From the petroleum industry’s earliest days, when tools stuck downhole, drilling stopped. Money and time evaporated. An oil well fishing expert took over.
The loss of a drilling tool down a well bore has caused trouble practically since the first commercial well in America.
The challenge of retrieving broken (and often expensive) equipment obstructing a well – “fishing” – has tormented oil and natural gas exploration companies since the first tool stuck irretrievably at 134 feet and ruined a Pennsylvania well.
It was just four days after the historic August 27, 1859, discovery by Edwin Drake along Oil Creek in Titusville, in the “valley that changed the world,” that a far less known driller got his iron chisel wedged tight.
John Grandin, who drilled his well using a simple spring pole and improvised his well fishing tools, not only lost his drill bit (an industry first), he ended up with the first dry hole in U.S. petroleum history. Read more about him in the First Dry Hole.
In those early days of the industry, the search for petroleum was less an earth science and more an art. Even as drilling technologies evolved from spring poles and cable tools to modern rotary rigs, downhole problems remained – especially as wells reached new depths.
The term fishing came from early percussion drilling using cable-tools. When the derrick’s manila rope or wire line rope broke, a crewman lowered a hook and attempted to pull out the well’s heavy iron bit. More advance attachments followed. Note the fishing tools to the left of the drill pipe.
Like its ancient predecessor the spring pole, early cable-tool rigs utilized percussion drilling, the repeated lifting and dropping of a heavy chisel using hemp ropes.
Drilling time and depth improved with the addition of steam power and tall, wooden derricks. But as the well got deeper, frequent stops were needed to bail out water and cuttings – and sharpen the wedged drill bit made of iron. Forges were often on the derrick floor.
Often tools would get jammed deep in the borehole. Perhaps the manila rope or wire line would break. A pipe connection might bend or break. The increasingly heavy downhole tool assemblies could no longer be lifted and dropped.
On the rig floor, fishing tools had to be lowered by a line into the well, armed at their end with spears, clamps and hooks. Sometimes a wood, wax and nails “impression block” was first lowered to get an idea of what lay downhole.
Boot Jacks, Die Nipples and Whipstocks
“Well fishing tools are constantly being improved and new ones introduced,” explains the author of A Handbook of the Petroleum Industry. David T. Day published volume one of his book in 1922.
Describing cable tool operations, he writes that the basic principle of well fishing tools often involved milled wedges – on a spear or in a cylinder – for recovering lost tubing or casing.
Hundreds of designs were patented, each designed to catch some tool or part that broken or lost in the borehole, writes Day. Although fishing tools could be improvised on site, many already were available to get the job done.
“Simpler types of fishing tools comprise horn sockets, corrugated friction sockets, rope grabs, rope spears, bit hooks, spuds, whipstocks, fluted wedges, rasps, bell sockets, rope knives, boot jacks, casing knives and die nipples.” notes Day.
Basic fishing tools include the spear and socket, each with milled edges. Using nails and wax, an impression block helps determine what is stuck downhole. Image from A Handbook of the Petroleum Industry, 1922.
These and other devices, when used with an auger stem in various combinations called jars, can secure a powerful upward stroke or “jar” and thus dislodge and recover the tool being sought, he explains.
“The jars, essentially and universally used in fishing with cable tools, consist off two heavy forged-steel links, interlocking as the links of a cable chain, but fitting together more snugly,” he adds.
“Many lost tools that cannot be recovered are drilled up or ‘side-tracked” (driven into or against the wall) and passed in drilling,” Day concludes. “Much depends upon the skill and patience of the driller.”
Once all well fishing tools failed, a final resort was a whipstock, which allowed the bit to angle off and actually bypass the fish but leaves the operator with a deviated hole, adds another historian. This was sometimes unpopular where wells were closely spaced.
By the early 1900s, rotary drilling introduced the hollow drill stem that enabled broken rock debris to be washed out of the borehole. It led to far deeper wells.
As drilling with rotary rigs became more common in the early 1900s, fishing methods adapted.
