19th century Fish Biology, 19th century Fishing Literature, B.A.S.S., Bass Fishing, Book of the Black Bass, Dr. James Henshall, fish biology, Largemouth Bass
James Henshall ‘s Book of the Black Bass was published in 1881. Today it is a considered a classic; for example, the edition I read was a reprint published by B.A.S.S. It is a strange book to qualify as a classic because it is littered with hearsay, the prose is often extravagant (but not always) and many of the scientific facts it alleges are simply wrong. Furthermore, Henshall was limited by tackle options (in those days, fly lines were made of silk and horse hair that had to be hung and dried after use, and bait casting reels –minnow casters, he calls them – were a new idea). How then is it a classic? Because Henshall was the first to argue at length for the merits of the Black Bass species as game fish, and to do so mustering all the available scientific knowledge to make his case. What is most interesting is that he did so at a time when the Black Bass was not considered a sport fish (he uses the term “Black Bass” to describe the Largemouth, but implies the Smallmouth and other sub-species). In short, Henshall’s book is filled with mistakes, but if you read it Book of the Black Bass carefully you can hear the modern bass angler’s bluster and bounce; read it with an eye for his arguments against the American trout monopoly, and you will see why he was eventually persuasive, even prophetic.
Nonetheless, to the modern bass angler looking for fishing advice or modern scientific data (not to mention a more readable style of prose), the Book of the Black Bass will resemble a work of fiction written by the good Doctor Frankenstein. In the first place, the book is longer than Abe Lincoln’s beard, numbering 455 pages. Henshall divided it in three parts, each with its faults and merits, so I will review each section in turn.
Part One of Book of the Black Bass is the longest of the three, its 191 pages comprising nearly half the book’s length. Of those, the first 132 pages are for the most part reproductions of long passages from published scientific works. These will be interesting to the historian of science, and of bass science in particular. Here the reader will learn about confusing 19th century debates between American and French biologists, none of whom could apparently decide what scientific names to give the Smallmouth and Largemouth Basses, or even agree upon how many species existed. In the second place, when Henshall writes – and he does get around to it eventually – his prose is decorated with elaborate figures of speech. The quote below illustrates an example of Henshall working over a metaphor like a dog that refuses to admit the bone has long been picked clean of its meat:
But these very differences among the[scientific] authorities showed that the end was not yet; that the problem had not been solved; that there was still something hidden that should be brought to the light; some flaw in the chain that would eventually destroy it; some stone in the foundation that would yet crumble and work the destruction of the superimposing pile. (17)
The modern reader will be forgiven for frowning before this horror; the modern bass angler might wonder if the book is about bass or bass fishing at all. It most certainly is, but rather than send the reader running to later chapters, it is important to explain how important those first 130 pages were to the beginning of the sport of angling for Black Bass. The scientists will be unfamiliar to anyone but students of scientific history. To scientists, and fisheries biologists in particular, they are the names that solved the riddle of North American fish life. In sum, Henshall consulted with the experts in order to prove his authority but also to demonstrate that the Black Bass was worthy of scientific study. And if it was worthy of study, it was worthy on the end of a line.
Why did Henshall have to go to such ends to make his case? It is because the modern study of fishes was in its infancy, but it had also begun to walk. The modern nomenclature, as well as biological study of fishes, was first announced by Linnaeus in the mid-18th century with his multi-volume Systemae Naturae. The book excited in turn American colonists who sent him samples (this is how indigenous North American fish fishes such as the Bowfin and certain Gars came to modern science), and as a result Linnaeus was constantly updating his work in new editions. Many of our native fishes were unknown to the great European scientists who struggled to identify them, so they generally made things up in a systematic, orderly way. After the American Revolution, when early American scientists like William Bartram fanned out to collect and describe species, they followed the Linnaean system of classification. Error compounded error, most of the time, but a clearer picture began to form. By the mid-19th century, shortly after the arrival of Louis Agassiz at Harvard, American fish biology became more careful. Within a few short decades, it became respectable and outpaced its European rivals.
Because of this, Henshall was perfectly positioned to witness the first modern scientific study of the black bass. He consulted with the experts of his time – George Brown Goode, Spencer Baird, Theodore Gill and David Starr Jordan. Jordan alone is credited with identifying more fishes than any scientist in history. These men founded and managed institutions and university departments and many had been students of the aforementioned Louis Agassiz. Goode, Baird and Jordan were famous in their day, public intellectuals and household names that shaped the way every school child studied science. Sadly, we do not teach “Natural History” in our schools, and much of this history is unknown to casual modern readers. Should you ever visit the Smithsonian Museum, work for the U.S. Bureau of Fishes, or study fish biology at Harvard University, you will be working in the houses those men had built. This is why Henshall was forced to devote the first 130 pages of the book to description of how those scientists were sorting out Black Bass, identifying species and arguing over correct scientific names for them. Without the work of these men (women were not admitted to the science until a later time), modern anglers would simply not have known what to call the fishes they caught. When Henshall discusses the “foundation” they laid in the quote above, he was not kidding.
