Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Sport fishing, one of mankind’s favorite recreational activities, has been practiced by young and old, rich and poor, male and female, for centuries. Today’s fisherman may be standing elbow-to-elbow with his peers on the opening day of trout season, racing his four wheel drive vehicle along the beach to be the first at his favorite surf-casting spot, or bobbing up and down in a rowboat on the wakes of water-skiers. As he casts his nylon line from the graphite reel with a whip of his boron rod, he may wonder, on occa­sion, how his predecessors might have caught fish at the very same location. It may surprise him to learn that those erstwhile anglers were well practiced at the sport­ – and often too successful for their own good.

The intrepid souls who settled along the eastern coast of America’s colonies brought with them a centuries-old tradition of practicing what Izaak Walton (1593-1683) called “the contemplative man’s recreation.” Perhaps nowhere in the New World did fishing attain such popularity as in Philadelphia, where the winds of the liberal Quaker atmos­phere blew away the cloud of Puritan proscriptions against recreational angling. Among the natural blessings discov­ered by the colonists who settled in and around William Penn’s “Greene Countrie Towne” during the late seven­teenth century was an abun­dance of streams, rivers, lakes and bays teeming with fish. Penn listed “sturgeon, rock, shad, herring, cod-fish, flat­heads, roach & perch and trout” as denizens of local waters in 1683. The Schuylkill and Delaware rivers flowed along the outskirts of the town, fed by myriad creeks and streams that meandered through the fields and forests of the surrounding country­side. Within a day or two ride by boat or horseback, the marine waters of Delaware Bay, the New Jersey coastal bays and the Atlantic Ocean comprised a repository for what must have seemed a virtually limitless supply of fish.

It was natural that the pop­ularity of recreational fishing would grow rapidly in such a region. In 1732, avid local anglers founded the Schuylkill Fishing Company of the Col­ony (later State) in Schuylkill, the oldest sporting club in the English-speaking world. By the 1740s, Philadelphians could buy the latest equipment imported from England by visiting any of a half-dozen or so local merchants who adver­tised the tackle included in their latest shiploads of goods. Apparently not satisfied with the equipment available lo­cally, Penn’s daughter, Marga­ret, wrote to her brother in England in 1737 to request that he send her “a four joynted strong fishing Rod and Real with strong good Lines and assortment of hooks the best sort.”

Few examples of eighteenth century fishing tackle survive, but it is known that anglers used heavy, multi-section rods, often measuring more than twenty feet in length, and made of various woods such as ash, hazel, dogwood and hickory. Usually the butt and middle sections were stout and strong, while the tip section was made from a more supple wood. The sections were lashed (or spliced) together, and when a reel was used, it was tied or clamped to the butt section and held beneath the rod. The angler tied his termi­nal tackle to lines of horsehair, silk or linen.

Although fishing reels had been in use in England since Izaak Walton’s time, their function was limited to facili­tating the retrieval and storage of the line. Casting consisted of stripping out a few feet of line from the tiny winches and heaving the bait with the rod in a clumsy prefiguration of modern fly-fishing.

By the close of the eight­eenth century, the colonies had given birth to their own tackle industry, spurred by the growing popularity of recrea­tional fishing. Exquisitely engraved trade cards adver­tised the wares of Philadelphi­ans Edward Pole and William Ransted, competing “fishing tackle makers,” who supplied wide varieties of hooks, lines, floats, swivels, wooden rods and reels. Pole offered perhaps the first multiplying (geared) reels in America as early as 1774; they had been invented in England sometime during the mid-eighteenth century. His advertisement for artificial flies may have been the earli­est unequivocal written refer­ence to them in the New World. His shop’s impeccable reputation enabled his succes­sor, George Lawton, to supply fishing equipment for the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1803. In 1826, John Krider, a gunsmith, would open his Sportsmen’s Depot, which was destined to overshadow com­peting Philadelphia tackle dealers for the next half century.

The founding fathers took full advantage of the Philadel­phia area’s justly famous fish­ing spots. During the late summer recess of the Constitu­tional Convention, George Washington was joined by Gouverneur Morris and Rob­ert Morris on trips that in­cluded fishing at Valley Forge and Trenton, New Jersey. His fishing kH consisted of a tin containing merely a few lines and hooks of various sizes, in contrast to the packed tackle boxes used today. Perhaps at the request of his sporting colleagues, Benjamin Franklin had taken time during the Revolutionary War to design a fishing boat with an oval sail that could be swiveled up to function as an umbrella. His drawing illustrates what ap­pears to be a small fleet of rowboats equipped with satel­lite antennas.

