Fishing for sport in the early days

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18th century fisherman reenactor
Old Fort Niagara's Brian McDonald, dressed in period dress, holds a fishing lure made of 18th century materials, just the way it was made by resident officers at the fort. (Mike Tontimonia photo)

NIAGARA COUNTY, N.Y. — If it’s hard to imagine how, why, and even if people fished hundreds of years ago, a visit with Old Fort Niagara‘s Brian McDonald can put those questions to rest.

According to McDonald, an interpreter, people did indeed fish because they wanted to; they fished for the sport and sometimes food, and they did it with some cleverly devised gear.

Back in time

As assistant director of interpreters at Old Fort Niagara, McDonald leads a dedicated group of site guides and demonstrators of life who dress the part, act the partsĀ and provide in-depth and believable windows to the past as it was in the 18th century. Besides his leadership role, McDonald participates with fishing one of his favorite topics of research.

With impressive buildings constructed of area stone to withstand onslaughts of cannon fire and musket balls and mortar, the fort overlooks and defends a strategic entry point to the new world. The French held the territory then and their influence can still be seen in the restored buildings.

The mighty Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario in the shadow of the fort and it’s obvious that hardly a mouse could get past the fort without a fight. The fort was built in the early 1700s and was held by its French builders until mid-century when it was captured by the English.

It has survived and played a critical role in American history through the French and Indian War, the American Revolution and the War of 1812.

Early angling

According to McDonald, most references describing early sport fishing indicate that English officers, probably those of upper-class Brits, did engage in fishing for fun — a sport referred to as angling.

But to be sure, they had no source of commercially made tackle and gear. What they had were highly skilled hands and imaginative minds that created lines, hooks and even artificial lures.

Old Fort Niagara interpreters are as real as possible. Soldiers shoot period-perfect muskets, a cooper fashions wood barrels for drink and staple, and a smithy bangs out red hot iron for hardware and McDonald “angles” — with smooth line he had braided with the hair of a horse’s mane, small but sharp hooks he has created from slivers of iron, and bobbers carved from local wood.

According to McDonald, gentlemen English officers used hooks without barbs and would journey to Lake Ontario tributaries to catch and release native fish. They tied flies of sorts, using horse hair and wool fibers and they even braided finer and finer lines so that leaders became thinner and thinner so they would be less noticeable in the water.

McDonald has become quite good at recreating each and every part of his angling gear. He even creates a historically correct fish hook that has no eye to thread a line through. Yes, it can and does stay securely to a fishing line by using a special knot, just like they did hundreds of years ago.

A must see

Old Niagara Fort is highly recommended as a must-see addition for fishermen traveling to western Lake Ontario for salmon and trout fishing. This impressive historical site is just minutes from Wilson Harbor and Olcott, top Niagara County charter and sport fishing ports.

Another suggested stop is the Apple Granny restaurant in Lewiston, 10 minutes south of the Old Fort via the lake road. Lewiston is a fine and colorful small town and the Apple Granny a just as fine and colorful family style stop that scores 11 out of 10 for its Halibut dinner.

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Mike Tontimonia has been writing weekly columns and magazine features about the outdoors for over 25 years, a career that continues to hold the same excitement for him as it did at the beginning. Mike is a retired educator, a licensed auctioneer and marketing consultant. He lives in Ravenna, Ohio and enjoys spending time at his Carroll County cabin. Mike has hunted and fished in several states and Canada from the Carolinas to Alaska and from Idaho to Delaware. His readers have often commented that the stories about his adventures are about as close to being there as possible. He is past president of the Outdoor Writers of Ohio and a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Mike is also very involved in his community as a school board member and a Rotarian.

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