The traditional fishing culture thrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
From the perspective of the 10,000 years following the Ice Age, Finnish fishing techniques, materials, organization of fishing, and methods of utilizing the catch had indeed changed on numerous occasions, but it was not comparable to the technological, economic, and social changes that began in the late 19th century. Around the same time when printing presses started producing more fishing literature, professional fishing, the fishing industry, and equipment manufacturing also began to rise. What was fishing like during the era of old-fashioned fishing literature?
In prehistoric Finland, fishing was the primary livelihood. Settlements were located near bodies of water, and the choice of residence changed with the annual fishing cycle. The oldest findings of settlement sites, fishing equipment, and fish bones are approximately 10,000 years old. Fishing in remote waters, which began during prehistoric times, continued seasonally until the 17th century in some places. Permanent agricultural settlements gradually emerged near remote fishing waters, wilderness, and slash-and-burn cultivation areas. After the wilderness era, fishing became a cornerstone of self-sufficient agriculture in settled areas. Its rhythm was closely tied to the annual cycles of other rural work.
Professional fishing intensified in the 19th century in coastal and river areas, and from the end of the century, it also expanded to lake areas. Income from fish sales facilitated the transition to a cash economy. The roots of modern recreational fishing are deeply embedded in history, and it started as sport fishing in the 19th century. The ancient elements of fishing, both for leisure and sustenance, persisted in urbanizing Finland. At the same time, influences from abroad began to spread.
Various techniques have been used in the annual fishing of our lakes, rivers, and seas. Basic methods were already employed in prehistoric and medieval fishing. From the late 19th century onwards, an unprecedented wave of innovation began, which is reflected in various ways in our fishing literature.
Early on, fishing techniques were also categorized, with Professor U.T. Sirelius pioneering this classification in his work “Suomalaisten kalastus I-III” (1906-1908). Subsequent classifications of fishing techniques largely relied on Sirelius’s “main classification.”
Among the old main fishing methods, we can distinguish striking, stabbing, trapping, and netting. This visually oriented form of fishing still connects fishing to hunting today.
The fishing rod and net were still significant fishing tools in the early 20th century, for example, in traditional shoreline seining and trapping of salmon in our rivers.
Hook fishing is one of our oldest fishing methods. Passive hook fishing used hooks made of bone or wood, known as “launi” and “nokkanen,” which have been used effectively in fishing for burbot since ancient times. Launi is a double-pointed, wooden or bone fish stick, and the three-pointed hook is made from the lower branch of a conifer tree. Various setups for passive baited hooks have been used in both summer and winter fishing. The most effective passive hook fishing, longline fishing, was known by at least the 16th century.
Active hook fishing, which is popular today, has a long history. Combination hooks made of wood and bone were used in both active and passive fishing from the early Comb Ceramic period, evidenced by stone sinkers and some bone hooks. Large barbed iron hooks, used for active hook fishing, have been found since the 6th century and were likely used in conjunction with combination hooks. The first ice fishing hooks were realized by attaching a hook to a sharpened stone shaft. Ice fishing has been practiced for approximately 5,000 years. The oldest lures, called “leaf lures,” were cast brass lures with a fish-shaped design, resembling stone sinkers in concept. Ancient salmon hooks had a fish skin-covered hook trailing behind a weight as a lure, and later, hooks were attached to a shiny metal weight in the shape of a lure. The equipment for active fishing has greatly expanded and diversified with the development of angling, ice fishing, trolling, and fly fishing.
Seine fishing in both coastal and lake areas has included various methods such as beach seining, fish trap seining, and gill net fishing. Seining has been a cornerstone of traditional self-sufficient fishing and later became the most important method in professional fishing. We have used seine nets without pockets relatively late, in addition to small net traps. Some of these include “vata,” “ina,” “arri,” “lohikulteet,” and “suvisilakkanuotta” or “isonuotta,” with the earliest records dating back to the 14th century. The same century mentions the large “peränuotta” seine net. Among the pocket seine nets, the “isorysä” was developed for professional fishing in the 19th century. It is believed to have evolved from the salmon and whitefish kick nets.
The historical fishing devices for catching fish at dams in our rivers are among the world’s largest fixed fish traps. It’s no wonder that they held a significant place in our old fisheries literature as well. Fish rest areas created in streams through stone and wooden structures have been known as fishing locations since prehistoric times. The word “pato” (dam) as a term for fish dam comes from the Finnish-Ugric era. A dam served as an obstacle to fish movement, while a “kostepato” (moist dam) provided a shelter where migrating salmon were enclosed with a net used in the manner of a seine. “Tainio,” “lana,” and “karsina” dams had a barrier with one or more openings equipped with fishing gear. These dams were collectively built and used by fishing companies.
Coastal dams, which date back to prehistoric times, were spring and early summer traps set up by private houses along their own shores. Originally, these dams only had a “potkuverkko” (kick net) set up at the end of the dam, but starting from the late Middle Ages, a “potku” was added, along with a “meri” or “lana” or both. The oldest recorded document of a salmon dam dates back to 1347 on the Kokemäenjoki River. Dams were also set up for migrating eels.
Net fishing based on surrounding fish schools has been the cornerstone of both old self-sufficient fishing along the coast and in lakes, as well as the primary fishing method in professional fishing later on. We used pocketless nets relatively late, alongside small trap nets. These included “vata,” “ina,” “arri,” “lohikulteet,” and “suvisilakkanuotta” or “isonuotta,” with the earliest records dating back to the 14th century. The same century mentions the large “peränuotta” seine net. Among the pocket seine nets, the “isorysä” was developed for professional fishing in the 19th century. It is believed to have evolved from the salmon and whitefish kick nets.
The discovery of remains of the world’s oldest hand-net fishing device in Korpilahti, Antrea, immediately after the Ice Age shows that the hunter-gatherer-fishermen who lived in Finland at the time already had advanced fishing techniques. Over time, the net, which had experienced material
Over time, the net, which has undergone material and technical improvements, has become a fishing tool suitable for the entire annual cycle of catching, capable of catching almost all types of fish. The effectiveness of the net still relies, as it did ten thousand years ago, on the mesh size. Therefore, efforts have always been made to manufacture nets with the finest possible threads. This topic was extensively covered in publications such as the Finnish Fishing Magazine. After the mid-20th century, the mesh size of nets improved due to advancements in materials. Nets became more durable and easier to use. This subsequently influenced the popularity of this fishing method in both professional and recreational fishing. The diversity of our net fishing is evident in collections like the Finnish Fishing Museum’s online collection, which includes various types of nets for seals, salmon, whitefish, herring, perch, roach, burbot, and scalefish, as well as innovations of their time, such as herring and salmon drift nets.
Historically, fishing in prehistoric, medieval, and early modern times was primarily shoreline fishing in open waters during the spawning and migration seasons of fish. By the time our fishing literature began to flourish, water bodies were already being utilized year-round, allowing fishing in open waters by the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
A significant reason for this was the fishing literature itself, which dedicated itself to innovatively developing fishing techniques.