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The Origins of Angling

Updated: Jul 29, 2019

Author: Austin S. Hogan, The American Fly Fisher, Vol 3, No. 1.

The discovery that stone age man had a complete understanding of the efficiency of the imitative lure has its historic value. The knowledge that aboriginals had evolved a theory of imitation, and also used it as a guide for the designing of fishing implements, widens our perspective sufficiently to encourage further research in a field which previously has only been of interest to the archaeologist. Eventually, we ma y learn much more about ourselves and the origins of angling, including the emergence of fly fishing and the making of the artificial fly through a closer scrutiny of aboriginal fishing practices and prehistoric tackle making.

My researches into the development of fishing tackle by the American Indian and Eskimo would have been much easier if some archaeologist, who obviously would have to be an angler, had neatly arranged the refinement of the various fish spears, leisters, bone and stone hooks, fish traps, poisons and other devices used to catch game fish, into nicely ordered classifications and categories. Neither Indian or Eskimo had one unified culture pattern extending from the Northern Arctic to the tip of South America. The hundreds of tribes that depended on fish for a livelihood were scattered geographically and their cultural characteristics so diversified that it was impossible to establish chronological advancements. Yet the study was fascinating and the fact the massive library of Harvard University's department of Ethnology was available for my use, made my research far easier than expected. Evaluating the progress of the American aboriginal as a fisherman had its exciting moments but it soon became apparent that even though their survival proved the efficiency of their tackle, and that the Eskimo was a superb craftsman, neither Indian nor Eskimo were innovators. All the basic forms of hooks, lines, spears and harpoons came from a diffusion of knowledges originating in Asia. I could find traces of the beginning of the fishing rod, which is a lever, in the long salmon harpoon with its detachable head used by the Indians of the northwest coast, and I could appreciate the engineering behind the leister, the fish spear that used the principle of the grasp of a man's hand for insuring the catch, but in general, I was learning that it would take many more years than I had available to completely cover aboriginal tackle making in America sufficient to prove any contributing influences to modern sport.


The American aboriginal was not a fly fisherman. Re-examining one of the techniques used to catch trout and northern pike through the ice, I suddenly realized that if the main body of Indian thought was turned to catching fish wholesale, with spears and fish traps still, within that body of knowledge there was an unusual understanding of the theory of imitation. This was evidenced by the use of what archaeologists term the "dark hut, decoy and spear." Essentially the method was the only one that I could link to modern sporting techniques and it revolved around the fact a fish could be lured to spear point by the movement of a carveed wooden fish figure drawn through the water in a life-like manner. This way of ice fishing is still practiced in the Great Lakes region and quite popular. Here I felt was a new direction for my research which might prove profitable.


The new direction suggested that (if my original objectives were impractical), I might, by a concentration on one technique bring one aspect of aboriginal tackle making into a sharper historical focus. Also, one of the phases of my reorientation suggested that by dating an early birth of one concept (the imitative minnow) there might be the possibility of a parallel relative to another develop- ment and concept; (the imitative fly).


The movement backward in time seemed to demand a beginning where the historic touched the edge of the pre-historic. A scanning of frontier narratives ultimately produced Alexander Henry, fur trader, whose book Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories, between the Years 1760 and 1766, N. Y. 1809, described in detail the use of the artificial minnow (decoy) for the trout of Lake Superior.


"ln order to spear trout under the ice holes being first cut, of two yards in circumference, cabins of about two feet in height are built over them of small branches of trees, and these are fully covered with skins to exclude the light. The result of this contriv- ance is to render it practicable to discern objects in the water at a very considerable depth. A spear head of iron is fastened on a pole about ten feet in length. This instrument is lowered into the water; and the fisherman, lying on his belly, with his head under the cabin, lets down the figure of a fish, in wood and filled with lead. Round the middle of the fish is a small pack thread, and when at the depth of ten fathoms, it is made, by drawing the string, to move forward after the manner of a real fish. Trout and other large fish, deceived by the resemblance spring toward it to seize it; but by the dextrous jerk of the string, it is instantly taken out of their reach. The decoy is drawn near to the surface and the fish renews its attack. The spear is made ready for striking and on the return of the fish, the spear is plunged into its back, and the spear being barbed, it is easily drawn out of the water."

The pathway then led to the historic Eskimos of the Bering Strait who used a sinker made of old ivory carved in the shape of a fish. Attached were blue beads, a yellow Auk's bill, and more pieces of ivory and blue beads which served to delineate the eyes, fins and tail. The hook was lashed to the assemb- ly. Very definitely this was a jigging device, designed to attract fish by its erratic motion and color rather than to lure by the imitative deception. Jigging devices during the research presented a continuing problem as I soon discovered because they existed side by side with the fish figure used as a lure.



The simple lead filled pine minnow with its pack thread suspension used by Alexander Henry. Pioneer white settlers quickly adopted this method of taking trout and pike through the ice along the northern frontiers.

After referring to several hundred books, reports and studies relative to the Aleuts, Greenland, Dorset and Polar peoples, I found the little carved decoy, as opposed to the jigging device, was described in nearly all of the archaeological literature available. One interesting side light concerned the Polar Eskimos who by consent of the tribe gave fishing rights to individual families, a custom unknown among neighboring tribes or for that matter in either prehistoric North America or Asia.