After attending to scientific debates of his era, Henshall proceeds to a somewhat systematic review of the Black Basses on the final third of part one. In a way, the structure of his book resembles that of many contemporary publications: early chapters focus on behavior and habitat, for example. The difference is that recent publications (think of the In-Fisherman catalog) use verified science to discuss bass behaviors. Henshall relies often on anecdote picked up from anglers. In one section, he even argues that in winter Largemouth Bass hibernate by hiding under mud and rocks, and that it is “rare” to catch them through the ice in northern waters. He even quotes sources to support this absurd claim.
Yet there are times when Henshall writes clearly, and offers sound advice. Take this sentence, for example:
Now, it is possible to be scientific and be an angler, too, but or science, like our angling, must be practical and must of necessity be learned by close observation and study of the habits of the fishes as they exist in nature, and not alone from the study of the physical construction of a preserved specimen. (179)
In that sentence, Henshall channels all the habits of scientific empiricism and learning through casual observation. This was the method that formed American science since the colonial era. He is even-handed, conciliatory and a bit wry on the final point. In addition, the point is true, and one can’t think an angler worthy of the name who would disagree with a word of it: if you don’t have some basic understanding of fish behavior and biology, you won’t catch many fish.
The quote above is from chapter 7 of the book, and entitled “Intelligence and Special Senses.” It is in these later chapters that Henshall begins to relax a bit as a writer. Perhaps it is because he does not feel compelled to rival the scientists he loves to quote. By the time we reach chapter 8, in which he tells the history (perhaps unwittingly) of how the Black Bass was stocked throughout the country, he writes at his best:
There are few fish more prolific, while there is none more hardy, healthy and better able to take care of itself, and none that protects or cares more tenderly for its young; consequently there is no limit to its production and increase in suitable waters, save from a lack of natural food.
In view, then, of its many good qualities, there is no fish more worthy fof cultivation; none that can be so easily transplanted, and none that is so well adapted to the various waters of our country, for there is no game fish that has such an extensive natural habitat. (185)
Note the galloping American optimism of the prose. Then re-focus on what he is saying: what Henshall essentially describes here is how to replace native species with imported ones. The Black Bass was, until that point, limited in its range to the eastern and southern United States. By the time Henshall died, it was an invasive presence stocked for game in nearly all the lower 48 states. Of course, 19th century scientists did not know much about the disruptions those transplanted fish would cause. They carted Rainbow Trout into high mountain lakes, shipped Striped Bass (an Atlantic species) to the Pacific Ocean, and they even tried to stock Salmon in the rivers of central North Carolina. If hatchery-raised stocking of fishes into new waters ever needed a salesman for the Black Bass, Henshall was its man.
Part One of Book of the Black Bass begins with science and ends on that missionary note regarding stocking methods; Part Two is devoted entirely to tackle. Here Henshall begins with rods (debating types of wood – Greenheart or Cedar? Ash or Lancewood?) and proceeds to reels and lines, baits, lures and hooks, and various “implements” (these include swivels and nets, knives and sinkers). His description of the split bamboo rod reads like a historian’s monograph, recounting how Samuel Phillippi of Easton, PA first made them, followed by Green of Newark, NJ, and others. This section of the book resembles at times a biblical genealogy of Israelite tribes and it uses heroic tones to tell of how early American rod makers “persisted in their course, however, in spite of opposition and ridicule” (205).
Henshall offers brief glimpses of another world in these sections, a world of early American anglers and rod makers competing to invent and profit from improvements in rods and tackle. Few of these 19th century companies exist any longer (Heddon comes to mind). They numbered in the thousands across the country, and most were the work of small artisans working from small shops, machining reel parts and ferrules, cutting and curing wood for rods, or pouring lead into sinker shapes. If all this small industry seems familiar, it should: while some multinational corporations dominate the tackle industry, everywhere across the world there are always men and women fidgeting with tackle in their homes, forging their imaginations into new lures and tying their dreams into new flies. The same can be said for the audience that murmurs at the edge of Book of the Black Bass. They are readers of magazines such as Forest and Stream, mining the pages for tips and clues, much as contemporary bass anglers scan newsstands, social media and television scouting for emergent trends and advantages.
As I noted earlier, Henshall was not a great writer, nor was he accurate, in describing the Black Bass, but he was the first to do so at length and you can see it all – the obsession, the pseudo-science, the real science, the bias and opinion, the pursuit of advantage – of modern bass fishing being assembled in this book. Frankly, Henshall’s knowledge of 19th century fishing rods, and his ability to explain even minute technical differences between their butts and tips, ferrules and rings, is thorough, and his technical expertise is probably strong on most counts. The rod building sections of his book may very well be as precious to historians of the sport as anything written on the subject in that time. In subsequent chapters, the discussions of reels and lines are not quite as thorough as those of fishing rods, but the drawings that accompany discussion in these chapters give the work an air of legitimacy, as if it were a technical manual for engineers written by a lunatic who mated a machine shop with a fly tying bench.
