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Art Lander’s Outdoors: A look back at the tackle and techniques of America’s early black bass anglers

Bass anglers today have a staggering array of tackle readily available.

There’s a rod, reel, and line for every lure presentation. Casting reels, spinning reels, light, sensitive graphite rods of any length and action, and thin diameter, high-test fishing lines so clear that they literally disappear in water, can be purchased off store shelves and online.

What is really amazing, is the number, and wide choice, of artificial lures — spinnerbaits, chatterbaits, hard plastic crankbaits and soft plastic jerk baits, and jig heads for soft plastic grubs, worms, crayfish and creature baits. Anglers cast, pitch, flip and drop shot lures to catch bass.

In the infancy of bass fishing in Central Kentucky anglers surely enjoyed less fishing pressure and an abundance of black bass in the streams of the Licking and Kentucky River drainages. But, by today’s standards, their tackle and fishing techniques were very limited.

Their approach is probably best described as basic bass fishing — a single hook tied to the line, baited with a live minnow, with a cork or a quill float attached to the line about two feet above the bait. A bass inhaled the minnow, the float moved and went under, and the angler set the hook.

What happened next is why the black bass has been America’s top gamefish since the 19th century.

James A. Henshall (1836-1925) has been called the father of bass fishing in America. (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

James A. Henshall and the Kentucky Reel

Much of what we know about early bass fishing in Central Kentucky, the hows and whys, are because of James Alexander Henshall, author of the classic Book of the Black Bass, published in Cincinnati in 1881.

Henshall (1836-1925), who has been called the father of bass fishing in America, was a physician, naturalist, angling journalist, historian of Kentucky Reels, conservationist, and renowned ichthyologist and fish culturist.

Early Kentucky settlers were of English and Scotch-Irish ancestry, where anglers practiced the art of fly fishing.

But on many Kentucky streams, fly fishing was not feasible or practical. Streams were too deep to wade, and the cover that bass prefer, was often too far from the banks. Early anglers were frustrated by their inability to cast as far as they needed to.

There was a demand for an improved reel, and the Kentucky Reel, handcrafted in Paris, Frankfort, Louisville, and other cities in the region, solved that problem.

Kentucky Reels were “baitcasting” reels because anglers cast live bait, minnows seined from the creeks they were fishing. (Photo by Gene Burch)

It may seem an obvious point but these early reels were called “baitcasting” reels because anglers cast live bait, minnows seined from the creeks they were fishing.

With the Kentucky Reel, a geared, multiplying reel, anglers could cast a baited hook farther out as the line flowed more freely off the reel’s spool. And if a hooked bass decided to charge, the angler could reel fast enough to keep a tight line on a fast-swimming, acrobatic fish trying to get a slack line and throw the hook.

Most Kentucky Reels had a 3-to-1 gear ratio, which meant that for every crank of the reel handle, the reel’s spool turned three times.

Now let’s take a look as some other important components of early bass fishing in Kentucky:

Fishing Rods

The earliest fishing rods were made from cane (Arundinaria gigantae), a native species of bamboo, often called river cane, because it grows along waterways.

Giant cane can reach heights of 12 to 40 feet, and grows in dense stands, with plants connected by an extensive network of underground stems (rhizomes).

The rods used by the pioneers of bass fishing were made from a section of well-seasoned, straight cane reed.

Henshall wrote that he thought “a short, stiffish rod was best for casting a minnow. With a rod of this character, and a light-running, multiplying reel, it is an easy matter to cast from thirty to forty yards.”

The rod’s handle should extend below the reel, for it must be held so that the angler’s thumb can “control the running off of the line, and to prevent the reel from overrunning.”

Henshall’s preferred specifications also included “light, standing guides, instead of rings, as in a fly rod.”

His personal handmade rod was about eight feet in length, light and well-balanced, with a hardwood butt, and was able to be taken down into three sections by the use of ferrules.

Reels were typically lashed to the handle of the rod.

The steel-backed minnow, likely the Central Stoneroller (Campostoma anomalum), was a favorite bait of early anglers. (Photo by Ben Cantrell)

Live Minnows

Live minnows were hooked in front of the dorsal fin, or lips, and suspended below a cork or quill float, sometimes weighted with a split shot of lead, if the minnow was big, or there was considerable current in the stream.

A favorite bait was “the steel-backed minnow…which is a very common minnow, brassy in coloration, and much mottled with dark blotches. It has thick, tough lips, almost sucker-like,” wrote Henshall.

His “steel-backed minnow” was likely the Central Stoneroller (Campostoma anomalum), but that common name could possibly have been what the local anglers called several species of minnows, including the Creek Chub (Semotilus atromaculatus) or the Bluntnose Minnow (Pimphales notatus), common in streams of the Kentucky and Licking River drainages.


Early Kentucky anglers fished for bass with hooks imported from England.

Henshall stressed the importance of obtaining the best possible hooks “both in form and quality. My first choice for Black Bass angling is the Sproat Bend, and the next best form, in my opinion, is the O’Shaughnessy.”

Fishing Line

Early fishing lines, either domestically produced or imported, were made from cotton, linen or silk, and were twisted or braided.

In 1880 there were about five producers of fishing line in the U.S.

Fishing line was sold in hanks, a coil or skein, or wrapped on a flat spool. About 50 yards of line was typically spooled on a Kentucky Reel.

Braided lines, woven on machines, were made from 8 to 16 strands, and colored with vegetable dyes.

Lines made from silk, that were very fine (small diameter), and light, but strong, included Tsatlee silk, a high-quality white raw silk from Zhejiang, China, produced mostly for export, and the so-called grass lines, sold under the name Japanese grass, seagrass, or catty grass.

At publication of Book of the Black Bass, Henshall wrote that he believed the best fishing line manufactured at present was the smallest size — letter G or No. 5 — braided raw silk line.

He continued that the ideal line “should be made from the very best material, of very small caliber, hard, compact and closely braided…that it should be quite elastic, and at the same time absorb little water, will not kink or snarl in casting, and (capable of being) tinted to render it nearly invisible.”

Ahead of his time in many ways, Henshall famously wrote “The perfect line for Black Bass bait-fishing is yet in the future.”

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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