Fishing, Freshwater

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Fishing comes in a variety of forms. The earliest fishing was undoubtedly subsistence fishing. A person captured the fish in the most effective way possible, and then that person, his family, or his tribe consumed it. At some point, an entrepreneurial fellow came up with the bright idea of not only getting fish for oneself and family but getting enough fish to be able to barter with or sell to others. That was the birth of commercial fishing. Subsistence and commercial fishing are practiced today in virtually every modern society. On a global scale subsistence fishers far outnumber all other type of fishers. In terms of the number of fish captured, commercial fishing eclipses other forms by far.

In contrast, sport fishing is a relatively new phenomenon and is differentiated from the other types of fishing by the participants' voluntarily limiting techniques and equipment in an effort to make the activity as fair as possible. For example, fishing with underwater explosives is effective, but it is not very "sporting." In the last century, governmental agencies in North America, as well as in all other developed countries, have adopted laws to ensure a fair contest. Sport fishing can be divided into two different categories—that which takes place in the oceans (saltwater fishing) and that which takes place on lakes, ponds, and streams (freshwater fishing).

It is impossible to determine when the first person decided to fish for fun or for sport. Fishing for enjoyment by Japanese nobility in about 200 A.D. is the earliest mention of the sport. Not until nearly 1,500 years later do we find significant writing about sport fishing. Charles Waterman has surmised that sport fishing was overshadowed in development and in its documentation by hunting because fishing lacked the element of bravery ascribed to hunting. Fishing was a more pensive activity and did not lend itself to particularly heroic writings.

Most early literature about freshwater sport angling is primarily English. Izaak Walton wrote The Compleat Angler in 1653, and it remains the classic to this day. The English penchant for freshwater sport fishing eventually found its way to the United States; however, it did not become popular until the middle of the nineteenth century. In England fishing for fun had been reserved for aristocracy, and the frontiersmen in America, even if they had found the time to engage in the pastime, were loath to do anything even remotely similar to that of English aristocracy. Starting in the eastern states with trout fishing, moving to the southern states with black bass fishing, and then reaching the Midwest and West with fishing for nearly all species, freshwater sport fishing was finally established as one of the most popular leisure activities for Americans by the end of the nineteenth century.

Development of Freshwater Sport Fishing

The freshwater fishing common in 2004 is largely the result of the technological advances of the past century. Early fishers used equipment that would be laughable by today's standards. All of their equipment was fashioned by the anglers themselves from the materials that were readily available. While there are hundreds of different types of equipment used by modern anglers, a review of the development of reels, rods, boats, and electrical equipment provides an overview of the evolution of the major types of freshwater fishing equipment.

Reels were an invaluable addition to early fishing. For some time line for fishing had been wrapped around a convenient-sized object and pulled off as needed. Some of these crude wooden spools can still be found in antique angling equipment collections. Of course this cumbersome method of storage reduced early anglers' ability to reach fish in areas other than their immediate surroundings. In England, the Nottingham reel was the epitome of reels in the 1700s. This reel was fashioned of wood, as were reels of lesser quality in other parts of the world. Around 1820, great advances were made in the construction of reels. Better raw materials and more sophisticated tools allowed for the construction of metal reels. In the United States several watchmakers made reels of brass that contained steel gears. In the early 2000s, reels were made of metal and plastic and came in a variety of designs for different types of fishing. For example, reels were designed specifically for the size of the fish pursued, for the characteristic of the species angled for, and for the anticipated climatic and geographical fishing conditions.

Fishing rods are designed to get the bait to the fish and to reduce the stress on the fragile line once a fish has taken the bait. Waterman insightfully notes that the earliest devices were "more poles than rods." They were long (up to fourteen feet) and heavy by modern standards. A variety of woods were used for the first rods. A major advance was the use of bamboo for fly fishing rods, a welcome upgrade from the heavy rods that did not allow anglers the sensitivity they sought. Since that time rods have progressed through various construction materials and designs. The most desirable qualities in fishing rods have always been durability, strength, maneuverability, and sensitivity. Fiberglass was the material of choice in the 1960s and 1970s. Graphite rods and composites of new materials were common in the early 2000s. As with reels, rods came in a variety of sizes and shapes, depending on the conditions and the methods used for fishing.

Freshwater sport fishing is almost universally predicated upon enticing a fish to "take" an object on the end of the line. The object typically contains a hook of some sort to keep the fish on the line. Such objects run the gamut from different natural baits such as worms, minnows, and insects to an even greater variety of human-made baits. Artificial flies are fashioned from fur and feathers. Lures are made from wood, metal, plastic, and rubber, and are designed to imitate natural food or to incite fish to strike the object out of the urge to protect itself.

Boats have been an important part of freshwater fishing for the past two centuries. Just as with the development of rods, reels, and lures, sport fishers' needs and the availability of new materials have driven the development of boats. The first fishing boats for freshwater were wooden and propelled by paddles or poles. Fiberglass and aluminum became popular boat construction materials in the middle of the twentieth century. Paddles and poles were largely replaced by outboard motors driven by gasoline or by electricity. The early bass boats of the 1950s and 1960s were fairly expensive and entailed a large commitment from the typical angler. However, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a reliable boat could be purchased by most fishers without undue financial burden.

