Fishing with Lewis & Clark

It had all the makings of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure fishing vacation.  The advertising bill might have read:

The Louisiana Purchase Territory.  Fish uncharted, unexplored rivers for unknown species with former secretary to President Jefferson.  Experience authentic aboriginal cultures up close and personal.  Eat fresh game each meal.  Enjoy occasional dram of whiskey.

As fate would have it, the Corps of Discovery’s route – especially the regions of western Montana traversed in the summer of 1805 – comprise what are now considered Meccas of western trout fishing.  There are outfitters that will gladly guide you and a friend for a week on one of Montana’s fabled trout streams – the Beaverhead, the Big Hole, the Bitterroot, for example – for just under $5,000 (lodging, food and beverages included; fishing licenses, flies and gratuities extra).  That’s roughly twice the sum allocated by Congress in 1803 to fund the Corps of Discovery’s entire expedition…hooks and fishing line were included in the price of the Lewis and Clark trip.

Despite the more pressing matters of exploration, collection, and survival, the Journals of Lewis and Clark indicate that some member of the Corp did on occasion find time to fish, and not merely for sustenance:

Having nothing further to do, I amused myself in fishing and caught a few small fish; they were of the species of white chub mentioned below the falls, tho’ they are small and few in number.

Wednesday, July 10, 1805 – Lewis

Journal entries show that Lewis found great satisfaction in fishing – both in his own piscatorial efforts and those of Private Silas Goodrich, who was considered the expedition’s most skilled angler.  Angling was an escape.  The simple focus upon the drift of his bait in the river and the fast and immediate connection with a primitive life force that comes with a hook-up must have provided a welcome respite from the heavy responsibilities of leadership.  (Many modern business and government leaders find solace in fly fishing for many of the same reasons.) The exploratory nature of angling – never knowing exactly what might take your bait – must have appealed to Lewis’s character as well.

While late 18th and early 19th century Americans lacked modern conveniences like pizza delivery service and the cash machine that afford us the leisure time we enjoy today, they still found time to pursue recreational activities, including sport fishing.  According to fly fishing historian Paul Schullery, there are records of colonialists in New York pursuing sport fishing as early as 1630.  Boston established laws to protect common rights to public fishing waters in the 1640s.

By the mid 1700s, there were a number of fishing clubs surfacing in colonial America to provide sport and fellowship for angling aficionados.  The greatest concentration of such clubs was in Pennsylvania.  In American Fly Fishing:  A History, Schullery ventures that:

Philadelphia, which has given us the most evidence of sport fishing in the Colonies, was by all historical account the primary port of entry for émigrés from Europe until near the end of the 1700s, and that these people and their cultures flourished in the lush valleys  and along the now-famous trout waters of south Pennsylvania, and that a high degree of personal freedom in PA permitted great latitude in personal recreation.

Newspapers of the period show fishing tackle listed for sale, and traveler’s journals frequently mention fishing.  While a native of Virginia, Lewis spent time in Pennsylvania in the 1790s, and it is quite possible he acquired his interest in angling during his visits.  It was from a Philadelphia fishing tackle purveyor named Lawton that Lewis purchased fishing hooks and other assorted gear in 1803; Lawton included a circular advertising his most recent tackle offering with the receipt.  That very circular is preserved today.

How Silas Goodrich, a native of Massachusetts, gained his passion for and skill at fishing is open to conjecture.  No information has been found that records his date of birth or life prior to his enlistment in the Corps in January of 1804.

Fishermen and women classify themselves into many sub-categories.  There are people who fly-fish, people who fish with lures, and people who fish with bait.  There are river anglers, lake anglers, and ocean anglers, anglers who practice catch and release (i.e., return their catch mostly unharmed to the water) and those who eat their catch.  Against this pantheon of fishing habits, the men of the Corps of Discovery fall squarely in the bait-fishing, catch-eating camp:

“Goodrich, who is remarkably fond of fishing caught several douzen fish of two different species…they bite at meat or grasshoppers.”

Tuesday June 11, 1805 – Lewis

While perhaps less sporting than fly fishing, bait fishing was certainly a very practical method for the Corps.  First, it cut down on packing.  No clumsy, fragile rods, no reels, no boxes of meticulously tied flies that had to be kept dry, and certainly none of the silly clothing that often earns fly fishers the derision of their non-fly-casting peers.  Silas Goodrich and his companions had the most basic of equipment – fishing line (likely horse hair) and hooks.  Bait was plentiful and easy to come by.  When grasshoppers or leftover buffalo were not available, Goodrich kept some melt (spleen) of a deer handy, expressly for fishing.  Their technique was simple:  The angler either spotted a fish or identified a spot likely to hold a fish, baited his fish hook, unlooped some fishing line, and lobbed the baited hook upstream of the intended target, allowing the hook and bait to sink as it floated downstream.  When the angler saw a fish swallow the bait or felt a pull on the line, he pulled back, setting the hook in the fish’s jaw or gullet.  The fish was then played to the boat or shore by pulling the line hand over hand.  Visitors to fishing piers along the coast or in lakes with stocked fish will sometimes see the same “hand-lining” technique practiced today.  (If someone says that you need a $500 ensemble to catch a trout, you tell them otherwise!)

