The Real Creel

[29 April 2008]

By Chris Justice

Among the papers, piles, and pictures, frames, photographs, and failures, and staples, signatures, and successes, one object in my office stands out: the creel from my mother’s living room. She loves moose, I love trout, so we both love Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, and her rustic, cabin theme was a perfect backdrop for this unusual basket. However, our lives and priorities have changed, and now the creel stands awkwardly, but proudly, in the white, dusty confines of my university office in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. Why do we remove objects from their natural settings?

I want to believe the creel was my grandfather’s, a fine piece of craftsmanship that, like him, heroically withstood time and the elements, a carefully woven basket that served as an exclamation mark ending his many fishing tales. But it isn’t. This creel is purely decorative; it served no utilitarian purpose for anglers, and one glance at its larger-than-normal size indicates why. This one’s purely symbolic, but what creel isn’t?

As columnist Gordon Wickstrom writes for the Dailycamera.com, creels are “iconic”, universal symbols of angling. “If anything other than a rod indicates an angler, it is the creel,” he writes. Wickstrom doesn’t stop there; he suggests that creels’ artistry moves beyond symbolism and into the realm of poetry. He ponders,

How might a shape of so many subtle curves and arcs and bends and flats, big and little, all made of woven split willow or reed, bound or not bound with leather crossing bands for strength, some more shapely than others—how might that shape be described in words? No one, I think, could tell you what a creel looks like, but like poetry itself, it is indefinable and unmistakable. Everyone knows it at sight and has an exact imagination of it.

Indeed, the word itself resonates with everything—rhythm, metaphor, and imagery – that is beautiful about poetry. The word ‘creel’ has Scottish origins and means, Wickstrom explains, “any generic wicker woven basket.” More importantly, the word appears to have been destined for the lexicon of fishing. Containing the word “reel”, it can easily be mistaken for that all-important angling tool.  And sounding like the word “eel”, a popular bait for many large game fish, it slips and slides off the tongue like the critters themselves.

Creels have long been fixtures in the sport of angling, and no text explicates this history better than The Art of the Creel by Hugh Chatham and Dan McLain. The authors offer a historical and photographic treasure chest of creel information that was inspired when they purchased legendary collector Daryll Whitehead’s creel collection. The authors claim, “This isn’t the last word on creels, but a beginning that most collectors can use as a starting point for information on creel identification origin, types of construction, origin dates and identification of known creel makers.”

In the book, Chatham and McLain outline the creel’s historical relationships with Native American basketry artwork and Shaker baskets. They also examine the growing popularity of creels in early America along the West Coast, Pacific Northwest, and within the Eastern Woodlands, particularly New York state and Maine. Their history weaves through many other chapters of the creel’s past, including:

The emergence of leathered creels, which became popular in the American and Canadian West due to the region’s more rugged terrain, a reality that demanded sturdier creels;

The rise of Oregon as a major epicenter of creel production, especially the George Lawrence Company of Portland;

International creels, focusing on those of Japan, China, and the United Kingdom; and

The growth of metal creels.

Creels traditionally have served one basic purpose: to preserve and store an angler’s catch. They are made using different styles and materials, but the most popular forms use wickerwork or skeined patterns weaving willow tree wickers. Sometimes, other wickers are used including those from birch and black ash trees. Creels usually assume the shape of a kidney and are positioned on an angler’s hip to not disturb the cast. 

Creels’ other distinctive features include their lid design; decorative closing latches; the square holes that offer additional ventilation and allow anglers to slide fish into them; leather pockets for accessories such as knives or hemostats; leather strappings across the waist or shoulders; engravings or designs on the leather; and an array of colors for basket materials and leather. Creels have also been used by women as purses or as “boat creels” to store important items while canoeing.

Nevertheless, something tragic dipped in a sad nostalgia is tucked within those elaborately woven designs. The creel’s purpose has been transformed, but why do anglers no longer use creels? Today they seem more folk art than tackle; more folklore narrating a distant past than a modern artifice satisfying an immediate need.

The rise of catch and release fishing has partially shifted the creel’s value. Given the ecologically sensitive impulses that have popularized catch and release angling, creels are to some politically incorrect; few people fish these days solely for food. The popularity of sport fishing has compelled many anglers to return their quarry to the waters. Additionally, combined with those notions, creels appear at times cumbersome accessories that clash with the streamlined, efficient approach to tackle many modern anglers prefer.

My mantra is emblematic of others’: if it cannot fit in a vest pocket, it’s probably not necessary. Practically speaking, creels and a net may be too much to handle, and other alternatives, though much less attractive, have surfaced: perhaps this is why I was taught as a youngster to use simple metal “stringers” to keep my quarry alive.

However, if I’ve never used a creel, why do I value them? What purpose do they serve in my angling life? Surely, their craftsmanship is undeniable. But more importantly, the creel is, at least for some anglers, the antithesis of Pandora’s box. Creels contain volumes of wonderfully imaginative “catches” that, unlike the box’s contents in the myth, unleash a swarm of positive stories and memories that continue life’s flow. While we cannot stand in a river daily, we can dwell in Memory’s many rivers, and creels help transport us to those waters.

Of course, in contemporary antique circles, some creels are worth hundreds of dollars. Not unusually, some are worth much more; this creel is selling for $2,500. Typically, a new or older creel can be purchased for under $100. But somehow placing a dollar value on such an object seems counterintuitive. Most anglers would rather be counting the fish they’re placing into a creel than the amount of dollars they’re extracting from one. And anglers aren’t the only ones making such calculations.

If this ancient Babylonian proverb is correct—“The gods do not deduct from one’s life the time spent fishing” – then an angler’s creel, whether on the hip or on the wall, must weigh heavily on those gods’ calculations.

Image from All Routes.to

Image from All Routes.to

A salt- and freshwater angler for more than 30 years, Chris has been fascinated (or obsessed, depending on your temperament) with the sport ever since he caught his first sunfish in Lawrence Brook with his grandfather, Leo. He is an avid catch-and-release angler, and enjoys both spin and fly-fishing. Although he'll pursue anything with gills, his favorite targets are rockfish, trout, and shad. His PopMatters monthly column, The Tackle Box, explores the confluence of the sport and popular culture.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/the-real-creel/