The initial steps in the evo­lution of highly specialized fishing tackle commenced in this country during the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1845, Samuel Phillippe, a gunsmith in Easton, Northampton County, upstream from Philadelphia on the Dela­ware River, built what is cred­ited as the first rod made of split strips of bamboo. Al­though some English rods had featured split bamboo tip sec­tions, Phillippe used bamboo for all of the sections except the butt. By the late 1860s, Charles F. Murphy and E.A. Green, both of Newark, New Jersey, were building entire rods with split bamboo. Dur­ing this era, rods were con­structed with up to twelve strips. The importance of this advance as a basis for the development of modern tackle and fishing techniques cannot be overstated. The combina­tion of strength and flexibility afforded by the split bamboo rod opened the way for rod­-makers to create increasingly specialized rods of shorter lengths and lighter weights. In New York, Murphy’s trout rods sold for about $40, and his salmon rods for as much as $125.

The split bamboo rod ar­rived in time for its makers to take advantage of improve­ments in reel construction made during the previous twenty years. At first using imported brass, Americans began to build their own reels, redesigning the crude British winches they had used for so long. In the eastern cities, reelmakers such as A.B. Shi­pley of Philadelphia built sturdy multiplying reels with counterbalanced handles, combining strength and size ranges suitable for handling anything from trout to striped bass. As last it was possible to cast into the surf from the beaches of New Jersey! During the same period, several watchmakers in Kentucky had begun to sell their precision­-built reels designed especially for casting baits to black bass. With these advances, the non­-fly-fishing angler’s primary element of control of his equipment shifted significantly from rod to reel. Reelmakers gradually came to emphasize the casting and fish-playing qualities of their products, rather than providing mere line-retrieving devices. The fish were doomed.

Fishing and baseball evolved simultaneously as national pastimes. Perhaps the popularity of both sports relied upon the participants’ enjoyment of long periods of mild anticipation, punctuated by erratic outbursts of excitement. However, the opportunities afforded by angling for “com­munion with Nature” made the sport a suitable subject for the Romantic nineteenth­-century world of arts and letters. By the 1880s, artists were busily painting scenes of fishermen languidly dangling lines in still pools or furiously battling hooked fish. Often, the anglers were portrayed immersed in lush, wooded landscapes, and the depictions convey the pastoral beauty and serenity so readily available to the city dweller in those hal­cyon days of the last century.

A number of American books on angling had also been written, and none was more important the The Ameri­can Angler’s Book, published in 1864 by Thaddeus Norris, who was – and remains­ – Philadelphia’s foremost fisher­man. In addition to describing the country’s native game-fish, he recommended methods for catching them, instructed the angler on the secrets of build­ing rods and tying flies and, perhaps most importantly, set behavioral standards for fish­ermen. He was one of Ameri­ca’s pioneer fish-culturists, to whom modern anglers are immensely indebted for the remarkable diversity of pisca­torial fauna now available in inland waters. To Norris, “fishing is a recreation, and a calmer of unquiet thoughts,” which should be defended “from the aspersions and ridicule of those who cannot appreciate its quiet joys, and who know not the solace and peace it brings to the harassed mind, or how it begets and fosters contentment and a love of nature.”

Norris’s recommendations indicate how his eastern con­temporaries fished. He ideal three-piece fly-rod consisted of an ash butt section, an iron­wood middle section and a bamboo tip. The latter sections were spliced, while a ferrule was used to join the middle and butt sections. For trout­-fishing in local creeks, a twelve-foot rod weighing about half a pound was deemed sufficient, whereas salmon and other large game­fish required a rod of sixteen feet or so. A single-action reel with a dick was recommended for fly-fishing, although some anglers preferred a multiplying reel. Multipliers were, of course, a necessity for casting baits or spoons to shad or bass. Fly-lines were made of flax, plaited silk or a blend of silk and hair. In contrast, striped bass fishing required a stout rod of twelve feet or more, equipped with a large multiplying reel and a hun­dred yards of hemp line, once the angler had “graduated” from using a hand-line and could handle such a rig.

Thaddeus Norris was equally comfortable fishing in mountain streams or in tidal waters. His descriptions of casting and playing the fly so as to keep it on the surface of the water anticipated the even­tual emphasis on the floating “dry” fly. He could also enjoy boarding an Ericsson steamer near the foot of Chestnut Street in Philadelphia and making the twelve-hour jour­ney to the Chesapeake Bay, where he angled for perch or stripers with an assortment of baits – shedder crabs, clams, menhaden, shrimp and angleworms.

To his consternation, Thad­deus Norris was witness to a widespread depletion of edible fish sufficient enough to stim­ulate the creation of state and federal fish commissions. Native populations of shad, trout, walleyes and striped bass were disappearing, and the remaining fish failed to attain the sizes of their prede­cessors. The Pennsylvania Fish Commission blamed these losses on dam-building with­out concomitant provision of fish ways or fish-ladders; non­observance by fishermen of spawning seasons; wide­spread use of illegal “perma­nent” fishing contraptions, such as fish baskets and gill nets; and pollution. Norris alleged that “the gas-works had destroyed the fishing in the Schulkill.” The Pennsylva­nia Fish Commission deplored the public’s general antago­nism to fishing laws.

