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CAN YOU IMAGINE having the giant sailfish you just caught hung in front of your apartment for everyone to see? How about fishing in dress shoes? Would you ever proudly display a stringer of dead smallmouth bass on Instagram?

This gallery of fishing photos, taken between 1920 and the early 1970s, features all the above, or the equivalent. In just 15 images, the collection paints a picture of our angling past that’s surprising yet familiar, nostalgic, funny, and a touch sad all at once. One thing is clear: Times have changed.

Anglers apparently didn’t take themselves or their sport too seriously decades ago. Any cane pole, inner tube, or homemade house boat was fine as long as it got them on the water, and especially if it resulted in heaps of fish to show off and take home.

Looking back at how quick our predecessors were to kill anything that swam stings in light of some of today’s conservation issues. But we’ve learned from the past, and you can’t help but feel wistful as you glimpse into a fishing world that social media, technology, tournament fishing, and increased pressure may never allow us to relive.

Bountiful Barracudas

four well dressed men pose around a big rack of fish, mainly barracudas
Field & Stream Archives

“A fair day’s catch for two men,” reads the caption on this 1927 photo. Though there is no location information, I’d bet my life savings that the shot was taken in Florida, both because of the diversity of species in this haul and because this style of displaying a catch is synonymous with Florida charter boat fishing. In fact, it still pops up occasionally in modern social-media feeds.

It’s important to understand that in decades past, catch-and-release angling wasn’t a thing. Those who could afford to charter a boat in Florida were usually well-to-do, and outings were centered around bringing back as much meat as possible. There were no size limits or bag limits, and charter captains understood that quantity would entice future customers. It was critical to display every single fish that was landed, even if many of them weren’t particularly prized on the table. In this photo, barracudas outnumber all other species, and to the best of my knowledge, even in the 1920s, the upper class wasn’t exactly clamoring to dine on them. The snappers, dolphins, and groupers in the mix were prime table fare, but without the inclusion of the barracudas and bonito, it simply wouldn’t have looked like this captain’s sports were reeling all day long.

Sails for Sale

woman poses next to sailfish hanging in front of pool outside hotel
Field & Stream Archives

Spend enough time at marinas along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, and you’ll see a giant fish lifted onto the scales. Aside from that, though, most people would be shocked to find a dead sailfish strung up in public these days. Not in South Florida in the 1950s. During that era, sportfishing on charter boats was a draw for all kinds of vacationers regardless of prior angling experience. A sailfish, whether it was ultimately eaten or not, was a valuable marketing ploy for this vacation paradise.

In this 1957 photo, the fish is hanging outside a hotel or apartment building. The lady standing next to it could have been the angler, but it’s also possible she was a passerby who wanted to pose with the fish. If the charter boat that landed it was docked nearby, this is exactly what the captain would have wanted for drumming up new business.

At Ease for Trout

group of US airmen holding fishing rods walk down small road
Field & Stream Archives

The caption of this 1944 photo reads, “Convalescent Air Force veterans from Fort Logan (Colo.) march on Bear Creek in the Rocky Mountains west of Denver, ready for a full day of trout fishing, arranged for them by the USO. Leading the party is Chief District Game Warden John E. Loll.”

It’s a powerful image that resonates in modern times. Today, organizations such as Wounded Warriors and others continue to organize fishing trips for combat veterans, understanding the healing power of spending time on the water.

The Good Old Days of Striper Fishing?

three anglers hold up big stipers while many others lie on dock in front of them
Field & Stream Archives

Taken in 1971, this photo captures everything that was so glorious and yet so damning about striped bass fishing in the Northeast during this era. With no information on the location of this image, it could be anywhere from Massachusetts to New Jersey, and it’s a scene that played out on thousands of docks daily from spring through fall in the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s.

Striped bass were so abundant then that they were dropped into coolers with abandon. On one hand, the ease with which an angler on a boat or beach could secure true trophy “cow” stripers is what makes anglers of my generation long for a little taste of the good old days. On the other hand, it was the short-sightedness of our predecessors that ultimately caused the eastern striper stock to plummet by the mid 1980s, promoting a complete moratorium on the fishery. Luckily, I got to see the striper population rebound by the late 1990s, and though their numbers remain strong, overfishing in both recreational and commercial sectors keeps these fish at the forefront of conservation efforts to this day.

