Debra Ann Ballinger. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport. Editor: Karen Christensen & David Levinson. Volume 2, Berkshire Publishing, 2005.

Although no one can accurately pinpoint the date “fishing” as a survival strategy to provide food for the stomach was transformed to sport as “food for the soul,” both practical and leisure fishing have been around as long as humankind. Angling, often used synonymously with fishing, is the art and sport of casting a line to a target, using artificial bait to lure and land fish, and often releasing the catch to provide sport for another day. The angler considers fishing as catching fish without regard to method, to provide food for the frying pan. Angling has become popular around the world. Its venues include freshwater streams, lakes, and saltwater seas and oceans. Competitors are male and female and span all age groups and all backgrounds. The excitement of a sudden strike arising from calm water, the thrill of the fish pulling on the line, and the ensuing challenge to land the fish creates an attraction for outdoors enthusiasts. Even when the fish aren’t biting, the true “angler” finds sport in merely making accurate casts, hitting a target that may be as far as 375 feet (114 meters) away. Fishing is never a predictable sport—luck and the whims of the fish equalize expertise and modern equipment in all competitive tournaments.

Economic Impact

In the United States, the American Sportfishing Association reported that forty-five million Americans over the age of six spent more than $42 billion on fishing tackle, trips, and related services in 2001, with each angler spending an average of $1,046 on fishing. The sportfishing industry is estimated to be a $116 billion business in the United States alone. The National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation estimated that Americans sixteen years and older spent an average of sixteen days fishing in 2001, with more than 9 million saltwater anglers and more than 27.93 million freshwater participants. Of that number, 20 percent of women and 37 percent of men participated. Members of minority groups in the United States participated at a lower rate than Caucasian participants did; however, participation rates among African-American and Hispanic populations are rising. Similar reports from recreation and environmental agencies in countries around the world demonstrate recreational fishing to be on the rise. In Australia, for example, participation in recreational fishing of all kinds has more than doubled from 284,000 people to about 600,000 people each year with about 34 percent of the population over five years old participating. Economically, recreational fisheries are important, contributing more than $570 million a year to the Australia’s economy and supporting an estimated 7,000 jobs. Freshwater and sea anglers in the United Kingdom were estimated at more than 3.5 million in 1994 and are also believed to be on the rise. Fishing seems to have a universal appeal, combining the sporting challenge with outdoor ambience and the accomplishment connected with landing a prize fish.

Early Methods and Equipment

Early historians established that fish were first caught with bare hands and that early Persians included fish as part of their national diet, about 3000 BCE. The fish were caught most easily as tides receded, leaving fish flailing on dry beaches or caught in pools of water. A related method known as “tickling” is still practiced in many countries today, where the fisher leans over a pool of water, puts her hands under the fish and proceeds to tickle the belly of the fish. As the fish lazily relaxes with the tickling motion, the fisher makes a sudden grab with spread fingers, and tosses the fish to the riverbank or grassy area, where it can be collected for the evening dinner. Tickling is still popular, especially in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States, in late summer when the waters are low and fish have become trapped in pools near the sides of streams.

Spear fishing is believed to be the next form of fishing; however, the valuable spears were too often lost in waters, leaving the hungry fisher without a catch to show for work and without the spear to try again. Harpooning was developed as a form of spear fishing—it allowed the implement to be used repeatedly, saving the spear, and enabling the fish to be hauled in efficiently. Today, harpooning, spear, and bow fishing are all practiced for sport.

The Egyptians were the first people to use lines for fishing and a burr as a crude form of bait. Early Egyptian pictures from unearthed tombs depict men using a rod or fish pole with a line attached to catch the fish and a club to render the catch motionless upon hauling it to shore. Their lines were made from a vine, and the burr was attached to the end to attract the fish. Small fish would swallow the burr and were drug into the shore. Larger fish were often bludgeoned with a club as they got close to the shore. The Egyptians eventually replaced the vine with lines made from braided animal hair, and the burr with thornwood branches, increasing the range of the cast. They added hooks made from bone to keep the larger fish entangled and on the line. Later, the bone hooks were replaced by ivory, then bronze, iron, and eventually steel, as people from other nations began sharing techniques and materials through trade routes. In A History of the Fish Hook, Hans Jorgen Hurum reported discoveries of bone fishhooks as old as 20,000 years in Moravia and 8,000 years in Nordic countries. European explorers of North American found Native Americans using fishhooks made from wood, stone, and bone. Hurum also reported that early anglers used a gorge, a stick covered by bait, attached to the end of a line. The fish swallowed the baited stick lengthwise, and when the line was jerked tightly, the stick lodged crosswise, allowing the fish to be hauled to shore.

