Sunday, January 20, 2008

Fishing ex-libris catch seeks death penalty

I fished this book out of storage the other day and found within its leaves egregious offenses I have committed, which, if the author and pending legislation of the day had its way, would have put me on death row.

Game Fish of the Northern States of America and the British Provinces, by Barnwell; Carleton, Publisher; NY; 1862.

Here’s a case of “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” Scarred with library markings, a piece of the upper spine missing, dingy and dark looking with worn spots. The most interesting aspect of the outside of the book is the thin paper cover and its fish-scale texture. A clever and appropriate design to complement the subject matter inside.

But inside… First, you’re greeted with a vintage bookplate from the Houston Public Library, circa early 1900s. Bookplates are increasingly working their way into my bibliophemera collection. This one has a nice design. I'm a collector of local history in this region, and this bookplate dovetails nicely with the other artifacts I have related to that period.

The previous owner wrote his name and date, 1882, on the title page. The name matched with the name on the bookplate, which indicates the last owner of the book was indeed the man whose name is written on the title page. A slight discrepancy to ponder: The publication date is 1862 and the previous owner indicates his ownership began in 1882. Likely, he bought the book used, unless it sat new on a shelf for 20 years. More probable is that he bought the book second-hand in a used bookshop, probably in one of the Northern states profiled in the book. Houston was a sleepy little bayou town in the 1880s, completely unconscious of the oil-boom winds of change blowing its way in the upcoming new century. So it is unlikely that there were many second-hand bookshops, and any bookstore with the latest titles would not likely have stocked a book about game fish of the Northern states and Canadian provinces.

But I spent time in a particular Northeastern state every summer growing up—New Hampshire—and I learned about the native game fish, the Brook Trout, at an early age and developed a passion for it. So upon scanning the contents of the book, I took a biased interest in Chapter 2, The American Trout. And first up in the lineup of American Trout is the Brook Trout. Reading the first few pages of Civil War-era technical prose, I felt like I was reading an early scientific treatise on the species. About what I expected—dusty old writing in a dusty old book. But the last paragraph of that second page became much more interesting, dramatically so, with an unexpected twist of humor. At least I think the author had his tongue firmly implanted in his cheek. Or was that a barbed hook aimed at a segment of the fishing population he vehemently despised?

After a statement about the fishing seasons for Brook Trout in the north and northeastern regions, the author asserts that there is but one way, and you know he means one way only, to catch a Brook Trout. And that is with a fly. But he allows that there is a class of fishermen who resort to worms, minnows, nets, and even their own roe. I had to look that last one up. Roe is the fully-ripe egg mass of fish. I've never done that--seems a little weird. But first on the list of bait violations, worms, I did not have to look up. My grandfather taught me to fish the mountain streams with worms we dug up in his vegetable garden (my old bait box, circa 1940s-50s, pictured below). I knew he had fly fished some, but he preferred worms. So I bristled a bit at the author’s condescending tone toward something so indelibly imprinted upon my fondest memories. But his next sentence was the killer:
These villanies are not at present punished with death nor even imprisonment for life; but our legislature is looking into the matter, and there is no telling how soon such statutes may be passed.

Ha! After lulling his readers into the beginnings of a mind-wandering state with a dose of mundane text, the author craftily floated a fly downstream into my placid reading pool and hooked me sharply with a device that snapped me to attention immediately. Well done! I never saw it coming. His humor was the device, used in a way, I’ll bet, to see if his readers were still with him after a few pages of dry descriptors about fin characteristics and scale observations. Catching Brook Trout with worms should be punishable by death or life imprisonment? Ye gods and little fishes! How do you really feel about it, Mr. Barnwell?

And Barnwell is used somewhat pseudonymously. The real name of this author is Robert Barnwell Roosevelt. A little googling produced this biographical information: Uncle to President Theodore Roosevelt, great-uncle to Eleanor Roosevelt, who married her fifth cousin, President Franklin Roosevelt, who himself was a fifth cousin to President Theodore Roosevelt, who was an uncle to Eleanor Roosevelt... Wait, I think I said that already. Sheesh! What a tangled-up crow's nest of fishing line that genealogy is! Not that that has anything to do with the radical Barnwell. But after advocating the death penalty for bait fishermen of Brook Trout, Barnwell reverts back to serious writing, extolling the virtues of fishing with the fly. Without reading any further, I'm sure a few more barbs are floating along the currents toward the unsuspecting reader.


  1. Thought you might enjoy my bookplate blog.

  2. I do enjoy your blog, and have for have a year or so now since discovering and referencing it in a 2006 entry, Bookplates. You've got a great blog, very informative, and it has inspired me to save a few bookplates and hang onto some books I would normally offer for sale. Don't know if that's a good thing for business... But the collector in me is fine with it!