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Art Lander’s Outdoors: James Henshall forever remembered for introducing America to black bass

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

Throughout his life, James A. Henshall vigorously praised and promoted black bass but took issue with the naming of the two most important species — the largemouth and smallmouth bass.

In a trip abroad to seven countries that started in December 1886 with a 17-day voyage from Cuba to Spain, Henshall visited the Museum of Natural History in Paris, France.

There he examined well-preserved specimens of black bass sent to Paris from the U.S. in the early 19th century by French naturalists Bernard Germain de Lacépède, Charles Alexandre Lesueur and Jacques-Gerard Milbert.

Henshall would later write, “At that time not much attention was given to the fish fauna of our country by American naturalists. For this reason, the two most important and most characteristic game-fishes of America have received generic and specific scientific names wholly erroneous, inappropriate and misleading, and in no sense descriptive.”

Throughout his life and writings, Henshall used “black bass” to reference fish in the genus Micropterus.

“The term black bass is distinctive and should be used when alluding to the genus generally. The different species (being) the small-mouth black bass or the largemouth black bass.”

The spotted “Kentucky” bass, micropterus punctulatus, would not be recognized as a separate species until 1927, two years after his passing.

Prolific Journalist and Book Author

Henshall was a prolific angling journalist and book author.

In his lifetime he wrote and illustrated articles in the sporting journals of the day, and wrote a number of other books including Bass, Pike, Perch and Other Game Fishes of America,1903.

Part of the American Sportsman’s Library, this series of 16 uniformly-bound volumes on sporting subjects was published by the Macmillan Company between 1902 and 1905.

Caspar Whitney, the owner/editor of Outing Magazine and a well-known outdoorsman and sporting journalist, edited the series. Authors, including Teddy Roosevelt, writing while U.S. President were noted experts in their fields.

The book series was written by the Who’s Who of American sportsmen of the era and represented the best sporting literature of the time.

Henshall also wrote numerous papers on ichthyology and fish culture published in scientific journals.

Awards and Commendations

His career as a naturalist, environmental advocate, and fishery scientist spanned decades, and during his lifetime, Henshall received numerous awards and commendations.

From 1888 to 1892 he was secretary, then president of the Ohio Fish Commission, and was secretary of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History.

He was president of the American Fisheries Society 1891-92, and president of the Montana Society of Natural History.

Henshall served as pollution editor for Outdoor America, the magazine of the Izaak Walton League, and for several years was an honorary president.

He received a silver medal from the French Government for his scientific research and writings at the Paris Exposition in 1900. At the 1904 St. Louis Exposition he received a gold medal for his literary works on fishing and fish culture.

Kentucky Reel Collector and Historian

Henshall was the first known collector of the Kentucky reel, America’s first multiplying baitcasting reel made in Paris, Frankfort, Lexington, Louisville and other Kentucky cities beginning in the early 19th century.

The Kentucky Reel (Photo by Gene Burch)

Kentucky reels were handmade, produced before the introduction of interchangeable parts, so each reel was a unique creation. The first Kentucky reel was made by silversmith George W. Snyder around 1810. Many other artisans followed, making handcrafted reels until 1948.

The first Kentucky multiplying reels were made from brass, a yellow-colored alloy of copper and zinc.

Later, reels were made from the harder German silver, sometimes referred to as nickel silver, a silver-colored alloy of copper, nickel and zinc.

By special order, some reels were made of Sterling silver or coin silver.

Henshall promoted the Kentucky reel at several regional, national, and international venues.

At the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Henshall, who was at that time Assistant Chief of the Department of Fisheries, was in charge of the Angling Pavilion, which “contained the largest and most varied collection of fishing tackle and angling accessories ever (assembled), and not likely to be surpassed or equaled for many years to come.”

The tackle exhibit included Henshall’s collection of Kentucky reels, supplemented with borrowed reels made by the Snyders, the Meeks, the Milams, Hardman, Sage, and others.

