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he hook had its origins in the gorge, a device used by many primitive cultures, which is frequently found in prehistoric sites. Gorges were made from slivers of bone, flint or turtle-shell which were attached to a line which was knotted through a hole in the centre of the gorge. The fish swallowed the gorge end first in a bait, and the pull of the line levered the gorge across the fish’s throat, trapping it in place. There are many drawbacks to fishing with a gorge; it is hard to conceal, difficult to bait, hard to hook large fish on, and liable to lose its hold while the fish is being played. Despite these problems, in expert hands the gorge can prove highly effective and it is still used in some places today. We do not know for certain when the hook was discovered, although we do know that Neolithic man used hooks, making them out of bone, shell, or thorn depending on which materials were to hand.

By 2000 BC the Egyptians were fishing with rods, lines and hooks, a level of sophistication that the Chinese would not match for a thousand years, and which other civilisations, including our own, would wait even longer to attain. The early Egyptian hooks were made of copper, and were of simple shape. There was no barb, and the head was made by doubling the end of the shank over, which leaves open the possibility that these hooks may have had an eye. The length of these hooks varied from 2 to 6 cm, and the gape was wide in proportion to the length of the shank. By the XII dynasty, barbed hooks were beginning to appear, and by the XVIII dynasty, bronze barbed hooks predominated. These later hooks had the end of the shank flattened to form a wider flange, allowing the line to be attached to the shank below the flange. By Roman times, iron and bronze hooks were in use; bronze of this period being made of a harder alloy than it is today. The illustration above shows a set of five Roman hooks and a needle of the type from which the hooks were made (photo courtesy of Mr. Fred Buller).

The first sophisticated instructions on making hooks are given in A Treatyse on Fishing with an Angle published in 1496, as part of the Second Book of St. Albans. The author explained how every article of the fly-fisher’s kit should be made, including hooks, because tackle shops lay two centuries in the future. Most helpfully, the Treatyse includes a wood cut of the hooks. Although the cut gives us a general idea of the shape of fifteenth century hooks, the limitations of printing methods of the era mean that we shouldn’t place too much reliance on the size or gauge of the metal used.

By the early seventeenth century hooks were commercially available, but many anglers still chose to make their own. The reason for this was that commercially produced hooks were unreliable, chiefly because of uncertain temper. There was a prime opportunity for a quality hook-maker to set up shop, and one duly did; the incomparable Charles Kirby. Kirby hooks (as illustrated left) were of such good quality that the firm dominated the market during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, only losing its advantage when the crucible process for making steel became widely known. Kirby’s great advantage was that he knew how to temper steel reliably, a secret which is said to have been passed to him by none other than Prince Rupert, Charles the First’s nephew, military commander and inventor extraordinaire.

The problem that the hook-making industry faced was a simple technological one. The exact composition of the iron produced by early processes was difficult to control, and many of the early irons were brittle because they contained too much carbon. With the invention of the blast furnace, which appeared in Europe during the fifteeth century, it became possible to make iron on a large scale. By the middle of the sixteenth century, demand was such, and blast furnaces  so common, that there was a scarcity of wood for producing charcoal. The shortage became extremely pressing, but it wasn’t until the early eighteenth century that it was discovered that coke could be used instead of charcoal. The use of iron only declined when it became possible to generate enough heat in commercial furnaces to produce steel during the mid-nineteenth century. In the interim period, steel was made on a small scale, using the crucible process, discovered in 1740. All high-quality steel was made by the crucible process until the electric furnace replaced it in the twentieth century.

Once high quality steel could be made reliably, needle and hook making became a much easier affair, and a large industry sprang up, with rival centres in Kendal, Redditch and Limerick. Kirby had lost his advantage, although the name still had considerable cachet. Hutchinson, a needle maker, started making hooks in Kendal as early as 1745, being joined by Adlington during the mid-nineteenth century. By 1823, Redditch had seventeen firms of hook makers established and the Limerick hook industry had been in existence for nearly thirty years.

By the late nineteenth century, was a routine production process. The quality of hooks remained very variable. Hook-making was still in part a cottage industry, with batches of needles being farmed out to families for bending. One major source of complaint was the deep cut which many hook makers used to turn up a barb. Anglers of the day became resigned to the possibility of hooks breaking off at the barb. Batch tempering wasn’t a totally reliable process and fishermen became proficient at recognising soft hooks, which were light-blue instead of purple blue. Japanned hooks were a different matter, and the only way of detecting a faulty one was to test it by sticking the point in a cork and putting strain on the shank.

The eyed hook

Until the late nineteenth century, the vast majority of hooks were "blind" (i.e. they lacked an eye.) Incredibly, blind hooks were still being manufactured in the 1930s. It is a curious fact that the first illustration of an eyed hook was in 1660, in Les Ruses Innocentes, by Fortin. The first English illustration of an eyed hook was in Hawker’s 1760 edition of The Complete Angler, which has a plate showing a fly dressed on an eyed hook (the fly numbered 11 in the illustration on the right). It took one hundred and fifty years for the new invention to catch on, despite the many problems that hooks tied to gut or horsehair presented. The classical method of attaching a fly to gut was, of course, to whip the fly onto the gut. Gut was liable to wear just in front of the end of the hook, rendering the fly useless. After even short periods of storage, gut had a strong tendency to shrink or rot, resulting in the loss of the fly. Both gut and horsehair shared a common problem in that flies tied to them were hard to store, on account of the "spare" loop of line left to allow the fly to be attached to the cast. The eyed hook should have recommended itself, but for some reason it was ignored, tying to straight lengths of gut giving way instead to tying to a gut loop. The gut loop became popular in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, mostly for large flies. Smaller sizes of hook were still "tied to gut" in the traditional way. It is extraordinary how much suspicion was levelled at the eyed hook, which was denounced by O’Gorman in 1845 as ‘another Scotch invention.’ Even the great Kelson distrusted the eyed hook, and all his patterns were tied with gut loops. There were various attempts to market eyed hooks during the mid-nineteenth century, including Hewett-Wheatley, and Warners and Son, both of whose ventures fell by the wayside. It wasn’t until H.S. Hall’s eyed trout hook came on the market in 1879 that there was any enthusiasm for a change, and that was fired by the rise in popularity of dry fly fishing, the salmon anglers being quite happy with gut loops, thank you very much. By the end of the century, up and down-eyed hooks were available in both salmon and trout sizes. A third variety of hook, sometimes called "needle-eyed" was also available, with a hole drilled perpendicularly through the end of the hook shank, but the design was flawed and failed to attract a following.