“In rotary drilling, the only tools ordinarily used in the well are the drill pipe and bits,” Day writes in his 1922 book, adding that the rotary fishing tools, “were comparatively free from the complexities of cable-tool work.”
Most rotary fishing jobs were caused by “twist offs” (broken drill pipe), although the bit, drill coupling or tool joints may break or unscrew. As in cable-tool fishing, an impression block often was needed to determine the proper fishing tool.
However, even back then – and especially now with wells miles deep and often turned horizontally – when a downhole problem occurred, the well could be lost for good – like John Grandin’s spring pole well in 1859.
Although fishing technologies have made great advances, efficiently “making hole” remains as vital to an exploration company’s success today as it was more than 150 years ago.
Read more about the evolution of petroleum exploration in Making Hole – Drilling Technology.
Deep Fishing in Oklahoma
The Anadarko Basin is a geologic feature covering approximately fifty thousand square miles primarily in west-central Oklahoma, according to historian Bobby Weaver.
Drilling in what is today one of the most prolific natural gas reserves in North America, the Bertha Rogers No. 1 well reached 31,441 feet in 1974.
Beginning in the late 1950s, when technological advance allowed it, Anadarko Basin wells in Oklahoma began to be drilled below the 13,000-foot level in what geologists call “the deep gas play,” Weaver notes in an article for the Oklahoma Historical Society.
“At 31,441 feet, the Bertha Rogers well held a record at the turn of the 21st century as the world’s deepest producing well,” proclaims Weaver. “The great expense and technological expertise necessary to complete gas wells at these depths has made the Anadarko Basin the domain of the major petroleum corporations.”
Similar in size to Bertha Rogers, Parker Drilling Rig No. 114 stands on display to welcome Route 66 travelers to Elk City. It is 180 feet high – one of the tallest in the world – and is next to Casa Grande Hotel, home of the now shuttered Anadarko Museum of Natural History.
Models of Apache drill bits were among the exhibits in Elk City’s Anadarko museum inside the Casa Grande Hotel, 1925-1949, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.
A granite monument at Third and Pioneer streets in Elk City adds, “The Deep Anadarko Basin of Western Oklahoma is one of the most prolific gas provinces of North America. Wells drilled here have been among the world’s deepest.”
In 1974, a record-setting well had to be fished. In Beckham County - after 16 months of drilling and almost six miles deep - the Bertha Rogers No. 1 rotary rig drill stem sheared from the strain.
More than 4,100 feet of pipe and the massive drill bit were stuck downhole in what was then the deepest well in the world.
An independent producer and advocate for petroleum history, in 2006 John West preserved artifacts in Anadarko Museum of Natural History, which was closed due to a lack of local support.
It was March 1974 and the enormous investment of Lone Star Producing Company of Dallas, and partner GHK Company of Oklahoma City, was about to be lost. They called a Houston company.
Wilson Downhole Service Company sent its downhole fishing expert, Mack Ponder, to the rescue the multimillion dollar well. Many companies were pushing the edge of the envelope to drill deep enough.
Against all odds using the technology of 1970s – Ponder retrieved the pipe sections and drill bit from 30,019 feet deep. Drilling resumed at the site about 12 miles west of Cordell.
Although the remarkable deep fishing achievement was celebrated, the Bertha Rogers No. 1 had to be plugged and abandoned – after striking molten sulfur at 31,441 feet. It set a world record at the time – and today remains one of the deepest every drilled. Meanwhile, deep drilling has returned in force to today’s Anadarko Basin.
“At the close of the twentieth century this vast Oklahoma region was the most prolific gas-producing area in the nation,” concludes Weaver, an oil patch story teller is among the guest historians featured on an Elk City radio program, Exploring Energy.
Editor’s Note - The deepest wells in the world today are the Kola Superdeep Borehole science well drilled as project of the Soviet Union. It reached 40,230 feet in 1989. In 2008, an oil well reached 40,318 feet in Qatar. In 2011, a 40,502-foot well was drilled offshore the Russian island Sakhalin.
Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society and this website with a donation.