The Technique of Bait Casting, by Ernest Liotta Jr., 1949.

In the 1930s and 1940s Ernest Liotta Jr. was a dominant force in competitive bait and fly casting in America. He won over 40 championships and in 1937 became the youngest winner, at age 20, to earn the All-Around National Bait and Fly Casting Championship. This was during a time when the results of casting competitions garnered major newspaper space, with photographs. Liotta parlayed his fame in competitive casting into public speaking engagements and demonstrations, a line of fishing lures, and a book titled The Technique of Bait Casting, which we’ll be reviewing today.

Ernest Sebastian “Sib” Liotta Jr. came from a casting family. His father was a casting champion before him. Liotta began competitive casting at age eleven. He won various state and national junior casting championships before winning the National Distance Fly Casting Championship at age 17. In addition to being the youngest man to win the All-Around National Bait and Fly Casting Championship in ‘37, he repeated his win in 1938, ‘40, ‘45, ‘46, and ‘47. He didn’t compete during WWII, when he served as an officer in the Air Force. He was also a Case Western Reserve University middle-weight boxing champion. Liotta also designed and manufactured the Spin-Tail and Tu-Lip fishing spoons.

The Technique of Bait Casting, by Ernest Liotta Jr., 1949.

Published in 1949, The Technique of Bait Casting is a model for the old saying about not judging a book by its cover. Upon first glance the book looks like it might be a children’s book. It’s small (<5×7 inches) and has a colored illustration of Liotta on the cover reminiscent of books for young readers in the mid-20th century. It also doesn’t help that the book is part of the Little Sports Library series of books, making it sound somewhat less than mature. But a children’s book it is not, although young anglers probably would appreciate Liotta’s instruction. The book is definitely geared toward the adult angler and bait caster.

Published by Ziff-Davis, the book is one of a number of sports-related small book sets the publisher began releasing in 1948. Ziff-Davis has a fascinating history in publishing, beginning in 1927 and continuing today. Early on they published hobbyist magazines such as Popular Aviation, comic books with themes of horror, crime, adventure, sports, westerns and more, fiction and fantasy magazines, and later computer and electronics magazines. They’re still operating today, although their focus now is as a multi-billion dollar digital media and internet company. 

Liotta’s book is 127 quick-reading pages, divided into seven logical chapters, beginning with his romantic exposition on the “why” of fishing. Liotta emphasizes fishing’s benefits as calming, thrilling, mentally stimulating, restorative and a pursuit that connects one with nature. And why baitcast? Because it allows you to reach otherwise unreachable spots where other methods would prove impractical or impossible. Proficient baitcasting increases the positive attributes of the above-mentioned benefits. After all, it’s tough to feel calm and connected with nature when you’re struggling and frustrated with trying to put a lure where you want it to go.

Liotta Jr. Spin-Tail and Tu-Lip spoons.
Liotta Jr. Spin-Tail and Tu-Lip spoons.

Next, Liotta gets into what to look for in baitcasting equipment and tackle. Much of this chapter is, of course, of its time. The rods, reels, and line of the 1940s are not the same as the gear of today. But it makes for some mighty interesting reading if you’re predisposed to have your history itch scratched. This must have been wonderful information for the mid-20th century angler first getting into baitcasting. Liotta gives very practical advice – the what’s and why’s – on the equipment that was popular back then. 

No doubt a lot of anglers are well aware of the nuances in baitcasting gear and techniques. But if you’re like me, you got your instruction from a few tips from your father and a heckuva lot of practice and trial and error. Most assuredly I’ve picked up a ton of bad habits that need to be corrected, as well as an equipment knowledge base that is basically a blank slate. For example, did you know that there were basically two types of pistol grip rod handles? A straight handle and a tournament offset handle. The straight handle is just what it says, a handle that is in a straight line with the rod. The tournament offset handle has a built-in angle of about 15 degrees between the rod and the handle. The advantages of this 15 degree deviation are huge. 1) It brings the rod into a straight line with the target when making a cast, 2) It keeps you from kinking your wrist when you line-up the cast, 3) It lowers the reel on the handle, which allows your thumb to contact the reel spool in a more natural, comfortable position. It’s tips like these, from a tournament casting expert, that you were unlikely to get from your dad.

