And, at least as far as fly fishing goes, the most important of the Roosevelts.
[by Will Ryan]
A BESPECTACLED, BEARDED MAN about town, Robert Barnwell Roosevelt wrote one of the earliest and most influential books on fishing in America. He prided himself on such firsts, on leading the charge, as befitting his motto, “Up guards and at ‘em!”
He embodied the ebullience and progressive attitude that would one day define the family name. Prior to the rise of his nephew, Theodore, he was the Roosevelt everyone knew—an accomplished naturalist, a student of science and law, congressman, ambassador, novelist, speaker, satirist, and reformer. In angling stature, he stood second only to Thaddeus Norris, the father of American fly fishing. Considering his political efforts, Roosevelt did more than any single individual of his day to make sure future generations had fish to catch.
As early as 1862, his stirring prose and ardent voice promoted fly fishing as sport, with a rich connection to the natural world through the practice of fly tying, with intoxicating thrills, drama, and honor. He charged practitioners with a stewardship for rivers and fish. More than 150 years later, those cornerstones remain in place.
To be fair, Roosevelt was sometimes distracted on the way to such high-mindedness. Here is an example from a chapter on striper fishing from Superior Fishing; or, the Striped Bass, Trout and Black Bass of the Northern States (1865).
“It is a long, weary, and dusty ride by the way of the New Haven and Shore Line Railroads to Kingston; but if, at the end of the journey, a pretty little widow, with hazel eyes, is found waiting to drive over to the South Pier in the stage, and you are the only other passenger, you will probably consider yourself repaid for all annoyances.”
Set aside the indelicacy of describing widows in this fashion during the Civil War. Even then, the rakish voiceover feels more lounge lizard from the 1970s than gentleman from the 1860s, when authors did backflips to infuse fishing with a solemnity of purpose and spiritual purity. But Roosevelt didn’t much care what others thought; if anything, the sanctimony only pushed him farther outside the box.
Growing up Roosevelt
Born on August 7, 1829, the fourth of five boys, Robert Barnwell Roosevelt grew up in a world of privilege. His father, Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt was one of the wealthiest men in New York, an investing shark who gobbled up real estate during the Panic of 1837 and doubled his money to $500,000 in three years. He loved rough housing with his sons and summering with his family, often on the Jersey shore.
With five boys, the family conversations became domestic theatre. The oldest son, Silas Weir, remembered that visitors couldn’t understand half of what was said between family members, given “the sudden fits we take of irony, cordiality, conceit, affection, nonsense and sense, which succeed each other without apparent connection…” Such a discourse no doubt nurtured Robert’s verbal facility, which he integrated into a younger child’s performative ease.
His mother, meanwhile, insisted that the family wealth meant that the boys had to serve others, not simply indulge themselves. Like any Roosevelt male, Robert felt compelled to please his mother. She received a daily visit from him, and each of her four other sons, until her death.
The above elements—the privilege, confidence, and sense of civic responsibility—all contributed to Robert’s early efforts to promote the sporting life and to preserve fish and fisheries. As a young man, he joined the New York Sportsmen’s Club led by William Henry Herbert (Frank Forester), an erratic, passionate man, but possessed of a conservation ethic. One can imagine the two in competition with one another. As Roosevelt remembered, Forester was “without equal in sporting matters,” but a “disagreeable man with his rude English manners.”
Increasingly despondent, Herbert killed himself in 1858, and Roosevelt accepted the mantle of leadership in conservation and, in Roosevelt fashion, threw himself into the cause. He published his first book, Game Fish of the Northern States of America, and the British Provinces in 1862. He followed that with Superior Fishing; or, the Striped Bass, Trout and Black Bass of the Northern States in 1865. He wrote numerous other books and articles on fish and wildlife. Roosevelt was “seized by the sporting mania,” as he put it.
The fly-fishing sections of his books included considerable British material, but they also laid out a good deal that was American—about aquatic insects and fly-tying, about how to fly fish and where to go. While he considered Long Island streams his early home waters, Roosevelt’s wealth allowed him considerable travel and he fished wherever a man could in the mid-19th century.