Bait Fishing Justified: Part 2/3
On the Way to Today
A cynic might note that one reason bait fishing gets little ink` is because bait sellers don't buy ads in outdoor magazines. Bait fishermen, except for the walleye subset, don't seem quite as crazed about fishing tournaments and all their accoutrements either However, the separation of status between bait and artificials started much earlier than tournaments. Like other outdoor myths such as side-by-side shotguns, you can blame this unhappy situation on the tweedy set on the British Isles.
It started when a leisure class, based on titled land ownership seized control of streams and rivers. In England property rights run to the steam center. Own the land, and you own the stream and you own the fish. As a result, you hired private police, called water bailiffs to keep the unwashed out. Given carefully protected fish safe from the snarls and worms of the hoi poli, you can fiddle as you like with artistic forms of angling such as fly casting.
Even today proper British fly fishermen walk the bank in search of rising fish. Wading isn't done. "It disturbs the water." And for most gentlemen fisherman only the properly presented dry fly over a rising fish is totally correct. Proles might note that dry fly fishing for rising fish is, because of its two dimensional nature, far easier than bait fishing. All you need are enough unwary trout to succeed. The British got their trout by controlling access. More democratic Americans do the same thing on private clubs and, of course, by pricing remote waters out of the reach of the working stiff.
Cynics might also note that fly fishermen, as a group, lost their cachet when they moved to "point or strike indicators" that more equalitarian folks call "bobbers." Maybe that's also why today's fly buff, when he or she really needs a fish, slips on a "garden hackle", leech or minnow!
The same Industrial revolution that helped the rich afford to fish for trout with flies helped the common man fish even though that wasn't the intention. Affordable hooks became commercially available from firms like Partridge. So you no longer had to follow Isaac Walton's instructions on bending needles into hooks.
Rail transport improved and, supported by freight fees, the average fishermen could now reach and fish canals cut to carry commerce on leisure where fishing for coarse fish could be had on Saturday afternoons or, absent Blue Laws, Sunday.
Such canals held unwanted fish such as trench, carp or the European version of the walleye, the Zander as well as a host of tiddlers like our bluegills. British workingmen used and still use, "simple" cane poles to catch such fish. Incidentally, jointed poles came into play because of the length restrictions on tackle that you could take on the railroad.
Such simple looking poles remain the most effective fishing tool anywhere! Don't believe it? One Frenchman used this kind of rig to take over 600 fish with a single hook in one hour. Admittedly, these were tiddlers. But it's been repeatedly demonstrated that a pole expert rigged with stump grubs or hellgrammites and equipped to wade can take more trout per hour in pocket water in rapids or anywhere lese casting distance isn't the key to results, than any fly fisherman.
So, as is the case with classic British double guns that can fire more shots per hour than any automatic, apparently simplicity may, in fact, mask firepower. It's also worth noting that the poles used by European "Match" anglers, the proper British clone of our bass pros, may look simple, but, in the latest state-of-the-art graphite wonders up to 40 -- that's four, zero! -- feet long can cost as much as $4,000!
English industrialization, as in the Northeast United States, did bite the hand of the workman who fueled its growth. Pollution eliminated salmon stocks from once famous salmon rivers such as the Thames. So locals moved to secondary species.
The rich developed country living and built mansions on unpolluted Scottish lochs. In Europe the same situation obtained, the rich fished for game fish with flies and such in the Scandinavian countries as salmon, that once ran as far south as Portugal, died out of the Seine, the Rhine and other rivers.
The average Joe, like the pole fishermen who provide a scenic backdrop on the Seine and apparently never catch anything decent, caught tiddlers. Such remains the case today.
When European fishing traditions moved to America the same distinctions obtained. "Gentlemen" caught trout with flies. "Others" took striped bass from the surf and other fish from inland waters with bait.
There were so many trout, striped bass and salmon that colonies passed laws about the number of times indentured servants had to eat these and other wild fare!
Early fishermen definitely ranked as piscatorial racists. In most parts of the country only salmon, trout, steelhead and, perhaps, striped bass counted. Other species such as black bass, early on shared the low status of carp. The later were moved into America, along with species such as brown trout, by Germans anxious to replicate the fishing at home.
Today, more European species, such as trench, are distributed in waters like the Hudson. Some of these "coarse" fish show promise as alternative species for polluted waters. Oddly enough, the "coarse" in coarse fishing relates to scale size. By British standards grayling, a wonderful sport fish falls in the came low class as carp!
Writing on fishing reflected this elite vs. equalitarian division transferred from the British Isles. Some of the early writers, such as Frank Forester, really Henry William Herbert, were remittance men, English younger sons and such paid a small amount to stay out of England for various, often embarrassing, reasons such as debt or duels.
Forester, considered the founder of American "cast and blast" writing killed himself. Most of the early fishing writers, like Barnwell, whose main claim to fame was his nephew Teddy Roosevelt, had outside incomes; some even had real jobs. Even today, few who write about fishing do it a sole occupation. Some make the case that the romantic era of the writer is in inverse proportion to his distance from good fishing and the number of days fished per year. This seems the literary version of "net shrink" the inches, and pounds, fish lose when netted.
