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Angler's Journal: Dr. Jim the Bassman

March 4, 2008

By King Montgomery

Fishing for the black basses, primarily smallmouth and largemouth bass, started becoming popular around the latter part of the 19th century due, in large part, to Dr. James A. Henshall's 1881 tome, "Book of the Black Bass." A second book, "More About the Black Bass," followed in 1889.

Henshall's most famous line in the first book describes the black basses as "pound for pound and inch for inch the gamest fish that swims."

Some years ago, the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS) reprinted the books and made them available to members. BASS caters mostly to the hardware bass tournament crowd and is not known for its interest in fly fishing. Surprising, because Dr. Jim's books emphasize the fly angling aspect of bass fishing.

King Montgomery has been angling for black bass for more than five decades.
(King Montgomery)

Some of his pronouncements were absolutely correct; a few were not. He got it at least partly right when he wrote, “Artificial fly-fishing is the most legitimate, scientific and gentlemanly mode of angling, and is to be greatly preferred to all other ways and means of capturing the finny tribe. It requires more address, more skill, and a better knowledge of the habits of the fish and his surroundings than any other method.” Many say good artificial lure fishing fits in here as well.

On the other hand, he was absolutely wrong when he reported unequivocally that bass hibernate in the winter: “Black bass undoubtedly hibernate, except in the extreme southern and South-western states; but in the colder climate of the North and West, it has been proven in numerous instances, that they bury themselves in the mud, in the crevices of rocks, under masses of weeds, or sunken logs, in the deepest water, and remain dormant until spring.”

We now know that although bass slow down in the winter, they still must eat and are susceptible to a well-placed fly or lure, particularly on the warmer days of winter.

Dr. Jim diplomatically addressed the perennial question about which black bass, the largemouth or the smallmouth, is the "better" game fish: “There is a widespread and prevalent notion that the small-mouthed Bass is the game species par excellence, but I doubt this distinction is well-founded. In this angler's opinion, the large-mouthed Bass, all things being equal, displays as much pluck, and exhibits as untiring fighting qualities as its small-mouthed congener.”

Regardless of where you are in your black bass fishing life, Henshall's entertaining books are educational as well. And he has, like Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton before him, and like Roderick Haig-Brown and Nick Lyons after him, a wonderful way with words.

From his second book:

“The brook trout, I think, is the most beautiful of all fishes, as a fresh-run salmon is the handsomest and most perfect in form. The salmon is a king, the brook trout a courtier, but the Black Bass, in his virescent cuirass and spiny crest, is a doughty warrior whose prowess none can gainsay.”

Trout and salmon have long had an old and varied literature in the annals of angling, but the black basses, those “doughty warriors,” have also received their due with the fine books by Dr. Jim, the Bassman. Oh, and the black basses are pursued today by more anglers in the USA than any other gamefish. 


We live in the middle of some of the finest bass fishing in the USA. The tidal Potomac River is loaded with largemouth bass and striped bass. The upper Potomac River (above Great Falls) supports a good population of smallmouth bass. Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland has bass. Baltimore’s reservoirs are readily accessible and hold lots of nice bass. Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River is a superb smallmouth fishery and Virginia’s Rappahannock and James Rivers are excellent for both species of black bass, from their upper reaches to the tidal waters. Maryland’s premier bass guide service for most of these waters is Ken Penrod’s Life Outdoors Unlimited at 301-937-0010

King Montgomery, our fishing editor, has been angling for black bass with fly and lure for more than five decades. He is a former Maryland-licensed bass guide, has a degree in fisheries biology and is a retired U.S. Army officer.

Issue 3.10: March 6, 2008