The Chinese were known to have used braided silk for fishing lines by 900 BCE. India recorded using fish as food about 800 BCE, catching them chiefly with spears attached to vines, but also with braided hair or silk lines. About 500 BCE, records report Jewish men fishing with woven nets, collecting fish in vast numbers and beginning the commercial trade with the excess fish hauled in.

The first written accounts on fly casting were by Martial, a Roman (10 BCE-20 CE), and Aelian, an Italian (170-230 CE). Artificial bait (an imitation of a fly) is substituted for live lures such as bait fish or worms or grasshoppers. The first accounts of angling by a woman—Dame Juliana Berners in Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle—were published in 1496. Berners was an English nun and noblewoman who described both fishing and hunting techniques between 1420 and 1450, as entries in The Booke of St. Albans (1486), the first work published in the English language on hunting and sport. The detailed use of a rod and techniques useful in the sport of fly-casting were first included in a later edition (1496).

The seventeenth century was a highly developmental period for angling equipment. Thomas Barker’s The Art of Angling (1651) included detailed drawings of a fishing reel, descriptions of artificial flies, and rods 18- to 22-feet long, with pleated horsehair tied to one end. Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton, in The Compleat Angler (1653), wrote about new tackle and methods of fishing using wire loops or rings attached at the tip end of the rod, to facilitate the untangled use of a running line for both casting and playing a hooked fish. Barker (1667) also refers to a salmon-fishing line of twenty-six yards and the refinement of the reel to manage the line without tangling. In response to the “ones that got away,” anglers began experimenting with material for the line, including gut string (Samuel Pepys, 1667) and of lute string (Robert Venables, 1676). In 1667, Barker also noted the use of a landing hook, called a gaff, for lifting large hooked fish from the water. Charles Kirby, a needle maker, began experimenting with shapes of the hook about 1650. He later invented the Kirby bend, a hook with an offset point that is still in common use worldwide.

A rod with guides for the line along its length and a reel emerged by 1770. The earliest rendition of the reel was placed on the underside of the rod, and had gearing that resulted in several revolutions of the spool with each crank of the handle. Its popularity was immediate, and became the prototype of the bait-casting reel developed in Kentucky in the early 1800s. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Nottingham reel, patterned after the wooden lace bobbin, was commonly used in Britain. A wide-drummed, ungeared, and free-running reel, the Nottingham was better suited for letting the line and lure float downstream with the current, or for casting lures into waves in deep-sea fishing. The Nottingham reel was the precursor design for today’s fly-fishing reels.

From 1880 onward, fishing equipment/tackle has been constantly evolving. Fishing line progressed from horsehair, to greased or oiled silk, and today is comprised of a variety of synthetic materials. Anglers found that greased lines floated, and were desired for top-water fishing. If grease or oil were not used on the lines, they would sink and attract deepwater prey. The changes in line composition allowed for greater distance in casting, and increased the anglers’ ability to use either wet or dry flies as bait for lures. In the Nottingham reel, the wooden spool was replaced by spools of hard rubber (ebonite), or by metallic substances. Lighter and evenly tempered crafter spools created a more free-spinning effect, and resulted in the reels spinning so fast that the lines became tangled (referred to as an overrun or backlash). To resolve this problem, governors were created. The governor moves across the spool and evenly spreads the line as it is reeled. This fixed the tangling during the uptake of line, but failed to resolve the tangling during casting. In 1880, the Malloch Company (Scotland) introduced the first turntable reel. This reel left one side of the spool open, and turned 90 degrees (hence the name turntable)—or parallel with the rod—during casting, a position that allowed the line to slip easily and rapidly off the spool during the casting phase. For reeling line in, the spool was returned to its original position, perpendicular to the rod. Further reel refinement by Holden Illingworth, an English textile magnate, led to the fixed spool or spinning reel used today. The reel is positioned with the spool aligned with the rod, and usually has a metal guard that is flipped open during casting, but that closes for reeling. The gears are positioned at angles, so that the line is wound perpendicularly to the crank of the handle.

