tackle company that still bears his name. Although it was some time before level-wind casting reels were perfected and brought into widespread use, these devices eliminated uneven line buildup and improved a fisherman’s ability to cast smoothly.

Bait-casting thus became easier for more people, paving the way for increasing development of lures for cast-and-retrieve fishing.

At about the same time in New York’s Catskill Mountains, a tubercular recluse named Theodore Gordon began using English dry flies on area trout streams. Gordon modified British fly patterns to better suit Catskill currents and hatches, and through his diverse articles and letters began the popularity of American dryfly fishing.

1900-1910

Power and Plugs

WILLIAM STEINWAY (OF PIANO fame) and Gottfried Daimler introduced a gasoline engine for boats at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, but the first commercially successful outboard motor came in 1909 at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when Ole Evinrude unveiled a 46-pound, 1.5 horsepower, two-stroke version. At first derided as “coffee-grinders” or “sewing machines,” these primitive kickers quickly became popular, and by 1914 FIELD & STREAM was reporting on the use of seven different outboard brands in both freshwater and saltwater. Evinrude used his FIELD & STREAM advertising in 1929 to announce the formation of Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC), bringing several motor brands under one umbrella with himself as president. By the time FIELD & STREAM reported on the first forward-reverse gearshifts for outboards in 1949, these motors had vastly increased the mobility and efficiency of anglers worldwide.

In Dowagiac, Michigan, meanwhile, James Heddon began the still-growing plug-casting era when he received his heralded Fish-bait patent in 1902, although he evidently had been crafting wooden lures for several years before that date. Prior to Heddoris wooden plugs, virtually all 19th-century casting and trolling lures were made of some form of metal (except artificial flies). The new “plugs” could be cut or carved from a barrel bung or plug, and were revolutionary because they floated. Heddon’s multi-hooked Dowagiac Minnow was more easily cast than pronounced, and many of his early FIELD & STREAM ads offered this footnote: “Pronounce it Do-WAH-ji-ack.”

1910-1920: Drags and “Devless”

NEWLY POPULAR TARPON WERE TEARING UP TACKLE FROM FLORIDA TO THE TEXAS Gulf Coast by this time, and offshore angling for tuna and billfish was also a growing sport in spite of inadequate gear. So-called star-drags-internal drag systems controlled by a star-shaped wheel under the reel handle – evolved during this period, replacing the manual leather thumb stalls or pads

with which hapless anglers once tried to control mammoth fish. New York reelmaker Julius Vom Hofe apparently first patented such a system in 1911, and some version of a star drag is now standard equipment on nearly all casting and trolling reels in freshwater and saltwater.

And in 1919, America got its first look at what is arguably the most popular fishing lure of all time when a Michigan tackle dealer named Lou Eppinger introduced the Dardevle spoon. Ironically, the new wooden baits by Heddon and other coming so popular that Eppinger felt compelled to explain through his 1920s DELD & STREAM advertising that the metal Dardevle was “A Lure – Not a Plug,”

1920-1930:

Ghosts, Wulffs, and Walton

ON JULY 1, 1924, A SHARP-FACED housewife and fly tyer named Carrie Stevens tied a slim, gray smelt imitation in her western Maine home, a fly that just 1 hour later took a 6-pound 13-ounce brook trout from a river nearby. The fish took second in FIELD & STREAM’s contest for that year, but the fly brought its maker enduring fame. The Gray Ghost, as the fly was called, became the best-known streamer fly of all time.

In retrospect, the 1920s was a good decade for fly fishing. The venerable Pflueger Medalist, everybody’s first and often only fly reel, premiered in 1929. And during that winter, a young freelance artist named Lee Wulff developed the first of his hair-winged dry flies that Dan Bailey later called “Wulffs” and that are now common currency among trout and salmon fishermen worldwide.

Not that the decade was devoted solely to trout and salmon. Best-selling novelist and FIELD & STREAM contributor Zane Grey was helping to popular-big-game fishing, for example, with such books as his 1927 Tales of Swordfish and Tuna. And in 1922, Grey joined Will H. Dilg, whose own passion was black-bass fishing, and fifty-two other sportsmen in forming the Izaak Walton League, now one of America’s oldest conservation groups that was, among other things, responsible for the first congressionally funded wildlife refuge (on the upper Mississippi) in 1924.

1930-1940:

The TVA & Technology

IN FIELD & STREAM’s April 1932 issue, the Martin Automatic Fishing Reel Company asked, “Are you years behind? There are many people who have never heard a radio – and there are many anglers who have never tried a Martin Automatic Reel. But. . . the livewire man the man who is really up-to-date. . . .”

Getting with the times was all important, and in fishing, along with everything else, the times were changing. In Akron, Ohio, luremaker Fred Arbogast carved his first wooden Jitterbug bass plug in 1934, little dreaming

that this design would be selling some 750,000 units a year by the early 1980s. And in 1939, Dupont used a small FIELD & STREAM advertisement to promote a proprietary new “leader material” called nylon. This was America’s first important synthetic fiber, originally patented in 1937, and as it evolved into nylon monofilament fishing lines over the next two decades, it radically changed the way America fished.

While these technological advances were making fishing more fun, programs instituted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt were creating more opportunities for anglers to fish. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the New Deal and Roosevelt’s creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933 initiated federal construction of dams to create cheap hydroelectric power, provide water management, improve farming techniques and river navigation, and construct hospitals and schools.

The taming of rivers and development of reservoirs became a major factor in attracting people to fishing. Numerous reservoirs caused an explosion of forage and warm-water gamefish populations, which in turn sparked rapid developments in many areas of fishing.

