My friend, Paul Schullery, who Trout magazine calls America’s “preeminent angling historian,” was kind enough to offer a comment on my post of General W.E. Strong’s story, “The Rod Bent Nearly Double.” I thought it deserved to be featured as a guest article.
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.
— For more stories about fishing in Yellowstone Park, click on “fishing” under the “Categories” button on the right.