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How big game tackle evolved

By Staff | Dec 31, 2009

When Dr. Charles Holder took the first 100-pound-plus big game fish on a rod and reel on June 1, 1889, the tackle he used was essentially Florida Keys tarpon tackle. The rods were constructed of split bamboo or hickory, reels had a leather spool flap that the angler manually applied as drag and the lines were rot-prone linen.

The next 30 to 40 years, commonly known as the Golden Era of offshore fishing, brought much experimentation to the field of big game tackle. Rods and reels were modified to suit the demands of the large ocean fish, but as hookup and capture records indicate, the tackle and technique remained inadequate, especially where big fish were concerned.

By the late 1920s, offshore tackle had improved, although not significantly from the bamboo rods and brakeless reels of Holder’s day. The rods were still constructed of split bamboo, hickory or metal and were prone to taking a set (becoming permanently bent) after a strenuous session with a fish (and were considerably weakened for the next occasion). Leader material for broadbill and marlin was light chain, which showed a tendency for breaking at precisely the wrong moment. Cable was later employed, but this also proved to be clumsy and easily detected by the fish.

The Ashaway Line and Twine Company began manufacturing linen fishing line in 1842 and was the best of the era. However, it required drying following each day of use, and humid climates would cause the line to mildew and weaken. The linen line was measured not by breaking strength, but by the number of threads used in construction. The 39-thread and the 24-thread line were the most popular lines for offshore fishing. The 39-thread line tested out at anywhere from 117 to 130 pounds and was considered the heaviest sporting line during the 1920s.

Three manufacturers dominated the rod and reel business during the early years. Of the three, Vom Hoffe had the most success with their reels. This was a time of experimentation and refinement, and the manufacturers all encountered problems.

Braking systems were imperfect and would often fail, causing the handle to spin when the fish ran — a prospect of some concern to the angler whose fingers happened to be in the way. The angler also had to contend with the size and weight of the reel. The reels of the 1920s had a capacity of 600 yards of 39-thread line, but late in the decade and into the 1930s, reels the size of five-gallon buckets became the norm.

The discovery of the bluefin tuna and blue marlin fishery at Cat Cay and Bimini in the early 1930s provided the sport with a higher profile and led to greater refinements in tackle design. The rods became known as “Bimini Kings” but showed little actual improvement over the sticks used in the Pacific.

The 1930s were boom years in offshore fishing, and many a millionaire used unsporting tackle to impress his colleagues with the gamefish he so heroically conquered. Reels with two handles were employed with huge rods and 72-thread line. This tackle was so heavy that an angler would be as unable to stand its strain as the fish. The “anglers” would simply allow the nearly unbreakable rod to rest on the transom while the fish fought itself to death. The fish would then be reeled to the boat and taken gloriously to the weight station.

As big game fishing became more and more unscrupulous, several anglers dedicated themselves to ridding the sport of impostors and unfair tactics. Michael Lerner, Clive Firth, Kip Farrington and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few, probably saved the sport of big game fishing.

In 1939, Lerner and Firth formed the International Game Fish Association, which established strict guidelines concerning tackle and fishing methods used in all major tournaments and world records today.

The most notable improvement in hardware came with the Fin-Nor reel and the lever drag system. This is the reel Alfred C. Glassell Jr. used to take the 1,560-pound black marlin all tackle world record set on Aug. 4, 1953 in Cabo Blanco, Peru, that still stands today.

His line was Ashaway 39-thread linen — virtually the same string used during the 1920s — and was IGFA classified as 130-pound test line. This marlin is the largest billfish ever landed on a rod and reel under IGFA world record guidelines.