The first person known to have gone fly fishing west of the Mississippi was none other than Wilford Woodruff, the fourth prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (“Mormons”). He not only fished with an artificial fly, he became a missionary for the cause of fly fishing.
Wilford went abroad to England as an LDS missionary, and learned about fly fishing there. When he left to return home in 1841, he brought with him a souvenir – a fly rod and a large assortment of artificial flies. This fly rod joined the first Mormon pioneer group, led by Brigham Young himself, as they traveled west in search of a place where they could enjoy the religious freedom which the settled United States refused to offer them.
A Natural Outdoorsman
Some people are born outdoorsmen. Woodruff was one of these. He wrote a piece which was later published in Forest and Stream in 1892. He began that piece by saying, “I was born on March 1, 1807, at Avon, Hartford county, Conn., on the banks of a trout brook which had turned the wheels of a flour mill and a saw mill , owned by my grandfather and father, for many years. As soon as I was old enough to carry a fish-rod I commenced catching trout, which I have continued to do, from time to time, for nearly 80 years.” (“Utah Fish and Game Notes,” Forest and Stream 39 (Sept. 22, 1892), 249.)
Because he was such a meticulous journal writer, we know much about Wilford Woodruff. He wrote in his journal about everything that happened in his life for nearly fifty years. Upon finding trout in a beaver pond in Nebraska on May 28, 1847, he noted, “At one place it raised the water about two feet which was lined with fish, a share of which was speckled trout, so the brethren informed me. This is the first stream I have met with containing trout since I left the New England States. Therefore I name it Trout Creek.”
He was, for instance, the first pioneer to climb atop Independence Rock, although Native Americans surely had done so for centuries. Still he considered it important enough to record that he was the first of the vanguard pioneer group to do so. Although an outdoorsman generally, he was an angler at heart. He was fascinated by fish and the sport of trying to outsmart them. He not only fished for sustenance, he fished because he enjoyed it.
Sometimes we picture prophets – especially those born before our time – as stuffy, stern men who never smiled and who worked all day in three piece suits even in summer time (seriously, why did they do that?). This probably stems from the pictures we have of them, taken at a time when smiling for pictures was not the norm culturally, or when picture taking required one to hold still for a long period of time. Some of the images we have are of portraits, which required one to sit still for an even longer period of time.
Contrast that mental image you have with stories from Woodruff’s own journal, and you will see a very different person indeed. He’ll become your fishing buddy – someone to think about as you wade through a babbling stream casting your own fly.
Hooked on Fly Fishing
Apparently, while Woodruff served a mission in England, he once walked, after fishing in the Ribble River, about two miles to meet a man known for his fishing skills. The man, Father Richard Smithies, was “70 years of age & is considered the greatest fisherman in the country.” Journal, May 8, 1845. Smithies showed Woodruff how to fish with an artificial fly, with a longer rod. “It was the first time I had seen the fly used in my life in the way of fishing. I was delighted with it the rod & line was so light & flung with such skill & dexterity that the trout are beguiled & whare ever they are are generally taken.” Id.
Smithies’ rod “was about 14 feet long sumthing like cane vary slender & delecate. His long fine line made of [horse]hair & cat gut was wound
around a small brass wheel with a little crank to it fastend to the but end of the pole. The line then runs through a half a dozen brass rings or ilet holes fastend at a suitable distance along on the rod to the small end of it.” Id.
The tackle used was likewise strange and new to Woodruff, despite having fished his whole life in fresh and saltwater. “One the end of the fine fish line is fastened 5 or 6 artifishal flies about 2 feet apart. These are upon a small cat gut almost as small as a single hair. 25 or 30 feet of the line is unwond from the reel at the but of the rod running through the rings to the point. The line is then flung upon the water the same as though it was tied at the end of the rod & the flies that float upon the water the same as though it was tied at the end of the rod & the flies with a hook concealed in each swims down the stream. . . . The fisherman has flies different for almost ever month calculated to imitate the flies that float upon the water at the time they fish. These flies are made of the feathers of birds some of various colors. . . . The trout instantly take it considering it the natural fly. They are hooked as soon as they strike it if they are large trout & run. They of their own accord unwind as much line as they want from the reel at the but of the pole or rod.” Id.