In the twentieth century, with the industrial advances in artificial materials, rods became shorter and lighter without sacrificing strength. Split bamboo was replaced by fiberglass, and then by carbon fiber rods. By the 1930s, the fixed-spool reel was the tool of choice in Europe, and after World War II, in North America and the rest of the world, it created a boom in spin casting. Nylon monofilament and braided synthetic lines were developed in the late 1930s, and plastic coverings for fly lines allowed them to float or sink without greasing. Plastic also became the dominant material for artificial casting lures.

Organizing Competitive Fishing Around the World

Freshwater fishing attracts most of the anglers in the United States and Canada; in other nations, saltwater fishing is the sport of choice—most likely because North America has more freshwater streams and lakes than most other continents do, and most of its populous lives further from saltwater. In the United States, official angling competitions began when the Schuylkill Fishing Company was formed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1732). Still in existence today as the Fish House Club, it is believed to be the oldest continuous sporting body in the United States. A national tournament was arranged in 1861, but details are sketchy about results or competition rules. The American Rod and Reel Association was founded in 1874, and the first U.S. national fly-casting tournament was staged in conjunction with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The events were accuracy, accuracy fly, delicacy fly, long-distance bait, and long-distance fly-casting. In the early competitions, all casts were actually made on a lawn, to accurately measure distances because this measurement was not possible yet on water. After the fifth U.S. National Tournament, (1906), the National Association of Scientific Angling Clubs was formed (1906) and became the governing body of the sport of fly-casting. This group later (1960) changed its name to the American Casting Association.

The years just before and during World War II were a boom for saltwater fishing. The growth of air travel after World War II made many areas of the world accessible to anglers and introduced them to new fish, such as the dorado of Argentina and the tigerfish of Central Africa. The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) was established in 1939 to promote and regulate big-game fishing, in collaboration between sportsmen from England, Australia, and the United States. Within a year, membership included two scientific institutions, ten member clubs, and twelve overseas representatives. Within ten years, it rose to ten scientific institutions, eighty member clubs, and representatives in forty-one areas of the world. The first overseas representatives were Clive Firth of Australia, and others from Nigeria, New Zealand, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Chile, Costa Rica, the Canal Zone, Cuba, Hawaii, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. Notables among early IGFA members and officers were authors Ernest Hemingway and Philip Wylie, and Charles M. Breder, Jr., Chairman of the Committee on Scientific Activities. In 1978, Field & Stream magazine turned over the tracking of freshwater records to the IGFA.

Today, the IGFA has many activities:

  • Supervises marine-fishing competitions
  • Establishes the weight categories for lines
  • Keeps championship records
  • Promotes scientific study through the tagging of released fish to explore fish habitat patterns and monitor endangered species
  • Sponsors both saltwater and freshwater competitive events
  • Archives world fishing in the E. K. Harry Library of Fishes

The IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum in Dania Beach, Florida, contains more than 13,000 books and 150 outdoor and fishing magazines from many countries and in many languages (some from as early as the 1930s), and numerous videos and scientific documents about the sport.

Halls of fame and museums are numerous, and contain facts and records about fishing and angling around the world. Many are aligned with a specific type of fish or angling competition. For example, the National Bass Fishing Hall of Fame is located in Hot Springs, Arkansas (, and has artifacts, statistics, equipment, and photos about bass fishing. The Internation Big Fish Network ( is comprised of 1,600 organizations around the world, and links information on fishing associations and clubs, tournament dates and locations, boat builders and worldwide news, education, and advocacy actions in support of ocean fisheries. The Western Australia Maritime Museum ( has a section entitled “Hooked on Fishing” that has exhibits related to cultural and historical facts of fishing and angling, and includes methods developed by Aboriginal fisherman. Granville Island, Vancouver, Canada, lists among its museum collection: “Hardy Brothers Reels, Rare art, Fry Plates, Salmon Fishing History, Ralph Wahl Photographs” ( The American Museum of Fly Fishing (, in Manchester, Vermont, is an education institution dedicated to fly fishing. The National (US) Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum in Hayward, Wisconsin, was organized (1960) to collect and display freshwater angling. It is especially attractive to children, with the building shaped like a giant fish (muskie). Visitors walk through and learn about the history of freshwater fishing, conservation efforts, the catch and release program, and other activities related to angling and fishing. The website also has educational information for kids, including photos for fish recognition, conservation information, and tying knots.

