Reduced to its most primitive form, spinning tackle might look like the old string and can rig. Wind line around a soda or beet container, tie a hook and sinker at the line’s tag end, whirl it overhead, and let it fly, and the line follows just as it does off the most pricey open-face reel. Such a rig can conquer more than just panfish, too. Growing up near the shores of New York City meant encounters with Hispanic fishermen from the Caribbean who were experts with string and can. They’d put a hefty chunk of menhaden on their rig, fling it far distant, wedge the can between two boulders, place a stone on the line to secure it, and wait. Sooner or later the line would shoot out, and minutes after, a twelve-pound bluefish would be flopping on shore.
Swedish anglers use a slightly more sophisticated version. It’s based on a wooden board that resembles a Ping-Pong paddle. An appropriate length of heavy braided line is wrapped around the paddle, with the weighted offering at the end. A deft flick of the wrist sends the rig into the surf, after which it is retrieved by hand.
Before the invention of wooden and bamboo surf rods, game fish were landed from beyond the breakers along the U.S. coasts with handlines. The typical gear consisted of a so-called “lead squid” – an oval-shaped lure, usually with a single large hook molded in and extending from its rear. Tin may have been alloyed with the lead to cause it not to sink too fast and to give it luster, although a rubdown with sand was necessary before each use to remove oxidation and regain shine. The lure often had a keel to help keep it swimming upright. The squid was tied to a cotton or linen line, perhaps twenty fathoms long, wrapped around a stick or coiled in a bucket.
The delivery and presentation were straightforward and crude. The line was held a few feet down from the squid, and the lure was swung overhead at high speed horizontally, or nearly so, and then released to fly seaward. When the lure splashed down, the line was hauled quickly, hand over hand, back to shore. Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, in Superior Fishing (1865), writes of the superiority in distance over rod and reel in the surf that could be achieved by casting a handline, but he says that the handline produced “far greater fatigue, and a painful over-exertion of the muscles of the arm that us almost unendurable to one who has not had steady practice.” He also notes that the handline was “more killing probably than the rival method.”
This tiring approach was best used when fish were sighted and the probability of hookups was high. In 1880, enormous schools of bluefish raided beaches in the mid-Atlantic. According to one camper at the Methodist Revivalist Campground at the Ocean Grove, New Jersey, “No male was completely dressed that summer unless he had his line stuck in the rear pockets of his trousers, for one could never tell when there might be a run on.” If the run happened on Sunday, he writes, it brought untold anguish, for no fishing was allowed that day.