If renowned tackle historian Steven K. Vernon is noted for his interest in strange reels, I guess that means I am one step removed: I seem to attract articles and information on oddball fishing artifacts. One of my favorite folders of information is labeled simply “Piscatorial Oddities,” filled with clippings, photocopies, anecdotes and advertisements on the eclectic, strange, and downright bizarre. The following fits all three adjectives.
A 1903 article in The Chicago Tribune entitled “Unique Fishing Rod and Oufit,” gave a description of what is without doubt one of the most interesting, and truly unique, fishing kits every produced. It was gifted to Evanston, Illinois native John B. Wiggins by his friend George B. Knapp, a noted curio collector during an era when curio collecting was in vogue. Curio collecting, by the way, was an eclectic form of accumulating scraps of cloth, wood, metal, and other materials associated with famous people, places, and things. The collecting of such odd pieces as a scrap from the first observation balloon used in the American Civil War gave rise to the great legacy of curio collecting: the curio cabinet, many of which now house fishing reels and other angling items.
What makes the fishing kit described in this article so interesting is that the “finest fishing outfit ever possessed by a disciple of Ike Walton” contained tackle items of which “every inch of wood is of historic value and all the mountings are of solid silver.” The kit contained three three-piece casting rods, five feet in length, the most elaborate of which was manufactured from a spoke from one of the wheels of the Columbian liberty bell carriage and inlaid with a small fish “made from a piece of black walnut rail split by Lincoln” with the fish’s eye made from a splinter of a tree grown on Washington’s grave and mouth made from a cutting off the famed Grant and Pemberton oak tree. Further inlays on this rod included a square from the old Charter Oak of Connecticut, a diamond constructed from the Elm Tree of Boston Common, and a circle made from a piece of the U.S.S. Constitution—Old Ironsides as it was known.
The first section of another rod was made from a piece of the cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born, with the other two sections constructed from rare Cuban and South American woods. The Fishing Priest was made from a hand spike used in constructing the first water tank in Chicago history, while the gaff hook was generated from pieces of the old Ogden house in Chicago. The handle of the fish knife, landing net, and the screwdriver were also made of historic woods.
All of the items were housed in a four foot long by sixteen inch wide by three inch high case covered in fine trunk leather and buttoned into a waterproof case. Every item, from the hook disgorger to the silver scale to a solid silver with cut glass whisky flask to the “fine silver reels,” had its own custom made compartment. Of particular interest was the fisherman’s “huzzy” filled with numerous small items of use to the angler.
The article concluded, “Altogether it is complete in every particular, even to a small silver plate with the name of the owner and donor surrounded by exquisitely engraved fishing scene. Mr. Wiggins is envied by his friends, who insist that the fortunate fish caught by these historic casting rods will taste better than those landed with a bamboo pole.” One wonders if the kit was ever actually used for fishing.
So valuable was the outfit that its maker George Knapp turned down $1000 for it, the equivalent of $20,760 in 2003 terms. It would be fascinating to know if the outfit survived the ravages of time, but like so many other of the items in the “Piscatorial Oddities” file, it seems unlikely. But who knows? Maybe in a musty garage of a great-grandson of John B. Wiggins there is a black case that contains the rarest fishing kit in history.
-- © Dr. Todd Larson 2007