Written by: Peter Nardini, American Museum of Fly Fishing
In honor of Presidents Day, we are featuring some of our most important fly-fishing Presidents. Because the Presidents took longer time off, sometimes up to three months, the opportunity was there for them to enjoy a quiet day on the river where the biggest problem they ran into was deciding between a size 14 or 16 dry fly. As Herbert Hoover once said,
“Fishing seems to be one of the few avenues left to Presidents through which they may escape to their own thoughts, may live in their own imaginings, find relief from the pneumatic hammer of constant personal contacts, and refreshment of mind in rippling waters. Moreover, it is a constant reminder of the democracy of life, of humility and of human frailty. It is desirable that the President of the United States should be periodically reminded of this fundamental fact — that the forces of nature discriminate for no man.”
George H.W. Bush
The elder Bush was a serious fisherman. He was a local fixture in Maine, fishing for striped bass and blues off of his compound in Kennebunkport while tourists snapped photos of him from the road. He caught a 135-pound tarpon in the Florida Keys with guide George Wood. While he attempted to accomplish “the pinnacle of fishing” by landing a tarpon on the fly, he resorted to a live crab to fool the 135-pounder. The 41st President of the United States also established 56 wildlife refuges during his term and has been honored with the Bass Pro Shops Lifetime Conservation Achievement Award and the Keep America Fishing award for his conservation efforts. He has long been a friend of fishermen dating back to the 1980’s when, as Vice President, he played a key role in passing amendments to the Sportfish Restoration Act.
Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, are both avid fly anglers, to say the least, traveling as far as Mongolia to pursue taimen in 2013. During his presidency, he struck up many friendships with equally presidential figures in the fly-fishing world, including Lee Wulff, Vince Marinaro, Dave Whitlock, and Ed Shenck. Camp David played a central role in the Carters’ fly fishing journey, as there was fantastic trout fishing nearby at Big Hunting Creek, and the President even held a weekend-long fly-fishing summit with Vince Marinaro and others in 1980. According to his autobiography, Rosalynn learned to fly-cast there as well, “practicing for hours casting into the swimming pool at Camp David. She had a natural talent and soon developed precise control and proper placement of the fly.”
President Carter kept an extensive collection of fly fishing and tying books in his library, figuring that little lessons learned in books and repetition on the stream earned the persistent fly fisherman the slightest upper hand in tackling tricky angling situations. Because, when it comes down to it, the trout really don’t care if you are the President or an Average Joe as long as you place the fly in the right spot.
The former President and General was serious about his hobbies, becoming proficient in golf, fly-fishing, shooting, and painting. He was so adept at catching fish that he once got in trouble for going over his creel limit while fishing in Colorado (even Presidents aren’t exempt). Though he fished in Vermont, Maine, and Rhode Island, Eisenhower was partial to Colorado, having made it his second home during military assignments, and famously took the ex-President Hoover fishing 10,000 feet up in the high Rockies at St. Louis Creek after attending the Iowa State Fair.
It is said that President Eisenhower logged over forty fishing trips during his Presidency and 800 rounds of golf. He explained the reason why he gravitated to outdoor sports in a White House press conference:
“There are three sports that I like all for the same reason; golf, fishing and shooting…because they take you into the fields, they induce you to take at any one time, two to three hours, when you are thinking of the bird, ball or wily trout. Now to my mind this is a very healthful, beneficial kind of thing and I do it whenever I get a chance”.
Be like Ike and go fishing.
Check out an interesting clip here of Eisenhower fishing and teaching Richard Nixon a few fly casting lessons…there is a reason that Nixon does not appear on this list.
“All men are equal before fish” Hoover wrote in his book, Fishing for Fun and to Wash Your Soul. The “gentle sport,” as he called it—mind you, this was the days before fly-fishing for sailfish, tarpon, dorado, and other exotic fish was in vogue—gave him peace on the river during a time when there wasn’t much in the rest of the country. His Rapidan Camp provided solace from the rigors of attempting to lead the country out of the Great Depression and it was the first compound ever used for Presidential retreats. It was Hoover’s intention for the property to be enjoyed by future Presidents, but FDR chose his own compound in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, which became Camp David. The trout fishing is still great on the Rapidan, and Rapidan Camp is now preserved as part of Virginia’s Shenendoah National Park.
Coolidge was very different from his Presidential successor when it came to fishing. Herbert Hoover held himself in high regard as a dry-fly fisherman and even went as far as to classify the different levels of fishermen in his book, with bait fishermen being the lowest rung. Calvin Coolidge’s view was that if he was set on catching a fish, he was going to do so, not sacrificing his chance of success on the idea that fishing only with a fly rod was considered the “pure” way. In politics, he was similarly removed of all pretense or snobbery, stepping up and providing the country with a stabilizing presence after President Warren Harding died in office then picking up and moving on despite calls for him to run for President. He picked up fly-fishing during his Presidency during a visit to South Dakota and became like any angling crazed person: he would scour the New York State game laws to extend his fishing season and, largely thanks to Presidential gifts of state, had different rods for each occasion.
Unfortunately, the Museum no longer has Coolidge’s equipment on display, but you will be able to check it out soon at his State Historic site in Plymouth, Vermont. Check out this article detailing our trip to return his fishing gear to its rightful home.
Don’t call fishermen lazy in front of Grover Cleveland. In his article, “A Defense of Fishermen,” which was published in the Saturday Evening Post, he rebutted:
“What sense is there in the charge of laziness sometimes made against true fishermen? Laziness has no place in the constitution of a man who starts at sunrise and tramps all day with only a sandwich to eat, floundering through bushes and briers and stumbling over rocks or wading streams in pursuit of elusive trout. Neither can a fisherman who, with rod in hand, sits in a boat or on a bank all day be called lazy—provided he attends to his fishing and is physically and mentally alert at his occupation.”
The 22nd and 24th President of the United States also published a book, Fishing and Shooting Sketches in 1901. The work displayed the Commander-in-Chief’s humor and touched on everything from how to tell a proper fish story to hunting ethics, and is worth a read if you can get past the flowery language of the early 1900’s.
John Quincy Adams
While there aren’t many fish tales written about him, President John Quincy Adams was a serious fly fisherman. Adams’s handsome forest green leather fly book with geometric threaded fly envelopes (hand-stitched) and scalloped finishing trim was loaned to the Museum in 1987 by Trustee James Taylor.
Editor’s Note: This article is based on items in the collection of the American Museum of Fly Fishing, which is why President Obama is not included. In the past, we’ve highlighted Obama’s time on the water in Montana.