Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

Antiques: Collectible Artwork of Fishing Tackle

Nov 09, 2010 06:30PM ● By Anonymous

Some types of fishing do require active participation, casting for salmons as they migrate upstream or reeling in giant tunas off a deep sea fishing boat.  But much of fishing has to do with a certain amount of patience and detachment.  One has to wait until the fish are ready to bite and time often moves at a slower pace.

Fishing became a popular recreational sport during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  It was practiced primarily by wealthy Americans who could afford to buy the latest models of rods, reels, nets, lures, bait boxes and minnow boxes. Today collectors seek all different types of old fishing tackle. Some are attracted to the hobby because they love to fish, while others find the shapes of lures and the workmanship of old reels and fishing rods aesthetically pleasing.

Whatever the reason, there are many devoted collectors with large web sites devoted to collectible fishing tackle on the internet as well as a National Fishing Lure Collectors Club (NFLCC) HCR #3, P.O. Box 4012 Reeds Springs, MO 65737 and Old Reel Collectors Club (ORCA) 849 NE 70th Street Portland, OR 97213 which publish newsletters, have a Membership  Directory and annual meetings.

18th century American sports fisherman initially bought their tackle from English Firms whose names include J. Cheek, Ogden Smith and Foster Brothers. But eventually a number of American entrepreneurs broke into the market. The first American to make desirable tackle was George Snyder, a Kentucky jeweler who began making reels for bait casting in approximately 1810. Other jewelers began copying their designs and the result was that the Kentucky region became a center for fine reelsmiths.  Collectors look for items made by J,F, and B,F, Meeker, J.L. Sage Thomas Conroy, A.B. Shipley, and Benjamin Milan.  Milan was an apprentice to the two Meeks brothers and reels made before 1851 by any of the three are marked “J.F. and B.F.Meek.

Very few reels are actually marked, so collectors look for old catalogues to help with identification and also compare the styles and workmanship of fishing reels which are signed with those that are unsigned.

By 1875 reel making had evolved from a cottage industry to a business that increasingly used assembly-line machinery .  Quality was still high and names to look for include: Vom Hofe, Orvis, Pflueger, and Messielbach.  Each company’s patent numbers, with the exception of Orvis, can help identify reels made during the late 19th and early 20th century. Orvis, instead of changing patent numbers every few years, used the same patent numbers until 1973.

Many pre-19th century American rods have not survived because they were made of solid wood, either Central American greenheart or West Indian Lancewood,, and broke easily.  The English made rods were more flexible. They used Calcutta bamboo for the tip.

In 1846, Sam Philippi of Easton, Pennsylvania made an all-bamboo fly rod by gluing four long strips of split  bamboo together.  During the 1860’s Hiram Leonard of Bangor, Maine glued six vertical strips together and made an even lighter and stronger rod.

Most handmade rods have the maker’s name stamped on a metal cap on the base while factory rods have glued-on labels.  German silver fittings, which tarnish to a dull gray-green, can also help identify a rod as being hand-made.

A change in the fish population in stocked streams meant a change in the type of rods and lures used by recreational fisherman.  Before 1900 brook trout were effectively caught using Calcutta-bamboo fly rods and lures called “wet” flies which sunk down into the water.  After 1900 as the Brook trout population disappeared, they were replaced with brown trout imported from Europe.  To catch brown trout, fisherman discovered they needed to use “dry” flies, which floated, and a “whippier” rod made from Tonkin bamboo imported from China.

Early 20th century rods made use of newly developed strong glues and thus only needed binding at the ends of the rod. Earlier rods are held together with bindings of silk thread, wrapped every few inches. Pre-1910 rods have “ring keeper guides” which fold up against the rod when not in use.  Post 1910 rods have removable metal coils, still in use today, called “snake” guides.  Rods also became smaller.  Pre-1920 rods are 10 to 12 feet long while post-1920 rods are 6 to 9 feet.

Fishing lures are the primary attraction for many antique fishing tackle collectors.  The flies, wet and dry, made before 1920 are particularly desirable.  Feathers hand-tied together in thousands of different patterns are valued primarily on the skill of the tier.  Flies in their original paper backing or envelope will have the tier’s name.  Otherwise, with the exception of flies tied by Carrie Stevens of Maine which are marked with a tiny red band on the head, flies are unmarked. Victorian salmon flies were made with as many as 20 different kinds of feathers.

Ice fishing decoys, are in a sense, specialized lures. Carved of wood, the decoys are attached to metal fins and then lowered into a hole in the ice.  When other fish swim round to investigate, the fisherman either grabs a fish with his hands or with a special spear made of wood with various prongs on its end, which looks somewhat like a miniature pitchfork.

Similar in appearance to miniature sculptures, it’s no surprise that ice fishing decoys are often collected by people who have very little interest in the sport of fishing.  They are beautiful little pieces of art.