Part Three concludes the book, and it is devoted, at last, entirely to fishing. Indeed, it begins with a chapter entitled “The Philosophy of Angling.” This chapter is framed as a letter to Izak Walton, but it reads more like the work of a 19th century social reformist or a tract written by a member of the Temperance Society or some such group. It is lyrical, and contains perhaps Henshall’s finest prose, but the careful reader will note an urgent sub-text here: industry is killing us, the modern world is bad for our health, so you’d better get out and fish while you can. Social criticism of modern industry was not uncommon in this time. Indeed, Theodore Roosevelt often touted the reinvigorating benefits of hunting to his fellow citizens (and not without some racial overtones), and Henshall does much the same here. This was part of a broader “back to nature” movement in the late 19th century – one is reminded that industrialists Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, both contemporaries of Henshall’s, started the urban parks movement in our major cities so as to provide citizens with some greenery, air and a place to walk. It was widely understood in the 19th century that industrialization had spoiled the environment, and every do-gooder, teetotaler and preacher had a cure for it. For Henshall, it was to go bass fishing.
Not many would have agreed with his particular remedy. Indeed, much of part three of Book of the Black Bass is devoted to making arguments for the “game” qualities of the bass, and he introduces an early version of the “pound-for-pound” argument when he writes that the bass is as game as any Trout or Salmon of “equal weight.” Additionally, it is interesting to note that while hundreds of freshwater species inhabit our waters, Henshall rarely mentions any but the Trouts (to be fair, there are a few mentions of the Pikes near the end, if only to insult them). This is because Henshall has one target, and one only: he believes he must convince anglers that the Black Bass is of equal game (and spiritual) merit as the Trouts, and he sermonizes on it with missionary zeal.
It is for these reasons and others that Part Three of Henshall’s book is the easiest to read. Having stripped away scientific pretense and technical jargon, Henshall leisurely proceeds through several chapters of varied fishing-related topics. He alternates between myth and anecdote; one section explains, for two pages, how we inherited from the British the superstition that an east wind was bad for fishing, another tells of how he scooped up minnows in his handkerchief, put on his boots and used a line fixed to a local cane pole to catch bass feeding on minnows along a sand bar. By example and counter example, tall story and tale, these chapters mix observation with argument. In all they read far more smoothly than any other sections of the books, despite the grandiosity and opulence of Henshall’s prose. In one section, Henshall even offers a long poem describing a hooked and embattled bass, each stanza using a line of iambic trimeter to bookend lines written in pentameter:
In curving reaches,
Back and forth, he darts in conscious strength;
Describing arcs and segments in the shadows
Of the ruffled pool. Ha! Nobly done!
With a mighty rush he cleaves the crystal flood,
And at one bound, full a fathom in
The realm above, he takes an aerial flight;
His fins, extended with bristling points;
His armor, brightly flashing in the sun;
Shaking, in his rage, his wide-extended jaws,
To rid him of the hook.
In an awkward coda, Henshall apologizes for the poem’s flaws. Let’s give him credit for the effort, and some of the result. There are few poems about the bass and in writing one Henshall clearly tried to elevate it to the status of a literary fish, and rival, to the trout.
There is a section of part three, however, that rewarded my own effort to finish reading Book of the Black Bass. In fact, it is so uncanny that I paused to read it twice to be sure of what I had read. I was quite sure, while reading it again, that this book accounts for the “classic” status bestowed on Henshall’s, because all though he often writes in Biblical tones, and he does not yet know the true consequence of the Industrial Age or the power of the Trout Unlimited lobby, Rachel Carson or scientific conservation and management of fisheries, here he truly becomes a prophet of old.
Remember while reading the quote that Henshall was writing in 1881, nearly one and one-half centuries ago. He was writing 64 years before the end of WWII, which brought finally equipped modern bass anglers with the plastic and fiberglass they needed to ply their trade, and nearly one hundred years before a man named Ray Scott founded B.A.S.S. I will end with the quote to which I refer:
That he [the Black Bass] will become the leading game fish of America is my oft expressed opinion and firm belief. This result is, I think, inevitable; if for no other reasons, from a force of circumstances occasioned by climatic conditions and the operation of immutable natural laws, such as the gradual drying up, and dwindling away, of the small Trout streams, and the consequent decrease of Brook Trout, both in quality and quantity; and by the introduction of predatory fish in waters where the Trout still exists.
Another prominent cause of the decline and fall of the Brook Trout, is the erection of dams, saw-mills and factories upon Trout streams, which, though to be deplored, can not be prevented; the march of empire and the progress of civilization can not be stayed by the honest, though powerless, protest of anglers.
But while the ultimate fate of the Brook trout is sealed beyond peradventure, we have the satisfaction of knowing, that, in the Black Bass we have a fish equally worthy, both as to game and edible qualities, and which, at the same time, is able to withstand, and defy, many of the causes that will, in the end, effect the annihilation and extinction of the Brook trout. (380)