One of the most luxurious early trips to Yellowstone Park was led by President U.S. Grant’s Secretary of War, General William Belknap. In 1875, Belknap was joined by four other Generals including W.E. Strong, who provide an account of the trip.
The Generals crossed the country in a plush Pullman car smoking cigars, drinking whisky, and telling stories, on the new transcontinental railroad. Then they rode in a special stagecoach that traveled at breakneck speed from Utah to Montana.
Along the way they were feted with banquets, parties and parades. In Bozeman a Silver Coronet Band greeted them at the edge of town and escorted them through the city to Fort Ellis.
At Fort Ellis they were provided with an escort of active duty soldiers led by Gustavus Doane, who had commanded the escort of the Washburn Expedition in 1870.
Each General was assigned an orderly to take care of his every whim: packing his personal belongings, putting up his tent, rolling out his bed roll, digging his latrine, and cleaning any fish he caught. All at army expense, of course. A year later the U.S. Senate impeached General Belknap for taking bribes.
General Strong eloquently describes the wonders of Yellowstone—falls, hot springs and geysers, and describes the people he met—mountain men, stagecoach drivers, and towns people. Most of all, he revels in telling exciting tales of hunting elk, stampeding buffalo, and catching fish. Here’s his description of fishing.
Again I threw my hook in the swift water, and down the stream it went like lightning, tossing about like a feather in the rapid. My reel whirled and spun like a buzz saw, the line went out so fast.
I never touched the reel to check the running line till seventy-five feet, at least, was in the water. Then I pressed my thumb firmly upon it and drew gently back the rod. At the same instant something struck my hook that nearly carried me off my feet. I had to let go the reel to save the rod.
I had him securely hooked, but could I land him? That was the question. I gave him twenty-five or thirty feet more line—then checked again and tried to hold him—but it was no use, the rod bent nearly double, and I had to let him run.
My line was one hundred and fifty feet in length, and I knew when it was all out, if the fish kept in the rapids, I should lose him. No tackle like mine could stand for a moment against the strength of such a fish as I had struck in such swift water.
I therefore continued to give him the line—but no faster than I was forced to. No more than twelve or fifteen feet remained on the reel. Fortunately for me, he turned to the left and was carried into an eddy which swept him into more quiet water near the shore.
Twice in his straight run down the rapid current of the stream he leaped clear from the water. I saw he was immense—something double or triple the size of any trout I had ever caught. The excitement to me was greater than anything I had ever experienced.
No one but a trout fisherman can understand or appreciate the intense pleasure of a single run. I was crazy to kill and land him, and yet I knew the chances were against it. Again and Again I reeled him within twenty-five or thirty feet of the rock. But he was game to the last, and would dart off with the same strength as when he first struck. I had to let him go.
Finally, he showed signs of exhaustion. I managed to get him to top the water, and then worked him in close to the sore. Flynn was waiting to take the line and throw him out, as I had no landing net. Flynn did it very well. When the trout was very near the bank and quiet, he lifted him out.
He was a fine specimen, and would weigh four pounds if he weighed an ounce. This trout was three times the size I had ever caught. At 4:30 o’clock I stopped fishing having landed thirty-five trout which would have run from two and a half to four pounds in weight—none less than two and one half pounds.
— See Paul Schulery’s comments on General Strong’s fishing tackle.
— For more stories about fishing in Yellowstone Park, click on “fishing” under the “Categories” button on the right.
— From W.E. Strong, A Trip to the Yellowstone National Park in July, August, and September, 1875.
— Photo from Paul Schullery, Yellowstone Digital Slide File.
One thought on “A Tale: “The Rod Bent Nearly Double,” General W. E. Strong — 1875”
Strong’s accounts of the fishing that he and his companions enjoyed are interesting to historians for several reasons.
The tackle is of interest because fashionable and well-heeled anglers of the mid-1870s were experiencing a revolution in their choice of gear, as the traditional (and often very large) solid-wood rods that had dominated the sport of fly fishing for centuries were being replaced by far lighter but often stiffer split-bamboo rods. Bamboo rods of this sort were expensive but very effective for distance- and precision-casting. Strong may have had some of those in his rod case, as it sounds like he had several rods.
He was certainly in the majority in recognizing the importance of grasshoppers to the tastes of western trout. Though the British had been experimenting with some grasshopper imitations for centuries, the American grasshoppers were a considerably different and often much larger set of animals, and in the 1870s American anglers were just beginning to develop fly pattens that would work as well as the natural insects that Strong and his companions finally resorted to when their favorite artificial trout flies didn’t work. It would be several decades before American fly tiers developed floating grasshopper imitations that were consistent in catching fish when there were lots of natural grasshoppers competing for the trout’s attention.
But Strong’s most interesting details may be about the trout itself. No doubt his relatively light tackle, which included a silkworm gut leader that may not have been strong enough to horse a big fish in heavy water, had an effect on his handling of this fish. But by the mid-1900s, Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout would be widely regarded as the least sporting of the trout, in that they were typically thought of as the easiest to hook and the least strong as fighters. At least that was the prevailing stereotype; many of us have seen that same species of trout display great selectivity in feeding, and great strength in resisting capture once hooked. But for a Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout to jump clear of the water, repeatedly, would seem like an oddity to most modern anglers; at least I rarely have seen it or heard of it, and any number of respected authorities have said that they don’t jump. For whatever combination of evolutionary reasons, the species stereotypically does not feature jumping among its usual escape tactics. But there are exceptions to every rule; I’ve heard or read that brown trout don’t jump, either, but I’ve seen them do so many times. What Strong’s account gives us is lots to think about as far as how well we know these fish; he tells us to be careful about our generalizations.
Nice article, Mark.