The Technique of Bait Casting, by Ernest Liotta Jr., 1949. pp.46-47. Note the Liotta Jr. spoons on page 47.
The Technique of Bait Casting, by Ernest Liotta Jr., 1949. pp.60-61.

Chapter 3, Bait-Casting Methods, is surprisingly brief and straightforward. Liotta gives simple and clear instructions on the mechanics of casting, how to practice thumb control, and what to avoid. He hits the four major casts: Overhead Cast, Side Cast, Bow-and-Arrow Cast, Inverted Bow-and-Arrow Cast. I wonder how many anglers use and are proficient with the Bow-and-Arrow Cast today. I’ve never seen it used. These days ‘skipping’ seems to be the popular “showy” presentation cast. 

Liotta’s next chapter is on fishing, which he’s broken into four parts: bass, pike, walleye, and playing and landing. There’s really nothing exceptionally interesting in anything on the fish sections. It pretty much follows the standard thinking of the 1940s and ‘50s. But it does get a bit more interesting when he gets into playing and landing fish. Of course, Liotta’s advice on playing and landing fish is really geared toward the novice angler, and his advice is rock solid. But bear in mind that the rods and line available in 1949 were quite a bit less advanced than those of today. So, for instance, when he talks about the “springiness” of a steel rod, it makes it easier to understand where he’s coming from. Also, his opinion of using a gaff is certainly of the time period, although he recommends both avoiding the gaff and fighting a fish to exhaustion if the intent is to release the fish (same with his opinion of landing pike by gripping the eye sockets, a method that would be frowned upon today regardless of whether you intend to keep the fish).

Liotta closes the chapter with this admonition: “In closing our little fishing experience allow me to stress the thought that we be humane in our treatment of fish, and that we take only those we can use. Taking a limit of fish home proves nothing. Catching a limit and releasing all that cannot be eaten proves that you are a sportsman. Let us all be sportsmen.”

Original caption: "Drifting the stream, working shorelines and bars for smallmouth."The Technique of Bait Casting, by Ernest Liotta Jr., 1949. p.81.

The chapter on Care and Repair of Tackle is mighty interesting, especially if you’re into restoring or cleaning up old gear, which I am. Liotta’s tips were really designed for yearly maintenance by anglers back then, but I love it when he talks about how to repair a metal ferrule on a bamboo rod, how to take care of the “new” nylon line, and even maintaining the viability of your spoons and plugs.

Liotta ends with a short discussion of tournament casting rules and a couple pages of questions and answers. In his discussion of the tournament casting format he writes briefly about his own then-world record cast of 407 ⅓ feet on August 28, 1946. He confessed of achieving longer casts than that in practice, and opined that with continuing advances in equipment, he “would not be surprised at 600-foot distances.” He was right in the opinion that cast distances would improve, but fell rather short in his estimation of just how far those distances would be. In the early 2000s competitors using specialized surf rods, reels, and line, made casts well over 900-feet, and reportedly in the early 1970s, competitors using 16-foot long rods, and specialized reels and line, were able to achieve casts of more than 1,100-feet. 

Overall, The Technique of Bait Casting is a sweet, easy reading book. It’s not long, only 127 pages, with illustrations. I doubt you’ll get much from the fishing sections, but Liotta’s advice on casting gear and techniques is solid stuff. It’s just cool to read a book written by one of the greatest baitcasters of the 20th century. Plus, you gotta love that cover!

The Technique of Bait Casting, by Ernest Liotta Jr., 1949. p.71.
The Technique of Bait Casting, by Ernest Liotta Jr., 1949. Back cover.