The ultimate fate of his collection remains an intriguing source of speculation by modern collectors.

New Career as Fish Culturist

In his early 60s, he began a new career in fish culture, working with the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries from 1896 until his retirement in 1917.

A federal agency created in 1871 to investigate, promote, and preserve fisheries in the U.S., it was reorganized in 1903 as the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. In 1940 the agency became part of the newly-created U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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.

During 20 years Henshall supervised fish hatcheries in Montana and Mississippi.

His first assignment was at a new station in Bozeman, Montana. He reported for duty on January 11, 1897.

The facilities included an eight-room cottage for the superintendent, ice house, barn, outbuilding, four stock ponds and eight rearing ponds for yearling fish. The water supply for the hatchery was two springs.

The station was located on Bridger Creek, in the Gallatin Valley, about three miles from Bozeman.

In 1899 Henshall reported, “during the past year steelhead and eastern brook trout have been taken in Bridger Creek, which runs through the station grounds. The natural trout stream is 20 miles long, with an average width of 30 feet.”

By 1904 the hatchery had a 500,000 egg capacity.

Eggs were hatched, and the fry and fingerlings of six fish species were raised up for stocking. This included brook trout, rainbow trout, steelhead trout, lake trout, grayling and black-spotted trout, the westslope cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi), a subspecies of the cutthroat trout.

Henshall is credited with being the first person to successfully propagate the Montana grayling, a fish in the salmon family that originally existed only in tributaries to the Missouri River, above Great Falls.

It was first noticed by Lewis and Clark during their Corps of Discovery expedition to the Pacific Coast, “alluding to it as a new kind of white or silvery trout.”

Recognized today as the Montana Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus montanus), it is considered a disjunct population segment (subspecies) of the more widespread Arctic grayling.

Henshall detailed the difficulties of propagation in his Culture of the Montana Grayling, Bureau of Fisheries Document No. 628. published in 1907, by the U. S. Dept. of Commerce and Labor, in Washington, D.C.

At the Bozeman Station Henshall supervised the rearing of Montana grayling between 1898 and 1907. The most productive year was 1902, when 1,130,333 fry and fingerlings, and 18,000 adults and yearlings were distributed.

In October 1909, after 12 years in Montana, Henshall was transferred to the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries hatchery in Tupelo, Mississippi, an underperforming hatchery due to poor water supply.

Bass propagation increased dramatically under’s Henshall’s guidance, from 20,000 a year to several hundred thousand a year, after an electric pumping plant was installed, and the wells that furnish the hatchery’s water supply were deepened and enlarged.

Henshall was a valuable addition to the Mississippi hatchery because of his experience with raising black bass, and the timing was good.

In the opening summary of the 1907 U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, Report of the Commissioner of Fisheries, Commissioner George M. Bowers had written “the demand for large-mouth and small-mouth bass continues to exceed supply. There is a great need for additional culture stations, especially in the southern states.”

The largemouth bass raised at the Tupelo hatchery “were supplied to applicants in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky, and one season a large consignment was shipped to Cuba,” wrote Henshall.

Final Years in Cincinnati

He retired from the Bureau of Fisheries on March 31, 1917, because of failing eyesight, caused by choroiditis, a permanent condition in which a black spot appeared at the center of vision, in both eyes.

James A. Henshall’s gravesite (Photo provided)

Henshall died on April 4, 1925, at his residence at 813 Dayton Street, in Cincinnati, at the age of 89.

He was interred at Spring Grove Cemetery, a 733-acre nonprofit garden cemetery and arboretum located at 4521 Spring Grove Avenue, in Cincinnati.

It is the second-largest cemetery in the United States. The cemetery dates from 1844 and is a U.S. National Historic Landmark.

James A. Henshall will forever be remembered for introducing America to black bass and bringing international notoriety to the Kentucky reel.

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