Like readers in the same unhappy situation, writers trapped in city and suburb, tended, and still may paint fishing, and in particular, dry fly fishing, as the Sistene Chapel of piscatorial pleasures, instead of a two dimensional simplification of what's otherwise an interesting problem in three dimensions. This probably got started about in the mid-1800s as a part of a general back-to-nature movement that produced, among other happy outcomes, the National Park System.
Dry fies do eliminate the yucky fingers the elite suffered before they left wet flies and -- horrors, bait! -- for the hoi poli! All that was left to make this the perfect elitist diversion was the post WW II popularity of catch and release that one wag noted, "limit one's catch only to the speakers' creativity and the listener's gullibility."
After WW II, as the American middle class enjoyed their most leisure ever, we saw a change in fishing status and values. Lure fishing came into the freshwater orbit full-force. Bass gained status as gurus like Ray Bergman wrote classics that today seem rather simple, although totally delightful. The switch from fun to competition had barely started.
Fueled by the technology of WW I, gear like level wind reels had improved and developed just enough to make bait casting rigs popular and affordable -- some might argue we're regressing with today's $200 reels. Linen lines evolved to Dacron, and diamond cut gut leaders offered advantages over the old horse-hairs.
Note: tapered leaders aren't new, they started with horsehairs and experts would fish tapers down to a double link of two 1 1/4 pound test hairs from a white stallion, the strongest option because mare's urine weakened their tail hair. As always, the rich gobbled up some of the prime fishing. Private clubs grabbed waters of note like the Fly Casters Section on California's Truckee River. Fortunately, American land and water laws usually, but not always, allowed public access to "navigable waters" below the high water line. Anyone who has watched the privatization of American waters knows this allows plenty of "posting out."
A system of guides and dudes developed as the wealthy used railroads to access their fishing after the Civil War moved, like the literature of the day, offshore. Western novelist Zane Gray wrote of and popularized West Coast steelhead, then billfish. Some of his achievements seemed doubtfully enough to influence the rise of the International Game Fish Association with its rigid rules on records. Others developed foreign, and usually temporary fisheries of note such as that off Peru. Back home, workers freed from public transport by Henry Ford's cars, and wages, spread out to new waters.
Like all wars, WW II made a major change in American fishing. Manpower movements brought East Coast bluefish buffs to Washington steelhead streams and Sierra trout, and bait fishing was still the most popular method. Some war time emergency operations, like the landlocked of striped bass in Lakes Marion and Moultrie in the rush to provide power for the navy, opened up new possibilities.
War technology, as always, spawned major improvements in tackle technology. Monofilament lines, spinning reels, fiberglass and more advanced rod materials, injection molding and a host of other improvements made fishing easier. No more soaking leaders or drying linen lines overnight, and no more bamboo rod fractures.
With the Eisenhower years, a network of freeways made it possible for fishermen to reach once inaccessible waters on the weekend. At this point, bass fishing spread from the smallmouth water of the Northeast and the largemouth waters of the Southwest behind new dams built for vast -- conservationists and conservatives might say "half-vast" -- water projects. Salmon, trout, steelhead and smallmouth streams drowned by hydropower converted into "structure" for bass addicts. With so many relatively unschooled fish available, fishing with artificials grew in popularity.
Affluence, for a time, parked both a boat and RV in the driveway and freed readers to follow the fishing gurus to foreign climes. Fishermen, flush with postwar dollars had both the hours, and the money to spend on their sport. Higher tech meant higher prices. As a result today's bass boat and gear costs more than a home did in 1946.
However, today's conditions -- economic and otherwise -- suggest bait fishing's on the way back as the most affordable, effective method. It's clear most demographic trends are anti-fishing and, for that matter, hunting. Most Americans live in suburb or city. Commute a couple of hours a day, and it's tough to drive far to fish on your weekend. Most Americans now live in two income or single parent households. "Leisure" time now runs to the chores a full-time housewife would handle. So mentors, parent, uncle or grandfather, no longer teach skills.
Disposable income is less, so big ticket fishing items such as specialized boats may be harder to justify. Fortunately, fishing still lets adults and kids share "quality time.” However, the typical fisherman today manages a Sunday afternoon every couple of weeks if weather permits. Even those lucky enough to have more time find bait a key to results that, in the old days when fewer anglers chased more, and larger fish, were available even with the somewhat primitive gear and methods of the past.
To get the most action out of today's precious leisure time only the most productive method --- and that's live bait -- makes sense even though 80 percent of today's fishing literature involves artificials. Bait gear costs a lot less too! Why invest so much time and energy on lures and flies when for a fraction of the cost and effort you can use the real thing?
Fortunately, American fishermen may have more sense than the literature, for more than 75 percent of fish caught in North America still bite bait, and no amount of sneering by the dry fly and plug set seems likely to change this. It's fairly clear that current population shifts run from the city and suburbs back into small towns. This will, in the long term, help fishing survive as a bulcolic pleasure.