Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

November 6, 2012

Ancient brothers of the angle

Ben Morris
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — Sport fishing, also termed “recreational fishing,” is much older than one might expect.

Pictographs have been found depicting  aristocrats fishing for pleasure thousands of years ago.

People enjoy fishing for different reasons. Some do it because it affords an opportunity to bond with friends and family, while others enjoy fishing because they like being outdoors. Still others such as Presidents Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush fished because it helped reduce the continuous stress of the presidency.

No one knows when people first started using fish hooks. Some suggest that Cro Magnon folks may have used fish hooks some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Bronze age hooks recovered from archaeological sites are at least as old as the Bronze Age, which is to say some 5,000 years. An old Smithsonian “Contribution to Knowledge” publication dated 1885 that I purchased not long ago contains drawings of Bronze fishhooks made of thin sheet bronze in the shape of bait which functioned as an artificial bait. Their metallic luster was apparently thought to attract fish.

Metal hooks recovered in Wisconsin’s Oconto River area were made from copper, cold hammered thin and rolled to form. Bone, typically bird bone, was the most common material used by early fishermen. Several years ago, I made reproductions of some barbless hooks that had been  recovered from an archaeological site. I fashioned the hooks from the bones of a wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). Wild turkeys are indigenous to America and were here long before the first people.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that if I wanted to catch pan fish, which is to say, small fish such as bluegill, sunfish, crappie and other “nibblers,” I needed a hook with a barb. Fish that strike, such as bass, were a different story. As long as I set the hook and took up the slack in the same motion, I was successful about half the time.

A few years earlier, while supervising an archaeological dig in an Ohio coal field, a crew member brought me a barbless bone hook with a blackened tip that he had found in association with a burial. The tip, which is the most important part of the hook, had been deliberately exposed to fire, which increased its hardness making it less likely to break.

Being a Walleye addict, I have often wondered if a fair-size Walleye, say around five pounds or, so would break a fire-hardened bone fish hook. Perhaps this autumn I will find out. Right now I’m recovering from a broken hip but Bryan Wilhelm, my physical therapist, has been quite successful fishing Brookville Reservoir for Walleye and has promised to let me tag along. I feel confident that bone hooks will easily penetrate a Walleye’s toothy jaw.

Another interesting hook illustrated in the 1885 Smithsonian publication consists of the pinion (flight feather) of a goose which had been sharpened and fastened to a larger piece of goose bone. A small piece of fish-skin is cut in the shape of a fish and sewed on the hook. Early anglers also made hooks from turtle-shell and the tusks from wild boars. I was recently shown a large hook made from a high quality chert.

I have been amazed at the creativity of ancient anglers. This is best reflected by their “compound hooks.” such as the goose bone hook already mentioned.

Another compound hook I remember consisted of a thorn from an Osage Oange tree that had been secured to a bird bone at the appropriate angle. I am told that hooks have also been made from the “jumping legs” of grasshoppers.

A hook made from the spine of a barrel catus, along with how it was made, is also described in the 1885 Smithsonian. I also recall reading somewhere that fishermen fashioned hooks from the claw of a hawk and even from the beak of an eagle.                                                                                           

If you’re a fisherman and haven’t tried your hand at making your own fish hooks, give it a try. I think it would be an interesting and rewarding project for fishing club members.