Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Voices from the Past: Frank Forrester (1849)

The striped bass is a legendary fish. One of the earliest descriptions of sport angling for Stripers comes from Frank Forrester's Fish and Fishing in the United States (1849). Here the great Forrester devoted a whole chapter to Striper fishing, with advice that is mostly sound today. It's a landmark piece in the history of fishing.


With the sole exception of Salmon fishing, this is the finest of the seaboard varieties of piscatorial sport. The Striped Bass is the boldest, bravest, strongest, and most active fish that visits the waters of the Midland States, and is, as I have before observed, to be surpassed only by the Salmon.

Everywhere, from the capes of the Chesapeake to the St. Lawrence, they run up the rivers to spawn in the early spring, and shelter themselves in the shallow lagoons within the outer bars during the winter.

Everywhere they are fished for eagerly, and esteemed alike a prize by the angler and the epicure.

In every manner they are fished for with success, and with almost every bait. The fly will take them brilliantly, and at the end of three hundred yards of Salmon-line a twelve pound Bass will be found quite sufficient to keep even the most skilful angler's hands as full as he can possibly desire.

The fly to be used is any of the large Salmon flies, the larger and gaudier the better. None is more taking than an orange body with peacock and blue jay wings and black hackle legs; but any of the well-known Salmon flies will secure him, as will the scarlet bodied fly with scarlet ibis and silver pheasant wings, which is so killing to the Black Bass of the lakes.

With the fly, he is to be fished for with the double-handed rod, precisely as the Salmon; and when hooked, though he has not all the artifice and resource of that monarch of the deep, he is hardly inferior to him in agility, strength, and vigour of resistance.

It is singular that more recourse is not had to this mode of taking him, as in waters where the Salmon is not, there is no sport equal to it.

Those who try this method will not, I dare to assert, regret the trial; they must, however, fish from a boat, as the width of the streams which Bass frequent do not permit them to be commanded from the shores, even with the double-handed rod.

Again, the Striped Bass may be caught either with the gorgehook and the trolling tackle described under the head of Pike fishing, or with the spinning-fish and swivel-traces recommended for taking the Salmon. Almost any small fish will answer for the bait, but the New York shiner, the real smelt, or the atherine—alias sand smelt or spearling—especially the latter, will the most readily allure him. This method of fishing, second only to the use of the fly, is the most exciting, as it requires finer tackle, and consequently calls forth far more skill, than the ordinary modes of fishing for him at the bottom.

For boat fishing, a strong ash or hickory, and lance-wood, rod, with patent guides and the new agate funnel-top, which can be procured at Conroy's, and is one of the most perfect improvements of the day, with a Salmon-reel and two hundred yards of silk or grass line, will be found the best; of course, for Salmon fishing, the hair and silk line takes the precedence of all others. A rod of twelve or fourteen feet will suffice from a boat, but for bank or bridge fishing one of about eighteen feet is preferred by the best fishers.

Comparatively few persons troll for Bass as described above; for, in fact, the great majority, even of our good fishermen, are in some sort pot-anglers, and prefer taking monstrous giants of the water with coarse tackle, to the far greater excitement of skilfully and delicately conquering a moderate-sized fish with the finest tackle. The Striped Bass, it is said, is known to attain the weight of a hundred pounds; but such giants are rare, though up to forty or fifty pounds they are no rarities. The largest fish are taken in deep, rapid tide-ways, such as Hellgate or the Haerlem River, by trolling from the stern of a row-boat with a strong hand-line and a large hook baited with that hideous piscine reptile, or insect rather, the real squid, or with the artificial squid of tin or pewter. A good deal of skill is required for this mode of fishing, but yet more strength than skill, and it is a very wearisome pursuit.

Still more fatiguing is the exercise of squidding for them with the artificial bait in the ocean surfs of the outer beaches, in which the toil of throwing out and dragging in the squid becomes a real labour.

Neither of these methods, any more than taking them on setlines baited with spearling or tom-cod, as is very successfully practised in the Hudson, do I regard as legitimate or honest fishing; and they are resorted to rather by the professional fisherman than by the amateur for sport.

Nor can I say that I look with much sympathy on those who fish for them as is the usual practice at Macomb's Dam, King-'s Bridge, or Belleville Bridge on the Passaic, and similar places, with floats and sinkers and the bottom baits; though I confess that the size and vigour of the fish, when hooked, render this the finest of all the kinds of bait-fishing.

The rule is, to fish as near the bottom as possible, with a sinker light enough to move with the tide. The hook should be large, and I believe the Kirby form is generally preferred to the Limerick. Some anglers recommend the use of double, others of single gut; and some fish with, others without the float; both plans have their own advantages, and probably there is little difference in reality between the two.

In rivers frequented by Shad, the Shad-roe, either fresh, or preserved and potted, as described above in reference to Salmon, is the most killing bait that can be used in the Spring-time, and is especially the favourite bait of the Passaic anglers at the Belleville Bridge and the reefs near Acquackanonck. I have no doubt of its success in the Upper Delaware so high as Milford, where the Bass, there called Bock Fish, is taken of rare excellence. In tide-ways it is obviously useless, since the Shad never spawn in such places, and as animals in a state of nature feed naturally, the Bass never looks for, nor will take, such a bait, except in spots where it abounds naturally.

The Bass may be fished for with success from early in April, sometimes even in March, until late in October and September. On his first appearance, and up to the latter part of June, the shrimp is the best bait; and it should be used with a float, suspended at ten or eleven inches distant from the bottom. From June, thoughout the summer, the shedder crab attracts the Striped Bass rather than any other bait. A sliding sinker should be used in this instance, which rests on the ground, and allows the crab to move on the bottom. No float is required for this method.

So soon as the season is so far advanced that the shedder has recovered his scaly panoply, which sets his enemies' assaults at defiance, the shrimp again comes into play, and, with the various kinds of small salt-water fishes, constitutes the best river baits.

For boat fishing in the bay, with sinkers—as for the Weak Fish, King Fish, and others, among which the Striped Bass is taken, the soft clam is the favourite appliance; and for this kind of sport, full and neap tides, and a wind off shore, are the best periods.

In killing the Bass, after he is hooked, great skill, great perseverance, and incessant vigilance are necessary. It is a sine qud non to keep him up, frustrating his efforts to rush to the bottom, and to hold him ever in hand, with a taut line, ceding nothing to his wildest efforts, except on absolute compulsion.

Excellent tackle is requisite, and to preserve it excellent, constant attention to it must be had, or all will be in vain. Nothing is more provoking than to lose a fine fish, well played, and perhaps all but killed, owing to some slight imperfection in the gut bottom or the arming of the hooks, which care, before coming to the water's edge, would have easily and surely prevented.

Whether the Striped Bass has ever been killed by the fatal spoon, I know not; but I cannot doubt that it would be found nearly as effective as with its congener, the splendid Black Bass of the St. Lawrence, to which I shall now proceed.

-- Dr. Todd

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