Bait Knife

This knife has a long, narrow, steel blade with a single edge and a pine handle. The blade is 8.5 inches long and the handle adds another 6 inches. It was made in Beverly, Massachusetts, in 1877, and was displayed in 1883 at the International Fisheries Exhibition in London. In a catalog of the exhibition, the knife is described as “the earliest style of knife used by Cape Ann fishermen to prepare slivers of menhaden for cod, haddock, or mackerel bait” (p. 840).
Menhaden are herring-like fish, that spawn in large runs. At the time this knife was in use, menhaden were abundant and typically caught for bait in seines or stationary pound nets near the shore. Schooner captains fishing Georges and the Grand Banks purchased bait at ports in the Canadian Maritimes. The bait was frozen and kept on ice, which eased the work of slivering the fish.
Describing baiting operations in the 1940s, Capt. R. Barry Fisher wrote, “The bait was used carefully. It was stood on its head, your hand holding the tail, and then with a bait knife you sliced down along the belly side toward the head. The two pieces together were placed side by side on a cutting board and you chopped away the head. Then you chopped these halves so as to get about twelve to sixteen usable pieces of bait. The tails and the heads were discarded. Four to six herring or mackerel were needed to bait one line of gear.” (A single line would have 52 to 54 hooks; a two-man dory crew would set about 30 such lines at a time in what was called a "trawl line.") A Doryman’s Day (Gardiner, Maine: Tilbury House, 2001) pp. 29-35.
Object Name
knife, fish
Date made
Physical Description
wood (handle material)
steel (blade material)
overall: 14 1/2 in x 1 1/4 in x 3 1/8 in; 36.83 cm x 3.175 cm x 7.9375 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Natural Resources
The Development of the Industrial United States
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
On the Water
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Publication title
On the Water online exhibition
Publication URL

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