Thanks to the efforts of devoted anglers and scientists, conservation laws gradually became accepted by the pub­lic. Pennsylvania had required dam-builders to provide fish­ways on the Susquehanna River and its tributaries as early as 1866, and in 1879 the Fish Commission was author­ized to require fishways in all public streams. Fortunately, large-scale fish-culture became a feasible solution to the deple­tion problem by the 1870s. By the following decade, stocking programs had begun not only to replenish native populations of fish, but to transplant new species to local waters.

The American evolution of specialized fishing methods had come a long way by the 1880s. The six-sided, split­-bamboo rod was being popu­larized by such makers as Hiram L. Leonard. Bait-casting rods were shrinking to such unprecedented lengths as eight and a half feet. Reels built with the precision of fine watches were available to expert bait-casters. Primitive forms of the reel features no modern fisherman would do without had been invented: the freespool clutch (1856), the lightweight, narrow-spool fly­-reel (1859), the level-wind (1860) and the adjustable fric­tion drag (1864). Even the spinning reel had been pat­ented first by two Americans in 1875. Nevertheless, decades would pass before the advan­tages of these features would be appreciated by the great majority of anglers. Much of this wonderful tackle was being mass-produced, of course. Although the industry, by that time, was centered in New York, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania retained a substantial share of a bur­geoning market. The Meis­selbach brothers, August and William, of Newark, New Jersey, established a reel and accessory manufacturing busi­ness that would supply mil­lions of anglers with well made, yet inexpensive, fly­-reels, bait-casting reels, trolling reels and surf-casting reels until World War II. Philadel­phia retailers and manufactur­ers A.B. Shipley and Son, William W. Abbott, William Wurfflein, and J. Goldsmith, Ancker and Company adver­tised in the nationally distrib­uted American Angler and similar periodicals.

What local anglers were doing with their cornucopia of tackle is more significant. Fly­-fishermen traveled to the leg­endary Brodhead Creek and other eastern Pennsylvania streams to catch native brook trout and flourishing popula­tions of transplanted rainbow and brown trout. Local rivers, including the Schuylkill, abounded with black bass, which had been stocked suc­cessfully by “ardent Easton and Philadelphia fishermen,” including Norris, in this area of the eastern seaboard that had not had a native popula­tion. The Reading Railroad advertised excursion tickets from New York to “the best black bass waters in the world,” the western sections of the Schuylkill, where “the fly fishing for black bass cannot be equalled in any section of the United States.” Published reports described catches of Delaware River shad on bait and flies, Brandywine and Perkiomen bass, Mauch Chunk trout, Delaware Bay stripers, bluefish off Atlantic City. The Susquehanna, to which walleyes once had been native, was restocked with “this admirable fish,” but un­fortunately, attempts to trans­plant Atlantic salmon to the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers were not successful.

The New Jersey shore be­came a frequent destination for vacationing fishermen, who arrived by railroad and crowded into headboats seek­ing flounder, mackerel, blue­fish, tautog and weakfish. Although fishing from small party-boats had been sport for George Washington, the late nineteenth century crowds were able to board triple­decked steamers carrying up to fifteen hundred anglers. Even so, fishing with hand­lines from small boats re­mained popular, a sport that verges on the unfathomable today. Other fishermen lined the beaches to “squid” for bluefish, as well as to surf­cast. Squidding was a method of slinging an artificial bait as far as possible into the surf. The “squid” was made of tin, lead, bone, mother-of-pearl­ – anything that would shine in the water. Hauling a ten-pound blue through the break­ers with a hand-line must have been a thrilling experience.

The early decades of the twentieth century witnessed a continuing growth of angling’s popularity, as well as the de­velopment of equipment that differs little from today’s in design. Mass-produced, split­-bamboo rods continued to shrink in size, weight and price. Reels were equipped with every conceivable innova­tion, most of which now are considered necessities-star drags, anti-blacklash brakes, automatic freespool clutches and level-wind devices. Bake­lite replaced hard rubber as the use of plastics accelerated, and wooden plugs began to sup­plant minnows and crawfish as bait. Modern tackle-makers, for the most part, use “space­age” materials to reproduce much older equipment.

The dry fly came into its own as the lure of choice for the sporting trout fisherman, even as such practitioners as New Jersey native Edward R. Hewitt were espousing the use of nymphs. While fly­-fishermen sought their prey with lighter and more delicate equipment, salt water anglers hunted larger game as they took to the sea with two­-pound rods and massive reels holding hundreds of yards of linen line. Pennsylvania au­thor Van Campen Hellner and her “adopted” Zane Grey intrigued coastal fishermen with their tales of battles with tuna, swordfish and marlin.

