The way history professor Todd Larson sees it, you can learn a lot about America from a fishing rod. And to prove his point, he reaches into his bag and pulls out a rod from the 1840s called the Porter General.
The Porter General is a stout rod made of hand-turned hickory with brass fittings. It separates into three tapered pieces, weighs about a pound and a half and, in its day, cost $6—almost $300 today. It was the country’s first commercial fishing rod. Designed for maximum utility, it could be used for all types of fishing, with bait, artificial lures or hand-tied flies. The hollow butt section stored the other two pieces. This portability reflects the rise of railroad travel, when a rod had to pack small enough for a footloose fisherman to carry it on the train. “This is symbolic of a change in attitude,” Larson says. “It’s a huge step forward.”
Larson is clearly a man obsessed. Whenever possible, he brings fishing into his history classes. It’s hard not to. As a kid in Minnesota, he grew up fishing with his dad and brother. After high school, he worked as a fishing guide in Northern Minnesota. He started collecting old lures at a young age, and now he has more than 15,000. Soon he began accumulating reels, rods and other vintage tackle. In 2006, Larson launched the Whitefish Press, which has already published almost 40 books about fishing history and tackle. Later he started a blog called Fishing for History, in which he chronicles his discoveries in old tackle.
The site has become wildly popular, and the more he writes, the more interesting things happen to him. He’s fielded a stream of calls from two presidential historians to help with exhibits. He’s been asked to write for ESPN and several fishing magazines. He’s been on PBS documentaries and lectured in the U.K. and Japan. “And it’s all because of this stupid little blog I write,” he says. The only problem is it cuts into his fishing time. “It’s become a real job,” he says, “in every possible way.”
He still makes it back to Minnesota several times a year to fish his old haunts, but it’s never often enough. “I’ve got to get out on the water,” he says. “That’s my big goal for the year, to fish more.”