Four Things To Know About Potomac River Smallmouth Bass
Wisdom and wry humor from the “apostle of the black bass,”circa 1881
Back at about the time Edison started selling light bulbs and Tchaikovsky premiered his 1812 Overture, Dr. James A. Henshall of Cincinnati, Ohio, wrote The Book of the Black Bass.
These are the same smallmouth bass that I know so well from the Potomac River, having caught hundreds of them. I consider myself to be quite the expert.
Then I met Dr. Henshall. There he was in the engraved frontispiece of my facsimile edition, sporting handlebar moustaches and gazing steadily into the distance. As I turned the pages, I quickly discovered why he is still remembered as the “apostle of the black bass.”
Here are four things I leaned from Dr. Henshall that every bass fisherman should know.
Question one: How did the smallmouth bass get its name?
The purpose of Latin names is to cut through the confusion of multiple common names for the same species. Leave it to scientists to bring order out of chaos! Not so, according to Dr. Henshall’s amusing account.
For the smallmouth, the name game began about 1801 when French naturalist Bernard Germain de Lacépède received a fish specimen for study. He noted its diminutive dorsal fin, and called the genus Micropterus, which means “small fin.”
But what Lacépède didn’t know was that several of the rays of this particular specimen’s fin had been bitten off when the fish was young. Comments Henshall: “It’s scientific birth was, like Macduff’s, untimely; it was, unhappily, born a monstrosity.” And the final barb: “Its sponsors were, most unfortunately, foreign naturalists.”
In his choice of a species name, Lacépède played it safe by honoring his friend Déodat de Dolomieu, a distinguished geologist. The full name would be Micropterus dolomieu.
Matter settled? Not by any means. Henshall tells in page after mind-numbing detail the deliberations and disputes of scientists―mostly French―who in the end made some 57 pronouncements on the subject and offered up a minor lexicon of Latin names for this one fish.
Henshall was clearly amused by all of this, which he describes as Gallic people “indulging their national love of novelty.”
He tells, for example, how the “versatile and eccentric Professor Rafinesque appeared upon the scene” and gave different names to bass of different sizes. Then a M. Le Sueur, “with a lofty scorn for Rafinesque,” gave these same different size fish a wholly new suite of names, again failing to realize they were all the same species.
Even Georges Curvier, great French naturalist, added to the confusion. He lumped the smallmouth bass together with the largemouth bass, and gave them both the genus Grystes, which means “howler.” Remarks Henshall: “I have never met an angler who had heard a Black Bass ‘“growl.’”
This goes on for many pages, some of them in French in the style of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, written only a decade earlier. In the end, Henshall votes for Lacépède’s original name, flawed though it was. “Priority, like charity,” he wrote, “covers a multitude of sins.”
Question two: Where did the Potomac’s smallmouth bass come from?
Many people assume that this fish that personifies the Potomac must be native to our waters. Not so.
Henshall writes that a Gen. William Shriver, of Wheeling, Virginia (the West would come later), in 1854 caught some 20 smallmouth bass in nearby Wheeling Creek, a tributary to the Ohio River. He put them in a live box in the water tank of a B&O Railroad locomotive. On reaching Cumberland, he freed them in the boat basin of the C&O Canal, and from there the rest is history.
Question three: How do you catch a smallmouth?
Henshall gives us a full rundown of baits, lines, lures that sound like the contents of a very old tackle box in the attic of a very old house.
Then, he gives us some advice that never goes out of date. If you cast your fly into an overhead tree, or lose your fish, or “slip into a hole up to your armpits,” keep your temper, he says. “Above all things, do n’t swear, for he that swears will catch no fish.”
Question 4: What to do with the fish?
For us Potomac River sophisticates, that’s easy: You snap a photo and throw the fish back. Good conservation (the fish) and good breeding (the fisherman) require an allegiance to the modern mantra of “catch and release.”
But for Native Americans long ago, you ate what you caught. In Germany today, if you return a fish to the water, you are breaking the animal protection law that safeguards fish from injuries for no good reason (sport fishing) instead of for a good reason (eating it).
And so, our bass apostle offers these final words: “Always kill your fish as soon as taken from the water,” he writes. “By so doing, your angling days will be happy, and your sleep undisturbed.”