In the face of increasing competition from factories in the midwest, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania tackle manufacturers held their own. The Meisselbach company, before moving to Ohio, pro­duced some of the finest surf­casting reels available anywhere. Founder “Gus” Meisselbach stayed behind, remaining active as an angler, tournament caster, and orga­nizer of the boys’ casting tour­naments sponsored by New Jersey’s Ocean City Fishing Club. The lures of Ans B. Decker, Livingston S. Hinckley and James L. Donaly, all of northern New Jersey, were sold nationally. The Pequea Works, of tiny Strasburg, Lan­caster County, produced lures for some of the huge midwest­ern firms. The Ocean City Manufacturing Company and Penn Fishing Tackle Manufac­turing Company, founded in Philadelphia, competed in the national market for salt water equipment.

Fishing since the 1940s is something most Americans have experienced. Aware of the abuse of the nation’s wa­ters in the last few decades, the modern fisherman may be amazed that the area still provides enormous resources for the fisherman. The Schuylkill River has been dredged. The shad are returning in greater numbers to local rivers, aided by the construction of addi­tional fish-ladders. On sum­mer weekends, automobiles line the roads leading to Penn­sylvania Fish Commission lakes, fishermen punctuate the “fly-fishing only” sections of Pocono streams, party boats crowd the harbors at the New Jersey shore and Delaware Bay, and surf-casters line the beaches. The old chestnut, “take a boy fishing,” probably never has had more adherents. Nevertheless, the sport of fishing – not to mention the fish and fishermen – is endangered by a continual onslaught of toxic waste, nuclear plants, erosion, acid rain, agricultural run-off and development of tidelands.

The story of the Philadel­phia area’s angling represents a microcosmic example of America’s fishing history. Although today’s angler, no doubt, is aware that his prede­cessors’ massive, unrestricted catches and even the unques­tioned consumption of the fish are phenomena of the past, he should be even more con­cerned that he and his de­scendants will be able to continue enjoying this ancient sport. Never before has it been more important to convince the public that the preservation of America’s natural re­sources for recreational purposes is an absolute neces­sity if the quest for an im­proved “quality of life” is to be truly successful.


For Further Reading

Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Mira­cle at Philadelphia. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1966.

Eisenberg, Lee and Taylor De­courcy, eds. The Ultimate Fish­ing Book. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company, 1981.

Godspeed, Charles Eliot. Angling in America. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company, 1939.

Keane, Martin J. Classic Rods and Rodmakers. Stockbridge, Mass.: Classic Publishing Com­pany, 1976.

Koller, Larry. The Treasury of Angling. New York: Golden Press, Inc., 1963.

Melnor, Samuel and Herman Kessler, ed. Great Fishing Tackle Catalogs of the Golden Age. New York: Crown Publishing, Inc., 1972.

Nolan, James Bennett. The Schuylkill. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1951.

Norris, Thaddeus. The American Angler’s Book: Embracing the Natural History of Sporting Fish, and the Art of Taking Them. Philadelphia: E.H. Butler and Company, 1865.

Pfeiffer, C. Boyd. Shad Fishing. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1975.

Popkin, Susan A. and Roger B. Allen. Gone Fishing! A History of Fishing in River, Bay and Sea. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Maritime Museum, 1987.

Smith, Phillip C. F. Philadelphia on the River. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Maritime Museum, 1986.

Trench, Charles Chenevix. A History of Angling. Chicago: Follett Publishing Company, 1974.

Vernon, Steven K. Antique Fish­ing Reels. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1985.

Wainwright, Nicholas B. The Schuylkill Fishing Company of the State in Schuylkill, 1732-1982. Philadelphia: The Schuylkill Fishing Company, 1982.

Walton, Izaak. The Compleat Angler or the Contemplative Man’s Recreation. London: Moses Browne, 1750.


This article was inspired by an exhibition mounted in 1987 by the Philadelphia Maritime Museum entitled “Gone Fishing!” The exhibit – accompanied by an exten­sively illustrated catalogue with the same title – was developed by guest curator Susan A. Popkin and Roger B. Allen, the museum’s curator of watercraft. The editor wishes to thank the staff of the Philadelphia Maritime Museum in assisting with the acquisition of illustrations for this article.


Steven K. Vernon of Havertown is an avid collector of antique fishing tackle. His book, Antique Fish­ing Reels, was published in 1985 by Stackpole Books, and his work has appeared in Antique Angler, a defunct magazine for collectors. The writer is currently working on articles devoted to specific manufacturers, as well as on a second book. As a research micro­biologist, he has co-authored more than two dozen scientific papers.