Sound familiar? Fly fishing hasn’t changed too much in the last 170 years, has it? Now consider how familiar the playing of the fish by Smithies compares to what we do today, “The fisherman does not pull the fish out of the water on the bank by the pole but worries the fish in the water with the line untill he will not struggle. Then he draws him up to the sore by the line if he stands on the bank or to him if he stands in the water. He then takes a small hand net with a light pole 4 or 6 feet puts it under the fish & takes him vary deliberately out of the water. Id.
Woodruff was hooked. By December, before returning to the States, he recorded that he “made A purchase of salmon & trout rods, reels, lines, hooks, flies and aparatus for both salt & fresh water to the amount of £6.2.4.” Journal, Dec. 10, 1845.
Fishing Days of 1847
The next several months did not lend themselves to much fishing opportunity, but as the Saints traveled westward, Woodruff’s itch to fish increased. As they neared the Great Basin, his records indicated more and more fishing. Once, he even fished from horseback in the middle of the stream. (See Journal, July 12, 1845).
While camped at Fort Bridger in modern-day Wyoming near the Utah border, and still en route to the Salt Lake Valley, Woodruff described a day fishing with his souvenir flies next to some of his friends, who used traditional fishing methods, saying “a good many of the brethren were already at the creeks with their Rods & lines trying their skill baiting with fresh meat & grass hoppers.” (Woodruff Journal, July 8, 1847). He juxtaposed that with his own success on an artificial fly, saying, “I caught twelve in all and about one half of them would weigh about 3/4 of a pound each while all the rest of the camp did not ketch during the day 3 lbs of trout in all which was proof positive to me that the artificial fly is far the best thing now known to fish trout with.” (Journal, July 8, 1847).
As later reprinted in two publications, Wilford Woodruff reported, “I threw my fly into the water and it being the first time that I ever tried the artificial fly in American or saw it tried, I watched it as it floated upon the water . . . [and] I was highly gratified when I saw the nimble trout dart at my fly hook, and run away with the line. I soon worried him out and drew him to shore.” (Ralph Moon, “Frontier Fly Fisher,” as quoted by Paul Schullery in American Fly Fishing: A History, p. 54.)
Approaching the Salt Lake Valley
From then on in the journey, Brigham Young took sick, and could not travel as far each day. This left Woodruff and the others time to fish. Woodruff records catching fish on July 16th, 17th, 20th, 21st, and 22nd.
The pioneers, their bellies full of trout, entered the Salt Lake Valley on July 24th, 1847.
Fishing Throughout His Life
Life got very busy thereafter, but Woodruff still took occasion to go on fishing or camping trips up into the mountains throughout the rest of his life, as his busy schedule permitted.
There was a trip he remembered from the Bear River basin. Woodruff indicated he “fished 4 hours in a creek leading into Bear River, which a rod and reel, and caught 20 trout.” He lamented, however, that “as the country has become settled [trout numbers] have steadily decreased”. Utah Fish and Game Notes, 249.
After living a time in the Salt Lake Valley, Woodruff wrote of the fishing available there. He said that the valley “abounded with the largest and finest trout” and remarked once about fish caught at the mouth of the Provo river “judged to be about 4,000 pounds.” Utah Fish and Game Notes, 249.
Woodruff fished as a hobby primarily. He took frequent fishing trips to Utah Lake, and remarked that the Provo River was his favorite fishing spot of them all. He also fished regularly in the Bear River basin, and up near the temple quarry where he built a summer cabin. Indeed, Woodruff often “dreamed of ketching fish” throughout the remainder of his life.
For more information, please review this article, which was my main source of information: “I Dreamed of Ketching Fish”: The Outdoor Life of Wilford Woodruff, by Phil Murdock and Fred E. Woods, BYU Studies 37, no. 4 (1997-1998). The full text is available as a free download.