Column – Kids didn’t need a pole to fish back in the day

Published 6:17 pm Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Fishing with a hand line is a lost art, and most fishermen who remember them would today say “good riddance.”

When we were children, there wasn’t much money to buy a lot of sports equipment. My father had an old Penn reel and an all-metal rod that a pinhead croaker could bend double. But we kids had hand lines, and we became pretty deft in their use.

A hand line is a simple contraption — a fishing line tied to and wrapped around a block of wood. But an old hand line block could be a work of art. A thin piece of wood was carved into something resembling an X. Its edges would be rounded and sanded smooth so the fishing line wouldn’t snag as it was being wound or unwound.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The line was tied around the middle of the block and then wrapped diagonally and alternately around the “ears.” Only fabric line was used. Though Monofilament was coming into being by the ’50s, it would never have worked on a hand line, for it would have fouled continually. A simple loop could be tied in the end to accept a sinker, and two loops further up were for hooks. A swivel was sometimes added to prevent the line from becoming twisted.

While a hand line was simply constructed, using it required practice. You’d toss the line overboard and let the block drop into the bottom of the boat where it would bounce and thump repeatedly as the line uncoiled. Once on the bottom, a handline was played much like a rod and reel, except that I always thought it was easier to “feel” the bottom with the hand line. You could tell what kind of river bottom it was on, or whether it was dragging over oyster shells, just by the vibrations through the line.

When you hooked a fish on a hand line, you pulled it in, hand over hand, letting the line drop into the boat or on the deck. If there were stinging nettles in the river, as there usually were in July and August, the line would likely be draped in tentacles which would then find their way onto hands and wrists as you pulled.

Depending on your expertise, the retrieved line lay in a neat pile for the next cast, or became hopelessly tangled. You had to be careful not to disturb the coils lying in the boat, and most certainly didn’t want to flop a fish into the middle of the line if you intended to fish again that day.

It required concentration and was a bit messy, but hand lining was a pretty satisfying way to bottom fish.

I made hand lines for my children when they were small. They seemed quite practical for stowing aboard a small sailboat, but I think I was really trying to preserve a custom that had been important in my childhood. (Or maybe I was just too tight to buy them rods and reels.)

At any rate, like most customs that grew out of necessity before modern inventions made them obsolete, it was impossible. None of my kids — nor I, quite honestly — would seriously consider using a hand line today if we could avoid it. But it sure made a nice thump in the bottom of an old wooden boat 60 years ago.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is