Can you identify this fish?

You’d think that anybody with the time to read a book published n 1881 book about bass and bass fishing couldn’t have many options in life. Even if that book was written by a man remembered as “Apostle of the Black Bass,” a certain Dr. James A. Henshall.

Dr. Henshall: apostle of the smallmouth bass.

My first mistake was an old one—judging the book by its cover. Its green imitation leather binding looks like it belongs in the most remote and dusty corner of a library’s stacks. The leaping fish on its cover looks like it was drawn from the work of an amateur taxidermist. Then there’s the title: “Book of the Black Bass.” Clearly no marketing expert, Henshall probably came up it himself.

I turned to the frontispiece engraving and met a fine pair of handlebar moustaches and behind them, the author. He didn’t return my gaze, but instead looked resolutely into the distance. Clearly he is a man of probity, determination, and likely unshakable religious faith.

But can he write?

Sly jokes and admonitions. It turns out he can indeed. Henshall’s content-rich prose could only be the work of someone who has lived its subject to its fullest. He writes with a passion that others would reserve for fine Beaujolais or the organ works of J.S. Bach. And he’s witty besides, with a sense of humor that runs just under the surface of each page, occasionally to bubble up in sly jokes and tongue-in-cheek asides.

In one chapter, Henshall gives perhaps the best account of how the smallmouth bass was introduced into the Potomac. It was an event that would prove momentous for the river’s future as well as ironic in light of today’s debate about non-native and invasive species. His descriptions of fishing gear of yore remind me of how much we take our precision reels, graphite rods, and polyolefin lines for granted. I smile with pity when I read, “The line [back then generally silk or linen] should be thoroughly dried, always [his emphasis], after use.”

A companion drawing shows
how to cast to the left.

And then his final words of advice, so politically incorrect in this time of catch-and-release fishing: “Always kill your fish as soon as taken from the water,” he writes. “By so doing, your angling days will be happy, and your sleep undisturbed.”

Small fin indeed! Most of all, I was delighted by Henshall’s wry account of the scientific misadventures that eventually gave the smallmouth bass its scientific name. More than any ordinary farce, it turns out it was a Gallic farce.

The name game began about 1801 when French naturalist Bernard Germain de Lacépède received a smallmouth specimen for study. He noted its diminutive dorsal fin, and called the genus Micropterus, which means “small fin.”

What Lacépède didn’t know was that several of the rays of this particular specimen’s fin had been bitten off when the fish was young. Comments Henshall: “Its scientific birth was, like Macduff’s, untimely; it was, unhappily, born a monstrosity.” And he followed with the barb: “Its sponsors were, most unfortunately, foreign naturalists.”

In his choice of a species name, Lacépède played it safe by honoring his friend Déodat de Dolomieu, a distinguished geologist. The full name would be Micropterus dolomieu.

One fish, 57 names. Matter settled? Not by any means. Henshall tells in page after mind-numbing page the deliberations and disputes of scientists―mostly French―who in the end delivered up some 57 pronouncements on the subject and offered up a minor lexicon of Latin names for this one fish.

Henshall was clearly amused by all of this, which he describes as Gallic people “indulging their national love of novelty.”

A citadel of scientific taxonomy.

He tells, for example, how the “versatile and eccentric Professor Rafinesque appeared upon the scene” and gave different scientific names to bass of different sizes. Then a M. Le Sueur, “with a lofty scorn for Rafinesque,” gave these same different-size fish a wholly new suite of names, again failing to realize they were all the same species.

Even Georges Curvier, the famous French naturalist, became the target for one of Henshall’s barbs. For some reason Curvier lumped the smallmouth bass together with the largemouth bass as the same species, and gave them both the genus Grystes, Latin for “howler.” Remarks Henshall: “I have never met an angler who had heard a Black Bass ‘“growl.’”

This goes on for many pages, some of them with interjections of text in French in the style of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which was written around the same time. In the end, Henshall votes for Lacépède’s original name, flawed though it was. “Priority, like charity,” he wrote, “covers a multitude of sins.”

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