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Art Lander’s Outdoors: James Alexander Henshall is known as the father of bass fishing in America


Editor’s note: This is the first of three articles on the life and work of the father of bass fishing in America.

James Alexander Henshall (1836-1925) has been called an apostle of the black bass and the father of bass fishing in America.

His Book of the Black Bass, published in 1881, is still thought of today by many bass angling historians as the bible of the sport.

James A. Henshall (Image from Wikipedia Commons)

In this classic work Henshall detailed the life history of the black bass, how early anglers fished with live minnows in the streams of Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region and described early bass fishing tackle, including the origin and evolution of the Kentucky reel, America’s first multiplying baitcasting reel.

Henshall led a remarkable, well-rounded life, and some of his most historically important years were spent in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky.

He was a highly educated, world traveler, refined gentlemen with a strong command of the written language, a deep love of his country and its natural resources, and a lifelong sportsman.

He lived in big cities, small towns and rural areas in eight states during his 89 years — Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky, New York, Wisconsin, Florida, Montana and Mississippi.

Henshall was a physician, naturalist, book author, angling journalist, historian of the Kentucky reel, conservationist, renowned ichthyologist and fish culturist.

He enjoyed music, appreciated fine art, and was at home in the company of the rich and famous, as well as the most humble farm laborer and craftsman.

His autobiography was originally published in 27 installments in Forest and Stream, between May 1919, and July 1921.

In 2008 Todd Larsen, founder of The Whitefish Press, and Clyde E. Drury, collaborated to publish in book form Henshall’s autobiography, 83 years after his passing. A 10th anniversary 2nd edition was released in 2018.

Much of what is known about Henshall’s life and work is found in this compelling book.

Personal Information

Henshall was born under the astrological sign of Pisces in a leap year, on February 29, 1836, in Baltimore, Maryland.

An illustration of a Largemouth Bass from Henshall’s Book of the Black Bass (Image from Wikipedia Commons)

His parents, the Rev. James Gershom Henshall and Clarissa Holt Henshall were both born in England.

He was married to Hester Stansbury Ferguson (1849-1926), a noted botanist and wildflower artist.

She was a granddaughter of Major James Ferguson, one of the engineers who built Ft. Washington and was an early settler, when the frontier outpost became the city of Cincinnati.

Major Ferguson was an army officer who served under General “Mad” Anthony Wayne during the Northwest Indian War, which culminated in the defeat of the Shawnee, Miami and several other tribes at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, on August 20, 1794, at present-day Maumee, Ohio.

A Life in the Outdoors

Henshall acquired a love of the outdoors early in life.

As a seven-year-old, in suburban Baltimore, his first fishing experiences were was on a small stream where he caught sunfish and chubs on artificial flies, tied on a short piece of line to a willow switch.

James A. Henshall triple portrait telling fish story 1897. (Image from Wikipedia Commons)

During his lifetime, Henshall fished across the country for a wide variety of saltwater and freshwater species. He was an accomplished sailor, even in rough water “without feeling the least tendency towards seasickness.”

An avid hunter, Henshall shot quail in Ohio and hunted squirrels during the spring, what we know today as mulberry season. While living in Wisconsin, he hunted grouse, ducks, woodcock, and Wilson’s snipe. He took a trip to hunt white-tailed deer along the shores of Lake Superior, and shot prairie chickens in Minnesota, hunting over pointers.

In his youth, he acquired through trade, “an exceptionally fine English gun, a single-barreled muzzleloader with a percussion lock, with a barrel about 20-gauge and thirty-four inches in length.” A hunting and fishing companion noted that the barrel was “long enough to knock squirrels from treetops without the waste of ammunition.”

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Henshall started out fly fishing and was taught how to tie flies by an English mentor, his family’s gardener and hostler (caretaker of the horses) while living in Maryland.

He made his first fishing rods from local red cedar.

The springy rods were eight and 10 feet in length, weighed just a few ounces each, and were two-piece, joined by a simple splice since ferrules were not readily available at that time.

On a trip to Pennsylvania to visit a relative he was given 100-feet of plaited horsehair line, a light, single-action click reel, and a local watchmaker put guide rings and reel bands on his rods.

When Henshall’s fishing outfit was finalized, he went on his first fishing trip for brook trout.

Henshall wrote of the outing: “being entirely new to me, my introduction to trout fishing was a wonderful revelation, for it was my first experience in real angling.”

After that first stream fishing adventure, wading and casting, he professed his fascination with streams and stream fishing.

“I was obsessed by the beauty and charm of the stream and its surroundings, so utterly different to my past experiences in still-fishing from bank and boat. The stream itself singing and sparkling in the bright sunshine, the dancing riffles and whirling eddies. The swaying and rustling of the treetops all gave an added zest to the pleasure of angling.”

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