A brief history of baits

The recorded history of artificial baits begins in the seventeenth century, although it is probable that they were being used long before that. In those days, anglers made virtually everything themselves, although local craftsmen were often prepared to make rods to order and hooks could also be bought. Spinning as we know it hadn’t been invented and so anglers ‘trolled’ using live or dead baits and over the next few centuries, live baiting, particularly for pike, became much more common.By the early eighteenth century, tackle shops were much more common and some were selling minnow baits made of tin, although the first baits that survive date from the early years of the nineteenth century, about time that the word ‘spinning’ was expanded to include fishing with artificial baits, as well as trolling. It wasn’t until much later, after the Second World War really, that the term was narrowed down and came to mean fishing with an artificial bait only.

Cloth minnowMany new types of bait appeared after 1850, this being the heyday of the artificial minnow. These baits were remarkably lifelike and had a pair of fin-like vanes near the head set at an acute angle to the water flow which were there to spin the lure and they trail one, two or three trebles, although exceptionally there were more. The line was usually tied onto a fixing at the head and they were made of all kinds of materials, including silk, sole skin, German silver, quill, celluloid (notably the Percy Wadham series), horn, gutta-percha and rubber. Minnows continued to be popular until the late twentieth century, when they were eclipsed by more modern baits. The example below is a painted sole skin minnow, showing just how realistic these baits could be.

Sole skin minnowBrass ‘Devon’ minnows appeared at about the same time, the difference being that a Devon isn’t directly attached to the terminal tackle, so that it can slide away up the line when a fish takes;there are many different styles and in the fullness of time they were made in a wide range of materials including alloys, wood and early plastics. In general we have no idea who invented most of the popular classes of baits, but this case is an exception - F. Angel of Exeter in Devon was one of the very earliest manufacturers and demand for his products grew so fast that he had to employ his brother, who had a tackle business in Totnes, to keep up with it. So popular were Angel's lures that until the last quarter of the century, these baits – which were handmade to begin with, but were eventually cast in various different metals – were known as ‘Angels’ or ‘Totnes’ minnows, before they eventually became known as ‘Devons’.

Devon minnowsAt almost exactly the same time as the artificial minnow seized the imagination of the spinning men, a bitter rival appeared, the spoon; which was an important development, because until then, baits had been designed to look like something real.

The ancestor of the spoon had appeared by the late 17th century, and was possibly invented in Scandinavia, but this type of bait doesn't seem to have really caught the imagination of anglers for another couple of centuries. A spoon didn’t look like anything at all, but they were highly effective and not at all expensive. One of the earliest types was the Colorado, which was truly spoon-shaped and can be identified by the weight inside the spoon and a pair of lugs near the head, almost parallel to the flow, which were there to make it spin. Judging by the frequency with which they were listed in catalogues and by the number which survive in collections today, Colorado spoons were very popular and they were definitely very effective. The Colorado show below is a typical example and comes from Chris Sandford's collection, like the majority of the lures shown here. If you would like to learn more about collecting lures, we suggest reading his book, The Best of British Baits, available here.

Colorado spoonThe inter-war years were something of a golden age for spoons and in the twenties Hardy’s marketed several ranges including aluminium ‘Skene Dhu’ mahseer spoons; gold-coloured Irish lough spoons; extra-heavy genuine Sheffield plate spoons that were copper on the outside and silver on the inside; hog-backed spoons in muted gold and silver; knock your eye out mother-of-pearl spoons; and embossed Norwegian spoons in two different shapes for the more conservative angler. In reality, most of this was wasted effort as far as the fish were concerned and few of these patented designs were any better than the ones created by the amazing Mr. Geen half a century previously - but they were very attractive to anglers! The image below is of a classic Geen bait, once again reproduced by the kind permission of Chris Sandford.

Geen patent spoonMany other types of bait appeared in the nineteenth century, including bugs and grubs made from rubber, the oldest of which date as far back as 1800. These were very common at one time and were widely fished, although because of their perishable nature, relatively few have survived. Artificial bugs had their roots in dibbing with live insects, which was widely practised by early fishermen - the problem with a live insect being catching it in the first place and then getting it to stay on the hook. Many anglers simply didn't like fishing with live bees and beetles, not to mention the risk of getting stung by them and so sets like this one were tremendously popular. Carded sets are incredibly rare and are highly sought after by collectors these days, but at one time they were featured in almost every major tackle catalogue.

Artificial insectsThen there were ‘hybrid’ baits, of which the Halcyon, marketed from 1884 onwards is a typical example: this had a spinning vane at the head, attached to a trailing treble, the hooks being concealed by a skirt of peacock herl, which made the bait look uncommonly like a fly... unless it was a lure. Quite a few oddballs appeared, including Allcock’s ‘Scarlet’ spinner, which needless to say, is bright red and twisted into a distinctive spiral; another is the same company’s fabulous ‘Dazzle’ bait, which comes in all shapes and sizes and was on sale between the wars.

In many respects, the apogee of artificial lure development is represented by Gregory’s Eclipse Cleopatra bait, introduced in 1878, which was probably made by jewelers and was possibly inspired by similar jointed ornamental fish made by Dutch silversmiths in the eighteenth century, but its appearance hardly acted as a brake on the century of experimentation that followed. There was also a fashion for baits made from fluted glass fixed to a metal back that carried the hooks - these are the kind of baits that excite collectors today, largely because to many of them were smashed to smithereens by their owners. If you want to read more about British baits, then you Chris Sandford's classic work, The Best of British Baits is a compulsory purchase - you can read more about this book by clicking here.

CleopatraThe explosion in the numbers of bait fishermen after the appearance of nylon in the late forties led directly to the huge variety of baits which are on sale today. ABU began to make lures in 1946, but quickly became known for classics like Toby, which made its debut in 1956 and the Killer, which appeared in the 1959 catalogue; the other European maker whose lures became famous after the war is Rapala. If you want to read more about the history of ABU, you will enjoy Keith Hardwood and David Stanley's book, Tight Lines - you can learn more about it here.