A History of Baitcasting in America, Emmett J. Babler, 2017.

In A History of Baitcasting in America, Emmitt J. Babler presents about as much of a deep dive into the subject as is possible in 160 pages. This book is an incredible undertaking, and will make you rethink your understanding of the word thorough. Babler’s “Works Cited” section alone is 13 pages with 167 sources. That’s graduate level research on steroids. If you purchase this book and are expecting a laid back, casual read, be prepared to adjust your expectations. If you’re a student of fishing history this is a book that you’ll return to again and again. The bibliography alone is worth the price.

Published in 2017, the book is a relatively recent addition to the historical angling archive. In the foreword, Stan Fagerstrom prepares the reader, telling him or her that, “This book, as far as I know, is the only one ever written that details the history of baitcasting in the land of the free and the home of the brave.” And what a history it is, beginning before America actually became a country, with the kings of Great Britain and the Puritans who sailed to the new continent on the Mayflower. As much as Babler discusses the history and development of the tools that made baitcasting possible, he spends just as much time exploring the evolution of the attitudes and ethics of angling at different stages in America’s growth. You might not think angling ethics as relevant to the evolution of baitcasting, but Babler weaves a convincing argument how people thought of angling as a sport did indeed have an impact on the tools they used. And as those ethics changed over time, so too did the acceptance of certain tools.

George Washington's fishing tackle, p.116, A History of Baitcasting in America, by Emmitt J. Babler. Image courtesy of Babler's book and the Library of Congress.

For example, in the chapter, “Evolution of the Short Baitcasting Rod,” Babler discusses the psychological struggle anglers in certain regions had with the prevailing attitudes toward long versus shorter rods. The sporting ethics of the time favored the long rod, over 8 feet in length, which demanded a sweeping, underhand motion to cast accurately. We can thank Dr. James Henshall, author of the 1881 treatise Book of the Black Bass, for this rod and the general acceptance of it by anglers. Henshall, as readers of this website know, was the man who opened the door for the world’s embrace of the black bass as a sporting fish. Henshall developed an 8-foot, 3-inch baitcasting rod to his specifications, and had Abbey & Imbrie build it commercially. It soon became the accepted standard baitcasting rod in America. Henshall himself championed the rod and its use as the ethical choice for anglers pursuing the sport with an eye toward sophistication and artful presentation of the lure. But anglers in urban areas like Chicago, where shores were muddy and choked with tall, emergent vegetation, were having difficulty with the long, whippy rods and casting motion they required. They found it impossible to effectively get their lures past the bulrushes with the Henshall rod, but they discovered that by using a shorter, stiffer rod and changing the casting motion to an overhead motion, they could indeed effectively reach the fish. 

Henshall and writers of his generation and caste looked down upon these short rod users with the less artistic casting motion. He saw the short, stiffer rod crowd as crude and utilitarian, rather than as truly sporting gentlemen, although he did recognize the advantages of the modernized equipment. He wrote,

Rods–we must call them so by courtesy–are now made… for casting… overhead and forward… It has its advantages; for the rod being not only very short, but very stiff, the fish can be reeled rapidly to the landing net. This mode of angling however does not appeal to one who has… a love for suitable tackle or to one who, being imbued with the proper esprit de corps, is disposed to give the fish a chance.

Eventually practicality won out over prior attitudes, and the ethics changed thanks to a newer generation of writers taking up the cause of the short rod. Magazine writer Herbert Grissom, for instance, defended the change in gear in an article titled, “The Black Bass and Some Sportsman,” writing,

It is a fairy wand; it is a thing of life, as wonderfully delicate and strong and truly balanced as the best of fly-rods… built of bamboo by master hands… Its action is supple, empathetic and lightning fast.

So, the definition of sporting and fair chase would evolve as practicality butted up against earlier ethics. This is but one example of Babler’s skillful weaving of the ever-changing mindset of the country with continually evolving technical developments. If there’s a running theme throughout A History of Baitcasting in America, this would be it.

Shannon Twin Spinner, created by Jesse P. Shannon, ad c.1925. Image from A History of Baitcasting in America, by Emmett J. Babler, p.97.

I especially enjoyed Babler’s story of Fred Arbogast fishing with Robert Page Lincoln, and Argogast’s gift to Lincoln of a then-new Toledo steel rod. Lincoln subsequently caught his biggest musky on the rod. But Babler also spends a good measure of attention on the development of the baitcasting reel, and specifically the Kentucky reel. He highlights several individual makers and their contributions to the reel’s development. Kentucky plays a very prominent role in Babler’s story.

In addition to developments in baitcasting reels and fishing rods, Babler also explores the impact the railroad had on bass fishing, urban industrialization, advancements in fishing line, boats and outboard motors, the creation of conservation laws, and more. He even brings in the Ambassadeur reel (how could he not), made in Sweden, and its impact on American bass fishing and further reel development.

Every chapter follows the growth of the country and conjoins that growth with the continual evolution of baitcasting. Of special interest, to me anyway, were the chapters where Babler discussed the development of lures and how baitcasting impacted the creative spark in people like James Heddon, Lauri Rapala, Nick and Cosma Creme, Jesse Shannon and others. The accounts of how these folks developed their lures is fascinating. You might be surprised to read that the famous story of James Heddon developing his first lure after seeing a bass engulf a piece of wood tossed into the water may not be entirely accurate.

The book is peppered with black & white photographs, not just of reels and equipment, but of the people Babler quotes and writes about. We tend to think of the men of early America, and of the 18th and 19th centuries, as staid, if not stern and humorless personages. But the steely eyed portraits of these men dressed in high collars and frock coats give no clue to their love of fishing and their interest in tinkering with reels, rods and other accouterments to make that past-time more fun. Babler does an admirable job in imbuing A History of Baitcasting in America with a sense of both seriousness and joy.