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History of Fishing – Ancient Fishing Methods

Last Updated: 01.04.23


Fishing is a fun activity that can be very rewarding provided that you use the right equipment, you can find more info here. Fishing is a way of procuring food that people have used for thousands of years. Back then, people used to fish by using their bare hands, they used to train other animals to catch the fish or they would use spears.

Fishing is one of those few activities that the entire world shares. As expected, people started fishing as a way to procure food. However, as the world evolved and new means of catching fish were developed, angling has also become a hobby that numerous people enjoy in their free time as a way to relax. But, when and where did it all start?



From survival to commence

As archaeological diggings have shown, fishing was discovered about 500 000 years ago by Homo erectus. However, scientists have argued that, most likely, fishing truly developed during what we now call the Upper Paleolithic period, or between 40 000 and 10 000 BCE. Even if we know these facts, there are some issues when it comes to assessing the fishing practices that our predecessors used to use. 

Back then, most likely, humans used to catch fish by hand or by utilizing tools that were made from natural materials. As a result, these rudimentary tools have, since then, completely disappeared. The rod, the net, and the spear were created and used for the very first time in Egypt, in 3500 BCE. 

During the Graeco-Roman Antiquity, the subject of fishing was problematized and discussed in Halieutika, one of the oldest treaties about fishing on the sea that was written by Oppian of Corycus, a second-century poet who lived during the famous reign of Marcus Aurelius.

It seems like the Romans were major traders and consumers of fish. To catch the fish that they were selling, the Romans used to use a wide array of nets. The fish that was not consumed immediately, was fermented and, subsequently, was made into garum, a very flavorful condiment.

In the Middle Ages, the trading of fish continued. Feudal lords used to impose strict rules about who could fish in lakes and rivers. In the middle of the 11th century, with the invention of man-made ponds, people started fish farming. 

Moreover, starting with the 15th century, the trade of fish expanded considerably. For instance, the Dutch were known for using fleets of herring drifters when fishing, that used to remain at sea for several weeks at a time. The fishermen were supplied with the necessary food and water provisions via cargo boats called ventjagers. The ventjagers also had the task of bringing the catch back to shore.

In Great Britain, in the 17th century, the first-ever trawlers appeared and began to be utilized for fishing purposes. Yet, these boats only began to be used intensively in the 19th century, after the invention of the steam motor. 

The use of steam power was the catalysator needed to construct bigger and better boats that were used for fishing in deeper waters. Consequently, the seafood trade spiked and Grimsby, the small town in Yorkshire, became one of the biggest ports in Europe. 

Recreational fishing, as we know it today, first appeared in the 18th century and it was then reserved for the wealthy classes. As technology advanced, and angling equipment was produced at cheaper prices, this type of fishing became more and more accessible to people from all walks of life.


Cormorant fishing 

Cormorant fishing is a style of fishing common in countries such as Japan and China. As the name suggests, it involves the use of trained cormorants, a species of birds that are known to dive into the water to catch fish.

To prevent the birds from eating the fish that they capture, they have wire around their throats. This method used to be utilized widely, but it is nowadays rarely employed. 


Flounder trampling

This ingenious method is also now obsolete. A long time ago, people used to go to a small town in Scotland called Palnackie to take part in what was known as flounder trampling. 

Once gathered, the crowd of people used to trap flatfish in the muddy water by using their feet by standing on them. Once a participant had caught a fish, he/she would use a trident-like tool to kill it. The technique was somewhat popular in Scotland. 

However, in recent years, people do not use it anymore, as numerous animal rights organizations have criticized it and called it cruel. Yet, on the first Saturday of each August, Palnackie is still home to the World Flounder Tramping Championships, an event that is still popular in the community. As expected, many organizations have tried to ban it.



Bajau sea bed fishing

The Bajau people are an ethnic group known for living almost exclusively on the rich waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Because of their unusual lifestyle, they are called sea nomads. They live in houses that are built over coral reefs and they have a close familiarity with the ocean. 

What makes them stand out from other ethnic groups is the fact that they are exquisite deep-sea fishers. Most of them spend up to five hours in the water per day, using a traditional fishing technique to procure food for their families: they hunt for fish using spearguns and spears. They can hold their breath underwater for up to 13 minutes, without having to use breathing apparatuses.



The first records of spearfishing date back to 16,000 years ago. The method itself was described in numerous religious texts. Differently from the method used by the Bajau people, spearfishing refers solely to the action of throwing spears into the water, and not actually diving into it and hunting the fish.

Even though many might consider it cruel, this method is still used in the Bahamas as well as in the states around the Gulf or Mexico. 


Trout tickling

If you are a fan of Shakespeare, you’ve probably heard about trout tickling before. Trout tickling consists of, as the name suggests, rubbing the underbelly of the fish by using one’s fingers. 

When the technique is used correctly, the trout falls into a trance-like state and the angler can pick it up and place it on the ground. Today, trout tickling is not very popular, and even illegal in some areas. 

Not surprisingly, this innovative method of catching fish has caught the attention of writers. The method is mentioned in Halieutica, De Natura Animalium by Aelian, and even in Mark Twain’s works. 


Otter fishing

Otters have been trained to catch fish since the 6th century and it is still used today in Bangladesh. This method was popular in the northern part of Africa, in Ventral Europe, Scandinavia, and Asia.

Even if otters seem to be nice animals, they are extremely difficult to tame. Otter fishing was mentioned in works from the Tang dynasty in China. Plus, Marco Polo has also observed people using it in the 13th century.




The use of hooks and baits while fishing is a very old method that also dates way back. Some argue that it was first used in the Neolithic age. Hooks used by the first fishers were discovered in Japan, in the Sakitari Cave on Okinawa Island. These hooks are estimated to be more than 22,000 years old. 

The first hooks were manufactured from bones, animal horns, and shells, as well as from bird beaks. Soon, anglers discovered that they could use weights to submerge the hooks into the water.


Ice fishing

Ice fishing was created by the people that used to live in the area of Canada and North America. It is not clearly known when the method was first used. A long time ago, ice fishing meant breaking the ice over a river or lake and placing a wooden bait shaped like a fish into the water. 

When a real fish came close to the bait, people used to use spears made of ivory and bone to kill and capture it. As time passed and the art of fishing was perfected, the spears were replaced with rods, line, and hooks. 



The use of nets in fishing is not a recent invention. During the times of ancient Greek, they used to make the nets from thin threads. 

The nets used to be placed in areas where the fishermen knew that the catch passed through regularly, or they would throw them onto the schools of fish that were swimming in shallow waters.



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