The most remarkable advances have come about in the use of electronic fishing equipment since the 1980s. Fish detectors are now available that allow anglers to search for fish in even the most turbulent and deepest waters. Global locating systems using Earth-orbiting satellites make it possible for fishers to return to the same spot on a body of water time after time.

The evolution of fishing equipment has contributed to the continuing popularity of freshwater fishing, but some have suggested that the increase of technology has destroyed the delicate balance that exists between fish and fisher. They claim that the fish no longer have a chance. Because the equipment has changed dramatically in ways that allow anglers to pursue their prey more effectively, laws and regulations have been established to keep the contest even. For example, many lakes and streams have numerous restrictions on the equipment and the methods that can be used to catch fish.

Specialization of Freshwater Sport Fishing

The ongoing development of fishing equipment corresponds to the specialization of freshwater sport fishing. Whereas in previous centuries, anglers were content to catch any type of fish with any method, the anglers of the early 2000s typically had very specific goals and techniques. They specialized not only in the species of fish pursued but in the methods and the resources on which the activity took place. Hobson Bryan's classic study of the specialization of fishers laid the groundwork for research into specialization in many other areas of human activity.

Commercialization of Freshwater Sport Fishing

Commercialism is the process by which an increasing number of tangible and intangible items are produced and marketed for the purpose of being sold. Leisure and recreation have become increasingly commercialized. Richard Butsch has noted: "In ways that are obvious even to the casual observer, leisure activities have become commercialized. Two centuries ago Americans purchased few leisure goods or services: made their own music and toys for their children and drank homemade cider. Today, most of our leisure activities depend upon some purchased commodity: a television set, a baseball, tickets to the theater" (p. 3).

Freshwater sport fishing has not been immune from claims of commercialism. Anglers no longer make their own fishing rods and reels. Instead, they purchase them from local sporting goods stores or international conglomerates. While anglers once found fishing bait by wading in streams, looking under rocks, and walking through the forests, modern anglers meander through jungles of fishing equipment at huge sporting goods outlets to find what they need. It is not uncommon for anglers to pay for the opportunity to participate in their sport. Such an act was disdainful fifty years ago. Whereas previously, fishing skills were acquired through years of observation and instruction by parents and friends, modern anglers are more likely to learn from a guide or at a special school for a fee. Based upon decades of critique of the capitalist system, historians and sociologists have argued that such commercialism has devalued the activity of sport fishing.

Sport Fishing Tournaments

A logical result of the natural competitiveness of anglers and recent advances in marketing is the modern fishing tournament, in which participants attempt to catch the most fish and the largest fish within a prescribed time period using equipment and techniques previously determined. Prizes, ranging from thousands of dollars and fully equipped boats in the larger contests to $10 pots in the smaller contests, are awarded to the winners. Fishing tournaments are controversial for a number of reasons. Some believe that the obvious display of competition reflects badly on the sport; some believe that such an intense concentration of angling negatively impacts the resources; some believe that tournaments open the door to even more commercialization of the sport.

Freshwater Fishing Resource Management

Successful fishing depends on healthy and productive fisheries. Before the number of anglers swelled to 2004 levels, streams and lakes in the United States and Canada were able to naturally provide fish from year to year. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, it was necessary to carefully manage natural resource areas in ways that would ensure fish populations for anglers. State and federal agencies were given the responsibility of designing and operating a system that recognized the needs of a diverse population of anglers while protecting North America's water resources. Most of the costs for the operations of the agencies and their programs were funded through the purchase of required annual fishing licenses.

Freshwater Fishing and Tourism

Freshwater sport fishing is a multibillion-dollar business in the United States and Canada. According to the American Sportsfishing Association, in 2001, 45 million American anglers spent nearly $42 billion on fishing tackle, trips, and related services. Several times that amount is spent on fishing equipment and services. Moreover, millions of dollars are spent each year on related goods and services such as travel and lodging. Because of the potential for freshwater fishing to pump large amounts of money into local and state economies, communities and states are developing resources and programs to attract anglers.

Of course, tourism has the potential to affect communities negatively. Resource depletion, impact on the local infrastructure, and social disruption are common threats from the activity. Modern research seeks to understand the phenomenon in an effort to minimize the adverse effects of freshwater fishing tourism while increasing the potential for positive results.

See also: Camping; Fishing, Saltwater/Deep Sea; Hunting


American Sportsfishing Association. Available from

Bryan, Hobson. Conflict in the Great Outdoors: Toward an Understanding and Managing of Diverse Sportsmen Preferences. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1979.

Butsch, Richard, ed. For Fun and Profit: The Transformation of Leisure into Consumption. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

Cross, Gary. A Social History of Leisure Since 1600. State College, Pa.: Venture, 1990.

Gabrielson, Ira, ed. The Fisherman's Encyclopedia. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Company, 1958.

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

Waterman, Charles F. A History of Angling. Tulsa, Okla.: Stillwater Press, 1981.

Daniel G. Yoder