Types of Fishing Today

Bait fishing refers to fishing with live bait such as worms, grasshoppers, or small fish. Lures are fake bait such as plastic worms or flashy metal lures (jigs, plugs, or spoons) that attract fish by darting movements as they are pulled through the water. Coined by bass fishermen in the 1960s, the term crankbait has been applied to hard-bodied lures made out of wood, plastic, foam, or other materials that simulate the wiggling, wobbling action of bait fish as it is cranked or reeled in. The avid bait angler has an assortment of lures in the tackle box.

Fly-fishing uses a collection of strings, feathers, or other artificial materials, tied to resemble bugs that naturally inhabit lakes or streams and that provide food for fish in their environment.

  • Dry-fly fishing requires the angler to place the fly on the surface momentarily—and to create movement similar to that of a live fly flitting across the top of the water.
  • Wet-fly fishing places the fly beneath the surface and requires less line management.

Artful anglers use the techniques according to the natural environmental conditions and the development of the bait during the seasons. Similarly, both fly and bait fishing require knowledge of the seasonal conditions and tastes of the prey, plus a wide array of flies, lures, and bait in varied colors to attract the most elusive prey.

Whether using bait, lures, or flies, anglers practice the art of casting, or getting the fishing line from the pole to the place where the fish lie. Techniques for casting are many and combine the skill of placing the line artfully with an understanding of how fish swim, experiential knowledge of where they are likely to hide, and scientific knowledge of the flow of the waters in the stream or lake. Spin casting is considered the easier method, using a reel that releases the line with the cast and the weight of the lure or bait. Fly casting is considered the more difficult sport because of the light weight of the fly and longer line, which is hand fed with each arm movement. Fly-casting line is often heavy and colored at the reel end, and gradually slims and is colorless at the lure end, to allow the angler to see the flight pattern of the line, while not alarming the fish near the fly.

In fly-casting tournaments, the target usually is a rubber circle about thirty inches in diameter. For accuracy casting tests, five rings are placed about five feet apart, and the competitor tries for a bull’s-eye in each. Normally, the competitor is permitted two casts at each ring and a total time limit of about eight minutes for all the casts. In accuracy casting, ties are possible because the winner is determined by an aggregate of points scored. Distance events start with a target being placed at medium range, and then moved progressively with each competitor’s successful cast. This is head-to-head competition, with the winner being the competitor who successfully hits the furthest target.

Categories are created based upon the weight and type of bait, bug, fly, or plug in both distance and accuracy events. They are also divided by water—either saltwater (billfish, tuna, shark, or other ocean catch) or freshwater (trout, bass, catfish, stripers, pike, muskies, salmon, steelhead, and others)—and sometimes by the specific type of freshwater or saltwater fish found in those waters. Men’s records date back to the 1890s, and women’s records begin in the early 1920s.

Freshwater Fishing

Freshwater fish come a variety of sizes and shapes. Most commonly known freshwater game fish include bass, bluegill, trout, salmon, catfish, and crappies, commonly known as panfish. More hearty anglers seek out trophy-sized species like pike, muskie, walleye, and sturgeon. Peter Dubuc’s 46-pound, 2-ounce pike caught in 1940 in New York’s Sacandaga Lake is the North American record. A fish mounted in Michigan’s tourism office weighed 193 pounds and was speared through the ice by Joe Maka in 1974. Such monster fish are rarely caught, with habitats in the dark, deepest parts of the Great Lakes. Canadian biologists have records of lake sturgeon reaching 212, 220, 236, and 275 pounds. Improved electronics and sonar tracking may eventually lead to new record catches in the Great Lakes regions of the United States and Canada.

Freshwater angling is alluring, and both men and women have contributed to its rich history. Cornelia T. Crosby (1854-1946), a guide in the Maine woods for almost seventy years, was credited with catching more fish with a fly than anyone before her. She is credited as the pioneer of the short skirt (seven inches above the ground) to avoid entangling her submerged feet, as well as with starting the tradition of hooking flies around the band of her hat. Known as “Fly Rod” Crosby from her column The Maine Woods, she was commissioned to carry custom-made rods and write travel brochures for the railroads of the region. Today, the clothing and outfitting of anglers is a multibillion-dollar industry, which continues to develop new gear to make all types of fishing more comfortable and convenient. Crosby’s contemporary was Mary Orvis-Marbury, whose fly tying and recording of the flies used by anglers in the United States (Favorite Flies and Their Histories, 1893) inspired the founding of the Orvis Company, known for fishing apparel, equipment, and tackle. The first Woman Fly-fisher’s Club (1932) formed by Julia Fairchild and Frank Connell is credited for modern conservation efforts.

