A short history of the float

Although we know that floats have been used since at least the fourth century A.D., the first detailed account of how to make one was printed in The Treatyse of Fishing with an Angle in 1496. The method recommended in the Treatyse was to bore a hole through a shaped cork with a hot iron. A horsehair line was passed through the hole and trapped with a quill that was pushed in from above, the size of the float being determined by the size of line and the weight it had to carry.

Treatyse floats

The next mention of a float isn’t until 1577, in The Arte of Angling whose author recommended using two cut swan quills pushed one inside the other with short cylinders of swan quill slid over each end to trap the line. Both types of float were in widespread use by the seventeenth century, by which time a variety of different shapes of cork float were in use. After that, the pace of development hotted up considerably - for example, the self-cocking float was described early in the eighteenth century and there is even a reference to a night fishing float for carp, the light being provided by a couple of glow-worms!

Prior to 1800, most anglers made their own floats, but after that date it became increasingly easy to buy them. By the 1860s and 1870s tackle catalogues often listed a couple of pages of floats, but their ranges were limited to quills, tip-capped floats, plugged floats, and corks with egg or barrel-shaped bodies. As Keith Harwood points out in his wonderful book, The Float, from which this short history is largely derived, this isn’t terribly surprising, given that fewer than twenty tackle patents were taken out in Britain prior to 1850. But as the number of anglers grew, float fishing began to develop very rapidly. By the 1880s coarse fishing had become increasingly specialised, so that for example, roach fishing was tremendously fashionable, triggering a tremendous surge in light tackle development.

Zephyr floatIt took a while for all this innovation to filter through to the tackle trade - before the end of the First World War the range of floats on sale was hardly any greater than it had been forty years previously, yet by the twenties, the Allcocks range alone spread over half a dozen pages. However, many floats were made by small, specialist companies like Wadham’s - by 1921 the company had at least 250 different patterns of celluloid float on its books. Many of these firms chose a niche market, Zephyr Anglers’ Supplies paper floats being a case in point - these went into production shortly after the First World War and stayed on sale into the 1960s. Yet another line was made by Martin James of Redditch, who claimed that their Elfin float was simultaneously the lightest, the most sensitive and the greatest weight-carrying float ever produced; the range appears to have been made with a balsa wood body and an aluminium stem.

The British economy took a long time to recover after the end of the Second World War, the tackle industry being particularly hard hit, but with the once omnipotent Fishing Gazette in decline, new magazines like Fishing played a major role in the communication of ideas. British tackle makers were beginning to feel the wind of change as companies like Garcia began marketing campaigns in the UK with products like the Tele-Stick, a very successful telescopic antenna float which was available in ten different sizes. Modern float fishing dates back to this period and the floats which are on sale today owe much to the famous match men of the fifties, sixties and seventies, anglers like Billy Lane, Benny Ashurst and Ivan Marks.

No discussion of the subject would be complete without at least a mention of Drennan International and Middy Tackle International. Peter Drennan’s first premises were his mother’s garage, but his success, which was largely based on his very ingenious and popular line of floats, was such that the firm is now one of the UK’s largest tackle manufacturers. Much the same can be said about Kenneth Middleton’s business, which despite starting from a small base, has expanded to produce millions of floats annually.