In Too Deep

two fly anglers stand in waist-high current
Peter Barrett / Field & Stream Archives

Captured in 1950, this image reminds me of many similar shots I’ve marveled at in old issues of Field & Stream. It seems to me that during this era someone decided it was manly to wade chest deep into what often appears to be a raging current. It’s one thing to take a spill in modern breathable waders, but in the days of heavy rubber and canvas that could fill with water, a fall in deep, fast current could be a death sentence. It does appear that the angler on the right is supporting the one on the left during a fish fight, but this is still a precarious situation.

Dressed for Success

two anglers pose with a many mahi on a dock in fort lauderdale
Field & Stream Archives

One thing that has always impressed me about anglers in the 1920s and 1930s is their attire. Much like how people used to dress up to get on an airplane, old-timey gents looked sharp on the water. That’s partially because you needed to have plenty of play money to book a charter back then, and if you did, you probably already dressed in nice clothes. But it’s also because guys like Ernest Hemingway and Zane Gray painted offshore fishing as a gentleman’s sport, not unlike golf.

These two chaps are ready for a fine whisky at the bar, as there’s not a speck of mahi blood on them. You may also notice that there are guides on both sides of their heavy cane rods. That’s because these rods would warp in an arc after battling lots of big fish. The way to straighten them out was to switch the reel to the opposite side of the handle and string the opposite side of the rod, forcing the pressure of the next fights to bend it in the opposite direction.

Timeless Chuck Taylors

crouching angler wearing Chuck Taylor sneakers holds grayling while fly rod and reel rest on rocks
Field & Stream Archives

I love the juxtaposition in this photo, captured in 1968 along Northwest Canada’s Peace River. Grayling have become synonymous with wild northern rivers, ones attainable only to people who can afford fly-fishing trips to interior Alaska or other remote regions. Yet here we have an angler—who I figure is a local teenager—fishing in jeans and cheap, dirty Chuck Taylor canvas sneakers and using a fiberglass fly rod and inexpensive Pflueger Medalist reel. It was taken too early for the photographer to realize just how punk rock the image is, but it would make a killer album cover.

Bass Basics

Angler fights fish from old-looking boat with old-style gas can behind him
Grits Gresham / Field & Stream Archives

This photo from 1960 really speaks to how bass fishing has changed over the last 63 years. I fully understand that not everyone has a fancy, go-fast “glitter boat” these days and that plenty of bass are still caught from rickety johnboats, but this scene was so much more common before the commercialization of largemouth fishing. If I had to guess, this boat—and the gas can at the angler’s feet—was stored outside in the open for years. Are there small leaks in this vessel? Most likely. Are a couple of rivets popping? Absolutely. But it got this angler where he needed to go to catch bass—which may very well have ended up in his frying pan later.

Hold ’Er Steady

two anglers in boat on big water, one steering from front of boat
Field & Stream Archives

I’m fascinated by this image. It was taken in 1954, and I’m going to guess that the setting is Florida and that the gent on the rod is tied into a big tarpon. It could also be a striper in the Northeast, but either way, what’s so cool is the forward steering wheel rigged via cables to the outboard. We can see that the tiller remains intact on the motor, which suggests that when running at high RPMs, the operator would steer from the rear of the boat. To my eye, the forward steering and throttle were rigged specifically for better control while fighting and chasing a big fish. These days, commercial rod-and-reel tuna fishermen often have a separate helm station at the back of the boat so they can make quick adjustments while a fish is on the line without relying on an angler to bark directions to the forward wheelhouse.

A Ton of Tuna

two anglers pose with three huge tunas in tropical setting
Field & Stream Archives

Taken in 1944, this image portrays what I believe is a glimpse into a bygone famed fishery. Here we have three bluefin tuna, each weighing well north of 500 pounds. Though these fish are common in the Canadian Maritimes and New England, the background of this shot and the attire of the anglers suggests a tropical setting. I’m willing to bet this is the Bahamian island of Bimini.

