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.