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.

Date Made: 1877

Related Event: The Development of the Industrial United States

Subject: Fishing, Fishing

See more items in: Work and Industry: Maritime, Work, Natural Resources

Exhibition: On the Water

Exhibition Location: National Museum of American History

Related Web Publication:

Related Publication: On the Water online exhibition

Data Source: National Museum of American History

Id Number: TR.029407Catalog Number: 29407Accession Number: 12679

Object Name: knife, fishOther Terms: knife, fish; Maritime

Physical Description: wood (handle material)steel (blade material)Measurements: 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


Record Id: nmah_844291

Our collection database is a work in progress. We may update this record based on further research and review. Learn more about our approach to sharing our collection online.

If you would like to know how you can use content on this page, see the Smithsonian's Terms of Use. If you need to request an image for publication or other use, please visit Rights and Reproductions.