The gamest fish that swims

Although a visionary who foresaw a strong bass-fishing industry, one wonders if James Henshall’s vision included tournaments and professional anglers 140 years ago.

A full 140 years later, the first great bass-fishing book is still a good read

It’s February. Hunting seasons are pretty much over. Fishing opportunities are out there for dedicated anglers patiently awaiting the next nice day. 

For most anglers, however, it’s a time to rest the rods and try to remember if you put fuel stabilizer in your outboard’s gas tank the last time you filled up. So let me try to entice you to read a good book written by a member of the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame. If you don’t like to read books, consider this the CliffsNotes version.

James A. Henshall was a medical doctor by training and an addicted angler. He was also a self-taught and deep-thinking biologist with a penchant for details, as evidenced by his meticulous treatment of black bass taxonomy — the process and practice of the classification and naming of plants and animals that fills the first 132 pages of his book. I recommend skipping them.

In his 1881 Book of the Black Bass, Henshall described the black bass as “Inch for inch and pound for pound, the gamest fish that swims.” At the time, only largemouth bass and smallmouth bass  were recognized by science and anglers, and anglers today still debate which species he was referring to. 

Published in 1881, this book offers insights for bass anglers today.

In several places in the book, he implies the smallmouth bass as the gamest; in other passages the largemouth is awarded the title. At the end of my read, I wondered if he was cagily leaving the decision to the angler and simply promoting fishing for whatever member of the black bass clan was most available.

Bass biology

The book is a rigorous compilation of black bass biology, even when compared to the volumes of information about black bass that have been obtained and published in the last 50 years. Much of the biological information about black bass was original thinking on Henshall’s part, based on his own observations and picking the brains of the few ichthyologists (scientists who study fish) and zoologists of his day. Most of what he wrote is still true.

Henshall was also a pioneer and proponent of the aquaculture of black bass. He provides guidance for spawning, rearing and transporting black bass and waters suitable for their stocking. 

Much of the book expounds on tackle selection, care and use. He was a promoter of fine fishing tackle and sources for its purchase, even to the point of marketing his signature bass rod. He was possibly the first angler — almost certainly the first bass angler — to do what is now referred to as product mention.

Whether you are a bass angler or pursue other noble quarry, Henshall’s book will instill in you an appreciation for the tackle you use today and how effective methods of presenting a bait, lure or fly to a fish evolved. It made me go out to my shop, pull my old Pflueger Supreme baitcaster (circa 1962) out of it’s suede bag and reminisce about fishing before free-spool reels and drag mechanisms hit the market. Trust me — those revolving-spool reels were tough on your thumb and a knuckle buster if you didn’t have your head in the game when you got a strike.

And, of course, he provided “How to catch ’em” information.

Henshall was an elitist angler, touting the fine arts of fly fishing and casting plugs and live minnows. He encouraged high ethics, philosophized on the merits of catching a few fish, and disdained “pot fishing” — which he did not define, but I presume is fishing with the intent of capturing fish for food. Yet, he was also a product of his times; fishing was a consumptive sport in the 1800s, and a bass caught was a bass killed. Even on 100-fish-plus days.

Dr. James Henshall was inducted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame.

Fishing prophet

Henshall was a promoter and a teacher, encouraging anglers to adopt black bass as their favorite species and telling them how to catch them. Henshall writes: “(Black bass) will eventually become the leading game fish of America is my oft-expressed opinion and belief.” 

Prophetic.

Important to his prophesy is that much of the information in his book was published in Forest and Stream magazine (which later merged with and was replaced by Field and Stream) and probably had a much larger reach than the book. 

But Henshall was also a visionary. He foresaw the day of overcrowded and overharvested trout fisheries. He foresaw the adverse effects of deteriorating water quality. And he foresaw the growth of bass fishing, the industries that would support it, and the economic benefits generated by a widely distributed and readily available game fish.

Although Book of the Black Bass is a book collector’s treasure, you don’t have to be rich to own a copy. Reprinted books are available at amazon.com for $35.

Enjoy.

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About Hal Schramm 163 Articles
Hal Schramm is an avid angler and veteran fisheries biologist.

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