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History Matters
The Salt Lake Tribune Arch
Pioneer Anglers Knew How to Tell Fish Stories
Will Bagley
Published: 02/11/2001 Edition: Final Section: Utah Page: B1

You might not expect to find fish stories from the days of Utah Territory's wagon trails, but the history of the West is full of surprises. "We caught our first trout at Fort Bridger, an Indian post, in Black Fork," wrote Lt. LaRhett L. Livingston from Echo Canyon, sixty miles from Salt Lake City. "Since that time, we find them in every stream large enough. They differ in appearance from the Atlantic brook trout in having black spots instead of red," the Army artillery officer told his father in 1854. "They are beautiful fish and as game as need be."

Livingston camped on the Weber River with Lt. Colonel Edward Steptoe's detachment, bound for California with orders to spend the winter in Utah and investigate the murder of John Gunnison's government survey party. Late in August, Steptoe's soldiers took a day off to explore the Wasatch Mountains and, of course, go fishing. "We found beautiful fishing in the main run and in all the principal streams running into it," Livingston wrote. His horse had strayed off in the night and wasn't found until eleven the next morning, "but I mounted him as soon as my man brought him in and went off a few miles by myself to where, from the man, I knew a stream ran and caught some fine trout."

The journal of Nancy Jane and Henry Bradley shows that fishing wasn't strictly a male pastime. Traveling to California in 1852, the Bradleys had already had plenty of adventure just getting to Utah. They crossed South Pass as a band played "Hail Columbia" and they found coffins for sale at Green River. The Bradleys took the Salt Lake Cutoff and found plenty of speckled trout at Mountain Dell. "We caught all the trout here we wanted," wrote Henry Bradley. "Jane caught some of them." The next morning, they feasted on trout. The Bradleys then headed north to City of Rocks in southern Idaho. On July 5, they camped at Goose Creek in Utah's northwest corner. Catching two fish, including a large one, Henry noted proudly. "They made us a good trout Meal."

Westerners have enjoyed a long love affair with rod and reel. As Brigham Young's pioneer camp moved up the North Platte in 1847, the clerk noted that "several brethren went a fishing with rods & lines & caught many Fish of the White sort." Jim Bridger told the Mormons they would find "all kinds" of fish in the mountain creeks of the Great Basin. In 1847, Wilford Woodruff, later president of the LDS Church, may have become the first Rocky Mountain fly-fisherman, using a rod he had purchased in England.

Former sailor Addison Pratt had great success in the trout streams of the Sierra Nevada and the Raft River Mountains in 1848. Pratt was on his way to Salt Lake City from the California goldfields with a party of Mormon Battalion veterans. Henry Bigler caught twelve trout in one day, while his friends blazed the first wagon road over Carson Pass. But Pratt was clearly the champion of the forty-five men. He caught fish "in such numbers as to attract both our admiration and gratitude," Bigler wrote.

"The most I caught in one day was thirty-five," Pratt noted modestly. According to James S. Brown, "some of the party were so astonished at his good luck that they declared he could catch fish in a cow track."

Historian Will Bagley does not fish.

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