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Gearing Up

Fishing Scene from "Libeled Lady" (1936): William Powell plays a city slicker literally in over his head on a trout stream--an old premise that remains a durable one

Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, an avid sportsman in his own right, offered this tribute to his friend Seth Green in 1867, just as the fish culturist was becoming known to anglers: “The entire manner of Mr. Green is that of a thorough workman. He is no Miss Nancy sportsman, rigged out in showy clothes with costly tackle, but he appears to have an object and to mean to reach it. He has the air of a man that a woodcock would not care to meet alone in a thick swamp.” Praised for his “bodily vigor” and compared to Daniel Boone for his hunting prowess, Roosevelt is perhaps most mesmerized by those times when Green “is wielding the light but powerful fly rod that he loves and understands so well...he lifts the long line, with a powerful yet elegant motion, and swinging it far behind him, casts it forward with the perfection of easy force” (11-12). It is the perfect union of man and his tools, a practical simplicity raised to an art.

The sport of angling has had a complex relationship with its gear. Initially a pastime for the wealthy, by the 1860s it was becoming democratized (paradoxically) through industrialization: working class men now could ride a train to rural streams, and mass-produced tackle became more affordable. Roosevelt and Green reveal a certain ambivalence in their 1879 book Fish Hatching and Fish Catching, where they advise anglers to use “the finest tackle that can be attained and that is otherwise suitable.” It isn’t just poorly made equipment that they criticize, the “coarse tackle” flooding markets, but anglers’ use of larger-gauge line than is necessary and—by extension—the confusion of fishing gear with genuine knowledge (181-182).

Green’s aim of achieving efficiency rather than showmanship also was reflected in his use of flies. Shortly after his death, The American Angler marveled that he “knew the most tempting fly to be used in any weather or season, and many a veteran fly caster has been astonished at Mr. Green’s success in pools where it was seemingly impossible to raise anything” (121). Green explained how he had “used hundreds of different kinds of flies, and have kept sifting them out until they have got down to four kinds”—among them one branded with his name, the “Seth Green” (Austin). Sorting out the really useful tools from all of the gadgets was a value that extended across his angling, fish hatchery designs, and his advice to fishermen. But it never was easy.

Sources Consulted

--Austin, Eric. "The Seth Green."

--"Death of Seth Green." American Angler 8.14 (Aug. 1888): 121.

--Roosevelt, Robert Barnwell. "A Memoir of Seth Green.” Recreation: A Monthly Exponent of the Higher Literature of Manly Sport 1.2 (June 1888): 11-12.

--Roosevelt, Robert Barnwell, and Seth Green. Fish Hatching and Fish Catching. Rochester, NY: Union & Advertisor, 1879.