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Art Lander’s Outdoors: James Henshall moves to Cincinnati where Black Bass odyssey began

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

In 1852, after James A. Henshall finished high school, his family moved to Cincinnati, where his medical career and black bass odyssey began.

Henshall entered medical school in 1855, and received a degree of Medicinae Doctor in May 1859. He practiced medicine for decades, into the 1890s.

On the 4th of July 1855, Henshall and a companion took a 30-mile train ride from Cincinnati, to the northeast, to Morrow, Ohio, to fish the Little Miami River.

Henshall’s Book of the Black Bass (Photo by Art Lander)

It was Henshall’s introduction to black bass.

Their gear included a small minnow bucket, six-foot seine, and rubber boots.

His companion’s bass tackle was a “long pliable natural cane reed, single-action reel, a sea-grass line of small caliber, and a cork float. The hooks, as I now remember them were Kirby-bend Limerick about size number three.”

After they captured bait, Henshall sat back and watched his friend catch the first bass, a 1 1/2-pound smallmouth.

Later in the trip, Henshall hooked his first black bass. The battle that ensued was one that he said he would never forget, “so vividly was it impressed on my senses.”

The bass lunged, jumped twice in succession, then headed away, giving a series of short, savage jerks on the line, crossing, then recrossing the current.

Henshall wrote: “This was a new experience for me…this fish was capable of no end of original and effective fighting maneuvers that kept me guessing…his frantic leaps and violent shaking and whirling of his strong body in mid-air, with wide-open mouth and the rotatory play of his powerful tail were characteristic, unique and unequaled.”

Civil War

War clouds were gathering in America.

Soon after the shooting started in the Civil War, Henshall closed his office in Cincinnati and “moved to God’s country as the Blue Grass section of Kentucky is popularly known, and not without reason.”

At the urging of a teacher from medical school, he opened a practice in Cynthiana.

The county seat of Harrison County, located on the South Fork of the Licking River, Cynthiana was an early milling center, where whiskey distilling had become a thriving industry.

The town was close to some excellent bass fishing too.

“There I met and fished with many brothers of the angle who had made the art of black bass fishing famous,” wrote Henshall.

“These anglers were among the best, brightest, most intelligent and cultivated men of that period…of several professions or were the lordly proprietors of vast domains of perennial green…the well-known Kentucky family names of Clay, Bedford, Hume, Brown, Morris, Bibb, Bacon, Holman, McCurdy, Mills, Ennis, Harvey, Blair, and Crittenden.”

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.

“They used the Frankfort reel and short, supple, cane rods…most were bait fishers.”

As time permitted, Henshall fished streams in the Licking and Kentucky River basins, including “historic” Elkhorn Creek, and occasionally the Rockcastle River, a tributary to the Cumberland River, in southeastern Kentucky.

“It was my good fortune and great pleasure to enjoy some of the finest black bass fishing to be found in all this broad land of ours,” Henshall wrote.

But the realities of war interrupted his idyllic life as a country doctor in Cynthiana.

On July 17, 1862, Confederate General John Hunt Morgan’s brigade of 800 cavalrymen attacked and defeated, 350 Union soldiers and Home Guards. Morgan had about 40 casualties and the Union about 90.

In June 1864, Morgan’s mounted forces again attacked, but this time they were turned back, by a Union counterattack.

Henshall, who had declared his neutrality in the struggle, treated wounded soldiers of both the Confederate and Union armies in Cynthiana during the Civil War.

Big City and Small Town

In the winter of 1865-1866 he relocated to New York City, to join a friend’s surgical practice, writing that in his free time he “took up the study of scientific and life history of fishes as a rest and recreation from my professional duties.”

He moved on to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1867, tiring of city life, and to be close to some of the best fishing waters in the U.S.

He built a Tudor-Gothic style home on the outskirts of Oconomowoc, a small town west of Milwaukee, with a grand view of Lake Fowler, and Lac LaBelle in the distance.

Between 1868 and 1876 he studied the breeding, spawning and feeding habits of black bass, by observing adult bass in area lakes.

He stocked two spring-fed ponds on his property with adult bass, and began experiments in the propagation of smallmouth and largemouth bass, and the rearing of fingerlings, writing “the only way to cultivate the black bass in domestication is by pond culture, that is, to allow the fish to propagate naturally and at the right moment to separate the young from the adult fish.”

While in Oconomowoc, Henshall began preparation on the manuscript for Book of the Black Bass.

Return to Cynthiana

After 10 years in Wisconsin, Henshall returned to Cynthiana, to continue his interest in bass fishing, and to complete the research and writing on the manuscript. When it was finished, he left for Cincinnati to oversee proofreading and publication.

His classic Book of the Black Bass, a work that he seemed destined to write since that fateful day 25 years earlier when he caught his first black bass from the Little Miami River, was published in the summer of 1881 by Robert Clarke & Co.

Historic Marker on US 27, south of Cynthiana, celebrates the life and work of James A. Henshall (Photo by Art Lander)

The purpose of the book was his desire “to give the Black Bass its proper place among game fishes, and to create among anglers, and the public generally, an interest in a fish that has never been so fully appreciated as its merits deserve.”

With its release, Henshall in effect became a mentor for generations of bass anglers that followed.

In its preface, he wrote that his book is “of an entirely practical nature, written more with a view to instruct, than to amuse or entertain the reader. Nor is it to be regarded… as a book of purely scientific nature…for (it is) written as an angler, rather than a naturalist.”

Articles by Henshall previously published in Forest and Stream, the Chicago Field, and other outdoor journals of the day, and research from rare books in the library of the Smithsonian Institution, were the basis of the manuscript.

In 26 chapters, the three-part book detailed the terminology, morphology, and physiology of black bass, the tools, tackle and implements of bass fishing, and angling with bait and fly.

A supplement to the book, More About Black Bass, followed in 1889, and in 1904, an updated version of Book of the Black Bass was released. A final edition was finished in 1923, when Henshall was 87 years old.

The most famous quote from Book of the Black Bass, “inch for inch and pound for pound the gamest fish that swims” has been widely misinterpreted through the decades by outdoor writers to be about the smallmouth bass.

When in fact, Henshall believed that you could not tell the difference in the amount of fight between a largemouth and smallmouth bass of the same weight, from the same body of water.

In 1970, the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.) reproduced Book of the Black Bass, selling about 400,000 copies.

Bob Cobb, editor of Bassmaster Magazine, writing in the reprint’s forward, called Henshall a pioneer, who looked into the future when he penned, “The Black Bass is wholly unknown in the Old World, except where recently introduced, and exists, naturally, only in America. No doubt the Black Bass is the appointed successor to the Lordly Trout. He will eventually become the leading game fish of America is my oft-expressed opinion and firm belief.”

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