In addition to being eminently portable and replenishable, bait fishing permitted the Corps of Discovery to fish deep.  While fly fishers adore the opportunity to take trout on the surface with gently placed dry flies, fish feed much more frequently below the surface.  Goodrich’s bait rig enabled him to get down to where the fish were resting more effectively than the flies of the day.  Bait also appealed to the fish’s olfactory senses.  This could not be accomplished with lures and flies.

Until they reached the falls of the Missouri in June of 1805, the Corps of Discovery’s angling efforts yielded only species that Fish & Game Regulations generally classify as “trash fish”.  The chub described in the June 11th entry was actually the first description of a sauger (a member of the perch family).  In addition to sauger, the Corp landed numerous catfish, which they prized as food, and goldeye, a member of the mooneye family that resembles a herring.  It was near the present day town of Great Falls, Montana that trout first appeared on the Corps’ fishing radar.  On June 13, Lewis reported that

Goodrich had caught a half a douzen of very fine trout and a number of both species of the white fish.  These trout are from sixteen to twenty three inches in length, precisely resemble our mountain or speckled trout in form and the position of their fins, but the specks on these are of a deep black instead of the red or goald colour of those common in the U.’ States.  These are furnished long sharp teeth on the pallet and tongue and have generally a small dash of red on each side behind the front ventral fins; the flesh is of a pale yellowish red, or when in good order, or a rose red.

Goodrich had caught – and Lewis, with his great knack for anatomical detail had described – fine samples of the cutthroat trout, Salmo clarki.  The “mountain or speckled trout” used for comparison is the brook trout – Salvelinus fontinalis.  While the cutthroat trout was named for Clark, the men of the Corps of Discovery were not the first whites to encounter it.  In his comprehensive natural history study Trout and Salmon of North America, fisheries historian and professor emeritus of Fisheries and Conservation at Colorado State University Robert Behnke points out that Francisco de Coronado’s expedition came across the Rio Grande cutthroat in the upper Pecos River, south of Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1541.

Cutthroat were once the pre-eminent trout species of the western United States.  Among angling cognoscenti, they hold a warm spot.  They are beautiful, often sprouting intense yellow, orange and red shades.  And they are a very willing.  A valid scientific study – presumably conducted by some bored post-doctoral students – showed cutthroat the easiest trout to catch by angling methods, followed in difficulty by brook, rainbow and brown trout.  Behnke validates this study, venturing that brown trout are more difficult to catch than cutthroat by at least a factor of ten.

Progress has not been kind to the cutthroat.  Today, their distribution is a fraction of what it was in 1805, and two of the subspecies are extinct.  Extremely sensitive to changes in water quality, cutthroat have been hurt by stream degradation brought on by logging and livestock grazing.  Their great downfall, however, has been brought on by the introduction of non-native trout species.  Anglers casting a fly – or a spot of melt, for that matter – below the great falls of the Missouri will not hook a cutthroat.  They have been replaced by brown and rainbow trout.

As the Corps of Discovery pressed further into the Rockies, occasions where Lewis “amused himself in fishing” became less frequent.  Trout (and later, salmon) became increasingly significant as a food source, as the new techniques deployed by the Corps might suggest:

Late in the evening I made the men form a bush drag, and with it in about two hours they caught 528 very good fish, most of them large trout.  Among them I now for the first time saw ten or a douzen of a white species of trout.  They are of a silvery coloour except on the back and head, where they are of a bluish cast.  The scales are much larger then the speckled trout, but in their form position of their fins teeth mouth they are precisely like them.  They are not generally as large but equally well flavored.”

Lewis, Thursday August 22, 1805

When you have 27 hungry men to feed, a hook and line is a less efficient means of procuring protein.  Here, in the vicinity of the Salmon River in Idaho, the trout of “silvery coloour” may be the expedition’s first encounter with steelhead trout, though mature steelhead are generally much larger than cutthroat trout.

Pushing through the Lolo Pass and on to the Columbia Plateau, the Corps reverted to equally less sporting fishing methods.  In his entry for August 26, Clark casually mentions that “one of my men Shot a Sammon in the river about Sunset.”  Nearly all other fishing references from this point on reference “giging” (sic) or spearing.  Clark describes the Indian gigging methodology:

Their method of taking fish with a gig or bone is with a long pole, about a foot from one End is a Strong String attached to the pole, this String is a little more than a foot long and is tied to the middle of a bone from 4 to 6 inches long, one end Sharp the other with a whole to fasten on the end of the pole with a beard to the large end, the fasten this bone on one end & with the other feel for the fish and turn and Strike them So hard that the bone passes through and Catches on the opposite Side, Slips off the End of the pole and holds the Center of the bone.

Clark, August 21, 1805

From the time they reached the Columbia River on October 16 to their arrival at the Pacific coast a month later, the Corps relied increasingly on salmon for sustenance.  Some fish were gigged, but most were purchased or bartered from the many Indian peoples they encountered on the lower river.  As the rains of a late Pacific Northwest Fall enveloped the Corps, the men seem to have lost their appetite for fishing.  Scant mentions of angling appear after they passed the rapids at the Dalles.  The men also lost their appetite for salmon.  With the exception of Clark, the men showed a preference for the flesh of dogs over the dried flesh of fish.

(This essay originally appeared in Portland magazine.)

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