Colonial America Fishing



All photos used by share and share alike from wikimedia

Fishing, it is a past time enjoyed by millions of Americans in the 21st century, it has evolved into a billion-dollar industry throughout the country, and the world for that matter. Many fishers are obsessed with owning the newest rod and reel combos, or the best fishfinding underwater GPS systems, or the fasted and best bass boats, but the world of American fishing wasn’t always so obsessed with the latest and greatest. Our forefathers were much more concerned with fishing as a way of making a living and providing for their families.

When England first decided to settle the North American continent, it was with monetary gain in mind. England was bursting at the seams and needed to expand their footprint throughout the world to keep pace with the other European nations also in the colonization game. While Jamestown, Virginia became the first permanent settlement in the late 16th century, it wasn’t until Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 17th century that England began to profit from the colonization business. Commerical fishing was the name of the game for the people on the coast of Massachusetts, and the English held a monopoly on all fish caught in the area. Large commercial ships used nets and cages to catch their fish and sent them to market, making tidy profits for the English.

While commercial fishing was big-business, there was also the need for small-scale fishing on a personal level. Anybody that enjoys fishing can tell you the joys of sitting by the water, listing to the small ripples in the stream and trying to catch a view of a fish or two breaking water. It is a game of patience, and if done correctly, can bring quite a bounty in return. The toolkit of a 17th-century fisher looks entirely different from the giant tackle boxes and thousand dollar rod/reel set-ups of the modern day. The fishing poles were usually made out of willow or cane, with a line fashioned to the pole. Live bait was often used, but Colonial anglers also saw the need for lures, and made lures out of wood and stained them red and other colors to mimic crawdads or minnows. There were no reels on these rods, so the angler had a personal interaction every time a fish nibbled on their line. The best modern equivalent would be the act of fly fishing, but even on a fly rod, there is a reel to help the fisher.

Colonial fishers depended on the waterways around their homes for not only relaxation but also for a free means of feeding their families. For every fish that was caught, that was money saved from buying groceries at the local market, and in the rough and tumble life of Colonial American, self-sufficiency was key.



McLaughlin, Marie Margaret “The fishing industry of colonial

Massachusetts, 1620-1660”. Boston University Masters Thesis 1933

Published by TheOddPast by Matthew A. Perry

Writer, teacher, broadcaster, and podcaster from West Virginia. I write about and discuss the wacky and weird side of history on my website and my podcast "The Odd Past Podcast" available everywhere

One thought on “Colonial America Fishing

  1. Dear Mr. Perry,
    My name is Ryan Gierek, and I am a sophomore at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, New Jersey.
    I am currently researching the fishing industry in Colonial New England. I have done some basic online research to start, but I was wondering if you could point me in any new directions.
    Thank you in advance,
    Ryan Gierek


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