1940-1950:

Synthetics and Spinning

It’s impossible to separate two important developments – nylon monofilament and spinning reels – because neither would have succeeded as well without the other. Modern spinning reels were invented as early as 1906 and were imported into the U.S. starting in 1938, but then-available braided lines of silk were simply too limp to perform well on spinning’s fixed spool. The answer was nylon, first as a braid and then monfilament, the stiffness and slickness of which brought spinning into its own during the next twenty years.

Together, nylon and spinning reels were used by millions of GIs returning after World War II, many of whom only went fishing but also started growing families who did likewise. Spinning was (and is) the easiest method to master, and so quickly came to dominate American angling.

Fiberglass-tubing technology also evolved through the Second World War, and by 1949 a handful of Southern California companies, including Fisher and Conolon, were making tabular fiberglass fishing rods by wrapping resin-impregnated cloth around a steel mandrel. The basic process remains unchanged even now. Fiberglass rapidly became the dominant rod material nationwide for everything from bluegills to blue marlin, requiring less maintenance than bamboo and being stronger than tubular steel rods of equivalent size, while offering a marriage of light weight, flexibility, durability, and reasonable cost.

1950-1960:

Sport Sonar and Plastic Worms

Before Carl Lowrance refined the first transistorized sportfishing sonar in the mid-1950s, the only sonar instruments available outside the military were big, expensive, low-frequency units, used by commercial fishermen, that were only able to detect the bottom. Lowrance’s portable little box (with a circular, so-called “flasher” screen) could detect both bottom and fish. Increasingly sophisticated and compact sonar units have since become an almost indispensable accessory.

The 1950s also brought us the now-ubquitous plastic worm, as anglings entrepreneurs such as Nick Creme figured out how to mold and color the soft vinyl plastics that had also evolved through World War II. This material ultimately was embrace by hundreds of luremakers who molded it into every imaginable form.

If you were fishing in the ’50s, you might have cast your plastic worms with another new development: closed-faced spin-casting reels. These push-button reels were (and are) essentially idiot-proof, although generally at the expense of casting distance and line capacity. One manufacturer of these reels was the Zero Hour Bomb Company of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which originally made bombs for detonation at the bottoms of oil wells to increase oil flow. The company started making closed-faced reels in 1954 and eventually shrank its name to Zebco, by which it’s still well-known for reels of this type.

1960-1970:

Fly Line Update

Leon P. Martuch’s kitchen sink in Michigan was a perpetual mess during the late 1950s as he spent nights and weekends dunking hanks of braided line into assorted tubs of liquid plastic, then heat-curing the results in his kitchen stove – all in an effort to make a better fly line. Martuch eventually succeeded, and in 1960 was awarded a patent for a fly line with a tapered, polyvinyl-chloride (PVC) coating over a level, braided core. In 1963 his second patent covered the addition of hollow microballoons to the PVC-coating soup, which made the line float, and the modern fly-line was born and marketed through Martuch’s fledgling company called Scientific Anglers.

The new plastic lines almost instantly replaced traditional lines of silk, which were labor intensive and therefore expensive, tended to rot, and wouldn’t float unless dried and carefully dressed. A new fly-line-weight designation system, adopted by the American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers’s Association in 1963, also helped acceptance of the new lines, as it became possible to match fly line to fly rod by a simple number system instead of the chaotic letter designations used during the silk-line era.

1970-1980:

The Gold Rush

This was the decade when American angling went into overdrive. Ray Scott’s Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS), which this Alabama insurance salesman started in 1968, came of age during the 1970s, when it widely promoted cast-for-cash tournaments. With them came a whole new subculture of bass anglers nationwide eager for powerful, sleek, and highly efficient bass boats they could dream of using in competition. This brought new prominence to bass fishing, organized and otherwise, and by the decade’s end black bass (largemouth and smallmouth) had narrowly surpassed both trout and panfish as America’s favorite fish (measured by number of anglers).

In the upper Great Lakes, meanwhile, overfishing and sea lampreys had severely reduced lake trout populations by the early 1960s, producing a huge surplus of for-age fish such as alewives and smelt in the absence of major predators.

Michigan biologists Howard Tanner and, later, Wayne Tody, started stocking coho and chinook salmon as well as steelhead to fill the missing predator role. Those stockings coupled with an effective lamprey-control program produced explosive results through the 1970s and early ’80s as people who once fished for yellow perch were suddenly catching salmon to 30 pounds or more. Stockings by other states and provinces soon followed, and by 1991, the Great Lakes fisheries (including Erie’s walleyes and bass) were serving 2.6 million anglers a year who collectively pumped $1.3 billion a year into local and state economies.

Finally, and just as technology from the Second World War had impacted fishing thirty years before, emerging aerospace technologies brought us graphite. Lighter, stronger, and stiffer than fiberglass, graphite fibers were first used in fishing rods in England during the late 1960s. Graphite rods by American makers appeared here in the early 1970s, and just as fiberglass had replaced bamboo, so graphite quickly replaced fiberglass. Anglers can now use stiffer rods to cast farther with plug or fly than ever before, although some are starting to wonder if farther is always better.

1980-1995:

Togetherness, Like It or Not

These days you probably have to share your water, wherever its. The most obvious attribute of modern angling compared to that of a century ago is the ongoing and dramatic increase in numbers of fishermen. In 1959, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service surveys begun in that year, there were roughly 20 million fishing licenses sold in the U.S., while by 1992 the same figure had jumped to about 31 million These totals generally don’t include either saltwater anglers or those under age sixteen, which would make the numbers substantially larger.

The increase in numbers comes home when you’re limited to one cove on a popular bass lake or only part of a riffle on a famous trout stream, if only to stay out of everyone else’s way while keeping your own space – however small. It also means that for all the technological advances in fishing tackle and tactics over the past hundred years, the most important thing for the modern angler is old-fashioned manners.

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