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Primitive Fishing Tackle
Nature Bulletin No. 752-A   April 19, 1980
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Fishing is one of man's oldest occupations and the gear used for catching fish has changed but little over the ages. The basic methods in use today -- spearing, trapping, netting and angling -- had their origin among primitive peoples back in prehistoric times.

Our modern steel fishhooks have gradually evolved from early crude hooks made from flint, bone, ivory, shell, horn or wood. Thousands of years ago, the Swiss Lake Dwellers and the ancient Egyptians used bronze wire bent into a shape like a youngster's pin hook. Much later some inventive fisherman added a barb to those bronze hooks to hold the fish more securely.

The forerunner of the fishhook was probably the gorge, a slender piece of flint, bone or wood with a groove in the middle for attaching a cord. This was buried in the bait and swallowed end first. A pull on the cord turned it crosswise in the stomach and the fish was hauled in.

Early fish lines were of gut, vegetable fibers, sinew, or strips of leather. The American Indians of this region twisted lines from the fibrous inner bark of the basswood tree. Ancient Greeks and Romans used horsehair.

The use of brightly colored trout flies and other artificial baits dates back much farther than present-day sportsmen suppose. Apparently the first mention of this method was written by the Greek author Aelian about 200 A. D. He describes a Macedonian way of angling in a river where "there are fish with speckled skins. " These fish fed on a peculiar fly (probably a mayfly) which hovers on the river. However, the fishermen did not use these flies for bait because they lose their natural color and their wings wither. Instead, "they fasten red wool around a hook, and fix on to the wool two feathers which grow under a cock's wattles, and which in color are like wax. Their rod is six feet long, and their line is the same length. .

The so-called Boylston Street fish weir is the oldest known evidence of human construction in eastern United States. This fish trap was discovered in 1913 under 12 feet of silt while digging the Boston subway. It consists of walls or fences built from 65,000 stakes interlaced with brush. Estimates indicate that it was built about 1700 BC and was in use for 300 years.

The American Indians were great fishermen. Studies of the midden heaps or garbage pits at their prehistoric village sites along our Illinois River show quantities of fish bones and fish scales. The Indians of the Pacific Northwest and the Eskimos of Alaska depended on fish more than any other people. They used spears, dipnets, traps and hooks to catch salmon in the streams and coastal waters which they cured or froze for year-round food.

In modern times nets are knit by machines instead of a hand shuttle. They may be made of nylon instead of fibers from coconuts, flax stems or basswood bark, but the knots are the same and most of the designs are the same as those used by early men. For example, fishermen on the Sea of Galilee today use the casting net in the same way as they did in Biblical times. This is a circular net, with weights around the edge, which is thrown over a school of fish.

Fishermen have always been optimists. A Chinese writer in 400 BC had this to say -- "By making a line of cocoon silk, a hook of a sharp needle, a rod of dwarf bamboo, and using a grain of cooked rice as bait, one can catch a whole cartload of fish. "

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