As these giants migrated north and south during the year, their route would take them just past this tiny island, and their arrival would attract wealthy anglers with big, sleek boats from all over the world looking to get a crack at these monsters. Zane Gray wrote about fishing for Bimini bluefins often, and although these fish still pass by today, a diminished bluefin population and subsequent regulation changes have pretty much made targeting them in this tropical location a thing of the past.

Belly-Boat Prototype

near-shore angler in small inner tube holds up stringer of fish
Field & Stream Archives

Personal fishing inner tubes—more commonly called belly boats—were a big deal in the 1980s and ’90s. To be honest, I can’t tell you the last time I saw someone using one. I’d guess the reason is that as personal watercraft like rafts, paddleboards, and kayaks became more affordable, fewer people saw the appeal of floating around with their feet dangling in pond muck, but per this 1940 photo, at least one guy was way ahead of the belly-boat trend.

It doesn’t exactly look comfortable or stable, but clearly the tube is getting him on the bass for supper. I just hope a loose ember from that cigarette doesn’t touch the rubber while he’s bobbing around in 20 feet of water. Back then, they might have even filled those tubes with hydrogen, which would make that situation much worse.

Smile for the Camera. Or Not

young boy holding fishing rod poses with large redfish that is only a bit shorter than he is
Field & Stream Archives

Were children not allowed to smile in photographs in the 1930s? This lad has caught himself a giant bull redfish, yet he’s got the look of a kid who just got severely reprimanded at Sunday school.

Though there’s little information about this 1932 shot, the caption scribbled on the back calls the fish a channel bass, which is telling. This was the common name of redfish from roughly northern Maryland through southern New York. Historically, the fish were thick in these regions, though by the mid 1950s, several factors—including a loss of vital eelgrass in the bays of New Jersey and Delaware—pushed them back to southern Maryland and Virginia, which remains the northern limit of their primary range today. Though you can occasionally luck into a smaller red in the old range, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see bulls in the New Jersey surf in full force like they were in this boy’s time.

Big Smallie Haul

angler holds up big chain stringer of good-size smallmouth bass
Field & Stream Archives

When was the last time you saw an angler dragging a stringer of smallmouth bass off the river? I’m not saying it never happens, but let’s be honest, it is rare these days. Though some folks swear smallmouths are delicious, I’ve never tried one, partially because I just see them as too pretty and valuable in the ecosystem to take home, particularly on some of my home rivers where their numbers are down. Killing any bass for the table is a bit of a faux pas nowadays, but back in 1961, this fella was all smiles about the mega fish fry he’d be putting on that night.

Double-Wide Drifter

angler shows off redfish from bow of boat that has unusual house-like structure on top of it; two anglers in smaller boat have pulled up alongside with freshly killed ducks
F.S.N.B. / Field & Stream Archives

This mash-up vessel takes the idea of fish camp to another level. Shot in 1954 somewhere in the Florida Panhandle, we see an angler holding a nice redfish while two others approach in a small boat with freshly killed ducks.

Throughout the South, rickety stilted shacks exist in every bayou and swamp to serve as cast-and-blast hideaways, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this. I have seen what look more like rectangular barges with a tiny house built on top. This, however, looks more like a house plopped on top of a traditional V-shaped hull. Is it stable? Doesn’t look it. But I’d be first in line to camp out on it for a few days. I’d love to see the interior layout.

A Bright Idea

angler wearing wicker creel and holding fly rod ties a fly on his line using his car headlamp for light
Field & Stream Archives

The modern fly crowd glorifies night fishing. Heck, even I am guilty of that, seeing as I truly love throwing mouse patterns for brown trout in the dark. We like to think that this is a new game, but this 1942 photo says otherwise. For starters, I think it’s just neat to see an angler rigging up by car headlight so long ago, as I often forget my headlamp and find myself doing the same thing in front of my truck. But this shot is also cool because, to my eye, it looks like this fella’s tying on a big, fluffy Hexagenia pattern. If I’m right, this was taken in Northern Michigan. The “hex” hatch is now the stuff of legend. This guy probably didn’t think of himself as hardcore like today’s nighttime trout stalkers. He probably just knew that if he stayed out past dark, it wouldn’t be hard for him to nab a giant brown for a late supper.

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