This is a tribute to Wilford Woodruff, on the 201st anniversary of his birth.
I enjoy hearing details about the lives of our church presidents which hint at what sort of men they are underneath the suit and tie. Although often the information is trivial, I’m interested to know, for example, that Gordon B. Hinckley enjoyed remodeling the house, and one of my favorite pictures of any of our prophets is the one of David O. McKay riding horseback. BYU Studies did us all a favor when it published “I Dreamed of Ketching Fish”: The Outdoor Life of Wilford Woodruff (BYU Studies 37, no. 4, 1997-98).
We learn that President Woodruff was an avid fisherman. He learned how to use flyfishing tackle on one of his missions to England, and before coming home, he bought a set of tackle for himself. His bamboo rod and flyline made the trip west in a wagonbox, and he was thrilled when they reached the mountains and he began to see clear water that held trout. Somewhere west of Fort Bridger (Bear River? Ham’s Fork of the Green?) he caught fish he called speckled salmon, but which were probably westslope cutthroat trout, or Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi. When Brigham Young was ill and suffering from Rocky Mountain fever, Woodruff caught and prepared fresh fish in an effort to stimulate his appetite. At least one history of sportfishing in the United States credits him with being the first person to practice the craft of flyfishing west of the continental divide.
This is what I find so interesting: Flyfishing is a sport that entails some expense. I just took a quick look at the L.L. Bean site, and a new bamboo rod will set you back $1,495.00. It is hard to justify that expense in the family budget when you know fiberglass rods are on sale at the WalMart for $35.00. A man who will spend money on expensive, fragile tackle, ship it across the Atlantic, and carry it with him in his wagon across the plains is a man with a serious jones. He is the 19th century equivalent of a man today who would run back into a burning house to save his golf clubs.
If you read the article, you will learn that President Woodruff was a Sunday fisherman. In his diary, he often records going to meetings on Sabbath morning, then fishing in the afternoon. Within two weeks of the occasion when Brigham Young called the Camp of Israel together, read them the riot act over Sabbath-breaking, and told them they would be a stench in the nostrils of the Lord until they cleaned up their act, Elder Woodruff was spending a leisurely Sunday afternoon catching fish. In his missionary work, he often took his investigators fishing, and he records in his journal how he prepared clambakes and fishfries on the beach for his friends. Is it any wonder he was so successful? I prophecy that if the missionaries today had boats and took their investigators out fishing after church on Sunday, they would have a lot more investigators, and the male:female imbalance in the church would resolve itself overnight.
When President Woodruff was 85 years old, he went on a 10 day camping trip into the Uinta mountains. His party camped near the headwaters of the Weber River, at Smith and Morehouse creek. They fished and hunted grouse, and Woodruff, always a stickler for detail, duly records how many fish each person caught. While camped there, he took time to write a letter to the editor of the outdoor magazine Forest and Stream. He wrote:
I was born on March 1, 1807 at Avon, Hartford county, Conn., on the banks of a trout stream. . . 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 eighty years.
It thrills me to know that a man who was president of the church, and who was in hiding from the law just a few years previously, took the time to read Forest and Stream. It pleases me to know that a man who knew so much adversity in his life also was able to recall the innocence of his boyhood, and that he was able to retain a desire and ability to do things that brought him pleasure.