Hook scales

The large-scale manufacture of hooks in the early nineteenth century brought a new problem for the fisherman; one of comparing different firm’s hook sizes. The confusion started in the nineteenth century, when a number of competing scales sprung up. There were various Redditch scales in use, Stoddart quotes one that ran from 1 to 16, with 16 the smallest. 1–7 were salmon sizes, 8–16 were trout sizes. The unified Redditch ‘old’ scale ran from 1 to 19, with 1 the smallest trout size, and 19 the largest salmon size. Many round bend hooks were sized on a scale that ran from 00 (midge) to 20 (the largest salmon). At one time there were at least five different hook scale systems in operation: Carlisle, Kendal, O’Shaughnessy Limerick, Dublin (or Philips) Limerick, and Sell of Dublin. The confusion can only be imagined! The growing popularity of eyed hooks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century only made matters worse. If you want to get an idea of how complete the chaos was, click here to view a comparison chart.

If the problem of deriving a common reference scale for hook sizes taxed many good minds in the past; it continues to do so. Various methods of hook measurement can be used: the overall length, the length of the straight part of the shank and width of the gape to name but three. All have their problems, which relate to the different proportions each manufacturer gives to their series of hooks. The ratio between width of gape and length of shank varies widely between different lines. Overall length is the easiest to measure, but the different dimensions of the bend of a Limerick and say a Sneck bend would result in two hooks with very different lengths of shank being classified as the same size. Then again, many blind hooks were made intentionally long in the shank so that they could be cut to size by the tier. When eyed hooks appeared on the market, the diameter of eyes had to be taken into account, as eye size could make a major difference to the length of a small hook. There were a few brave attempts to produce standard hook scales, notably by Cholmondely-Pennel in the late 1880’s, and by Pryce-Tannatt in 1914. Pennel’s scale (running from the smallest, 000 to the largest, 19) was available until at least the beginning of the Second World War, but Pryce-Tannatt’s did not last.

Modern systems concentrate on standardising the length of the shank, but this is a difficult measurement to make of a hog-backed hook, and differences in bend and eye diameter may conspire to make a small hook appear larger than its official size. No system can take account of hooks which are classified differently by custom, for example long shank trout hooks, which take their size from the gape of the hook, rather than the length of the shank. Consider the unofficial extension of the current system of measurement to account for sizes below size 16, and we are only marginally in advance of the chaos of the nineteenth century. As long as different makers continue to produce different patterns of hook, we are unlikely to see any improvement.

Doubles and trebles

We have talked of single hooks until now, but the double salmon hook can be thought of as a reasonably mature invention, given that the bronze age Swiss used them extensively. As usual, English fishermen treated such an innovation with extreme caution; the first mention of a double salmon hook in the literature being in 1590. Venables discussed flies tied on double hooks for catching grilse and grayling, but the double hook didn’t catch on overnight, and it was 1689 before one was illustrated and doubles didn’t become truly popular until much later. Early double hooks were whipped together, but later versions were made by braising the metal. Cholmondely-Pennell designed and marketed a series of double hooks in the 1880’s, by which time the idea was no longer regarded as dangerously novel.

Treble hooks share the chequered history of their cousins. They had little application in fly fishing until the twentieth century, mainly being used for live and dead baiting. By the late nineteenth century, trebles were also being used for spinning, and were a source of much complaint. Hooks frequently broke, the temper having been affected during the brazing procedure. The trouble was caused by the selection of wire that was of too fine a diameter, and which became extremely brittle during the manufacturing process. It would not be until after the Second World War that trebles came into widespread use for fly fishing, as it was only then that it became possible to manufacture hooks reliably in the small sizes required.

Irish hooks

If Redditch had a serious rival, it was the Irish hook makers. The use of Irish products was de rigeur among salmon fishermen in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The O’Shaughnessy family were the foremost firm of Limerick hook makers, establishing their business in 1795. They soon developed a formidable reputation for quality, their products costing sixpence a dozen and being recommended as a matter of course by eighteenth nineteenth century authors. The original O’Shaughnessy hooks were hammered out and forged, with the barbs filed out from the metal rather than being cut out and bent up as was the case with wire hooks. The founder died in about 1820 and by 1834 the business had been taken over by a watchmaker, who had carried on the tackle making business, turning out Limerick hooks after the original O’Shaughnessy pattern. By 1845 a dozen cost between four shillings and one shilling. But the angler got a hook filed from best German steel, rather than the wire hooks which were the rule from Dublin and London firms. By comparison, Sell’s hooks cost between three shillings and nine pence a dozen. O’Shaughnessy hooks were so prized that it was common practice to strip the fly from the hook after it had been mauled by fish: not only did the hooks last for ever, they were simply too valuable to throw away! The quality of the Limerick products stood head and shoulders above those of their competitors.

If you want to know more about the history of the hook, visit Mustad's excellent web pages here.

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