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Gone Fishin'
Angling Stories From 1840s Bob To Surface
Hal Schindler
Published: 02/06/1994 Category: Features Page: E1

Izaak Walton's delightful 1653 tome, The Compleat Angler, dealt with fishing as a pastime. And so it should be. But in the early years of western expansion, which began in the 1840s, those hardy pioneers fished not for the pure pleasure, but for survival. Journals of the period mention anglers only infrequently, and then not in great detail.

Mostly the emigrants were concerned with pushing onward, and during the gold rush, for instance, nothing short of calamity could delay them. So when the occasional Waltonian account bobs to the surface in Western history, it demands attention. The first fly fisherman in America probably experimented with the English artificial lure in the late 1700s and escaped the historian's notice.

Fortunately, Western annals leave a stronger clue and point directly to a Utahn--no less a figure than Wilford Woodruff, fourth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a totally committed angler. Woodruff made the trek west as a member of the LDS Council of Twelve Apostles and traveled in the vanguard of pioneer Mormons to reach and settle the Great Salt Lake Valley in July 1847. He also was one of the most diligent and important diarists among the Mormons, keeping note of everything he did for more than a half-century. And when he fulfilled a church mission to England in 1841, he brought back a fly rod and an assortment of artificial flies.

Because of his fondness for angling, he became a sort of clearing house for matters piscatorial. Woodruff always remembered to inquire of trappers and traders on the prairie where the best fishing was. And when someone had some luck, they passed the word to Woodruff.

A clear stream: As a measure of his commitment, his diaries are sprinkled with revealing comments on the subject. On May 28, 1847, for instance, he made note of a clear stream not more than three miles long, which rose from a large pure spring near Scotts Bluff in present Nebraska. Beaver dams and lodges dotted the course and, Woodruff remarked, "At one place it raised the water about two feet which was lined with fish, a share of which was speckled trout, so the brethren informed me. This is the first stream I have met with containing trout since I left the New England States. Therefore I name it Trout Creek."

When the pioneers reached Independence Rock on the overland trail, Woodruff was the first Mormon to climb it, a distinction he dutifully recorded in his journal. But Woodruff's true claim to fame for sportsmen came when the wagon train reached Fort Bridger in early July. He may not have been the first to cast an artificial fly on waters west of the Mississippi, for there are earlier accounts of bass caught on flies in the South. But Wilford Woodruff more than likely was the first fly fisherman west of the Continental Divide.

Bridger's trading post of crude log houses on Blacks Fork of the Green River was a place emigrants could stay a day or so to rest and feed their livestock, repair wagons and generally gird for the final push to the Great Salt Lake Valley or points west. And here Woodruff made his mark. In his own words, and colorful spelling: "As soon as I got my breakfast, I rigged up my trout rod that I had brought with me from Liverpool, fixed my reel, line & artificial fly & went to one of the brooks close by Camp to try my luck catching trout."

Fresh meat: "The men at the fort said there were but very few trout in the streams. And a good many of the brethren were already at the creeks with their Rods & lines trying their skill baiting with fresh meat and grasshoppers, but no one seemed to ketch anything.

I went & flung my fly onto the [water]. And it being the first time I ever tried the Artificial fly in America, or ever saw it tried, I watched as it floated upon the water with as much intense interest As Franklin did his kite when he tried to draw lightning from the skies. And as Franklin received great Joy when he saw electricity or lightning descend on his kite string in like manner was I highly gratified when I saw the nimble trout dart [at] my fly, hook himself & run away with the line, but I soon worried him out & drew him to shore. I fished two or three hours including morning & evening & I cought twelve in all. And abought one half of them would weigh about--3/4 of a pound each while all the rest of the camp did not ketch during the day 3 lbs of trout in all, which was proof positive to me that the Artificial fly is far the best thing now known to fish [for] trout with."

Wilford Woodruff went on to fish the Bear River (not with an artificial fly, however) on horseback in the middle of the stream, casting baited hooks into eddies. Like anglers of today, he discovered that fish are fickle. "Some of the time I would fish half an hour & could not start a fish. Then I would find an eddy with 3 or 4 trout in it & they would jump at the hooks as though there was a bushel of trout in the hole. And in one instance I caught two at a time."

Test the streams: As he wound his way to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, he would periodically assemble his English bamboo rod for flies, and became the first to test those streams that crossed his trail. On July 17, "I fished with a fly and caught several trout." On the 21st of that month, he cast his line on the Weber near the mouth of the canyon "and caught eight." And later in 1849, after the Mormons settled the valley, he wrote a friend that trout abounded in Zion, that a Brother Whipple irrigated his fields with Mill Creek Canyon stream and, having shut the water off, strolled through the field and picked up "any quantity he wished of very fine trout."

Emigrant wagon trains and packers heading for California the year before the Mormon exodus west also left accounts, albeit sketchy, of their adventures with Walton's pride. Edwin Bryant, part of a nine-man pack train heading for California in 1846--just ahead of the Donner-Reed party--also noticed that Blacks Fork near Fort Bridger "abounds in spotted mountain trout." By the time the party reached the mouth of Weber Canyon near today's town of Uintah, on July 26, 1846, Bryant, a former newspaper editor, had lapsed into prose as purple as the sunset. Wrote he: "Returning to camp Hyrum O. Miller, who had employed his leisure in angling, exhibited a piscatory spectacle worthy [of] the admiration of the most epicurean icthyophagist, he had taken with his hook about a dozen salmon trout, from eight to 18 inches in length; and the longest weighing four or five pounds. A delicacy such as this, and so abundant, we determined to enjoy, and from the results of Miller's sport we feasted this evening upon a viand which epicures would give much to obtain."

And again the following day, "Fishing apparatus was in great demand this morning; and most of the party--were enjoying the Waltonian sport, in angling for the delicious salmon-trout with which the stream abounds. Our bait is the large insect resembling the cricket, heretofore described, myriads of which are creeping and hopping among the grass and other vegetation of the valley. Every angler was more or less successful."

Another diarist, writing in 1848, left evidence of the anglers' experience. One Addison Pratt showed promise, and according to his journal entry for September 17, in the neighborhood of Clear Creek, south of present Naf in Cassia County, Idaho, after catching some "beautiful trout," the "brethren complimented me highly for my skill as a fisherman and remarked jocularly that I could catch a mess of trout if I could only find rainwater in a cow track." Those were the days.

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