Angling is also a lifetime activity. For example, Joan Salvato captured her first title at the age of eleven, held the women’s dry fly accuracy record from 1943 to 1946, and recaptured the title in 1951. By age thirty-four, she had seventeen national and one international records, held a distance record of 161 feet and was the first woman to win the distance event against all male competitors. Salvato and her husband Lee Wulff established the Joan and Lee Wulff Fishing School and wrote several books and a monthly feature for Fly Rod & Reel.

Saltwater and Big-Game Fishing

Big-game fishing emerged as competitive sport as the motorized boat emerged as a recreational vehicle. Noteworthy to its development was C. F. Holder, who hooked a 183-pound bluefin tuna near Santa Catalina Island, California in 1898. Saltwater big-game fish include tuna, marlin, swordfish, and shark. Big-game competitions include not just catching the biggest fish, but doing so on the lightest tackle and line. Equipment includes massive rods with butts fitted into sockets mounted on the chair of fighting seats, into which anglers can be strapped. Reels are large with Dacron or Terylene line, and wire leader near the hook. Billfish (including swordfish, marlin, spearfish, and sailfish) are considered some of the most exciting species for ocean anglers. W. C. Boshen caught the first recorded broadbill swordfish in 1913, and only about 800 catches have been recorded catches since. The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve along the Caribbean coast of eastern Mexico is renowned as a fly-fishing and light-tackle capital of the world for bonefish, permit, and tarpon. Saltwater fishing also abounds around the Pacific Rim, Australia, and New Zealand and in the Atlantic Ocean, south of Bermuda.

Record Catches

As in freshwater fishing, both men and women are active competitors. Helen Lerner became the first woman to haul a broadbill out of both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, with one being a 570-pounder, caught off the coast of Peru, in 1936. She later received a gold medal from France’s Academie des Sports for catching the first giant tuna on a rod and reel off the coast of Brittany. Helen and her husband Michael Lerner are both known for their scientific contributions to the study and recording of the diet and migratory patterns of many of the ocean’s game fish—inviting scientists on their expeditions—and were instrumental in the formation of the IGFA. Michael served as its president from 1941 to 1960.

The albacore tuna is prized by saltwater anglers for its fighting spirit and tenacity against being landed once hooked. The women’s bluefin tuna record is 886 pounds, by Gertrude Collings (1970). The IGFA All-Tackle Record Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus thynnus) weighed 1,496 pounds, caught by Ken Fraser of Prince Edward Island, Aulds Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada in 1979.

Another of the great saltwater catches is the marlin. Although not in the official IGFA records (sharks bit the fish at the boat), Zane Grey, author and world traveler, caught the first “grander,” a 1,040-pound blue marlin off Tahiti (1930). Another 1,000-plus pound marlin wasn’t landed for twenty-two years. The largest fish (by weight) caught by a woman (Kimberly Wiss, 1954) was a black marlin weighing 1,525 pounds hooked off the coast of Peru.

Such accomplishments require hours of constant battle between fish and fisher—the woman’s record for the longest single-handed fight with a tuna was 11.5 hours (Francis Low, Nova Scotia, 1936), and justifiably, fishing competitions aren’t categorized just by size. Sometimes records amass over a year; for example, in 1936, Georgia McCoy of Los Angeles set a record for the number and gross weight of tuna captured in one year—fifteen fish for an aggregate weight of 5,284 pounds.

Of a lighter nature, the bonefish is prized because of its skittish nature (record catches are only around 12 to 13 pounds) and is rarely caught with a cast less than 80 feet. Bill Smith, of Florida was the first recorded person to catch a bonefish on a fly (1939), and his wife “Bonefish Bonnie” Smith, was the first woman to accomplish the same feat. Keeping the records in the family, Bonnie’s sister Frankee Albright set a record by catching a 48.5-pound tarpon on 12-pound test line and guided others to bonefish, in the shadow of her sister’s feats. In 1993, Deborah Dunaway, of Texas, became the first angler (male or female) in sport-fishing history to collect all IGFA billfish world records; by 1994, she held thirty world records.