Eventually I learned the fish decoy common to the Eskimo extended in its use far back in time and had been excavated from sites along the Pacific coast line, in the Aleutians, near Point Barrow and apparently was of great value be- cause of its efficiency. There is the thought that because the Eskimo came across the Bering Straits less than 2,000 years ago, the Indian decoy may be even older in relation to its time in North America.


Eventually the farthest step back in time, and into Asia, revealed a common knowledge of the fish figure as an imitation in Kamchatka and the islands connected with Japan. Many of these Asian aborigines appear to have been very sophisticated fishers. One fishing rod particular to the northern Japanese was intricately carved and decorated and sometimes inlaid with bone or ivory. Although my research had taken only several months, the time span covered thousands of years. The search finally ended with the discovery of Henry H. Michael's The Neolithic Age in Rustern Siberia in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 1958.


The Michael study concentrates on the artifacts discovered along the shores of Siberia's Lake Baikal. A listing of all the artifacts pictured or discussed would serve little purpose if included in this article but it should be mentioned that the prehistoric peoples who lived in the region apparently were dependent on the resources of the lake for their survival. The collection of fishing implements is astonishing and the studies over the years by various Soviet archaeologists, and others, have been in sufficient depth to offer a reasonably accurate dating of the many devices. The periods have been established as "Early Serovo" 3rd millenium B. C. with an unusual bone, barbed, straight shank, rounded to point hook dated in this period which seemed almost contemporary; and "Early Glazkovo" 1700 - 1300 B.C. which notes a bone fish hook with a knobbed shank and a bronze hook also with a knobbed shank. Most important, during the Serovo period polished stone effigies in the shapes of bait fishes were found in all their sophisticated artistry.


Quoting from Michael's study:

"Without exception all of the stone fish were provided with bilaterally drilled holes for suspension. Most often the hole was drilled through the upper spin- al part of the fish and so located that when suspended on a string, the fish re- mained balanced. Less often holes were found on the sides, at the tail and rare- ly on the abdominal aspect. The spinal hole was most carefully drilled."

Silhouette in outline of the Lake Bailkal polished stone imitative minnow. These sophisticated lures were made an estimated 4,000 years ago.

The stone effigies, (Michael is convinced they are lures) were carved and highly polished in the form of a small Lake Salmon, the eel pout (bullhead) a very favorite food of the pike, and the sturgeon.


It might be mentioned that Michael notes a continuing development beyond the Neolithic and into modern times by Essei Yakuts, (Asia), the Kereks (Asia) and the Aleuts (North America), who used "realistically prepared fish representations to the point of stretching real fish skin over the original artifact and providing it with artificial eyes."


The coastal Evenki of northeast Asia made fish figures with the hole drilled for the suspension cord and also added two holes at the gill and vent through which feathers were pulled and fastened. This type of tackle may have been primarily a jigging device and forecasts the modern streamer.


My researches ended with the Lake Baikal aboriginals and their polished stone fish figures. Being somewhat of a slow thinker it took a number of years to evaluate my findings and check the various dates and developments with both aboriginal and civilized fishing practices in other parts of the world. Apparently the stone Baikal lures were unique - the only other primitive lures being the various types of trolling devices used by the early peoples of the south seas. These essentiallv were composite hooks to which feathers or hair was attached. The range of use extended from Micronesia to Easter Island. There is no evidence the American Indian or Eskimo ever trolled.


It is reasonable to assume then, that the principals of construction and the invention of imitative lures are not the development of a highly civilized society but the product of the thinking of stone age man. He is also responsible for the discovery of the levering action of the fishing rod, the functional design of the barbed fish hook and that fish will react to light reflections and the wiggle of a feather.


With the knowledge that imitative principals are at the minimum over 4,000 years old, the search for the beginnings of fly fishing and the artificial insect can be bracketed within a time span measured by the emergence of a relatively small metal fish hook, during the age of iron or bronze; and the rise of a Greek civilization that has provided us with our fist written records pertaining to fly fishing. Geographical areas seemingly offering the most promise for continued in-depth searching are those bounded by the countries of Scandinavia and the Balkans.


The projection in the preceding paragraph is based on the thought the diffusion of knowledges relating to fishing techniques followed the waterways during aboriginal developments. Most probably the use of the imitative lure originated in the colder environments where fishing through the ice was necessary for survival, moving on a nexus easterly and westerly across the Arctic borders of Asia and Europe. In general, the rivers flow notherly or southerly and so the diffusion over 3,000 years would make the imitative concept common to most fishing cultures and place the concept in the proximity to the early Greeks who in turn eventually give us our first witness to the artificial fly and fly fishing.


It should not be forgotten that during prehistory and at anytime during the development of fishing tackle among primitive peoples, the small fish could be and was an important article of diet.


It is not unreasonable to suggest the surface feeding of trouts and other fishes would eventually sponsor imitative insects, however crude, dependent on the emergence of a suitable hook.

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