God’s Fisherman

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.

Feb_2008_weberIf 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.


  1. I happened to stumble upon Woodruff’s initial experience with fly fishing in the last couple of months. I hope you will excuse the long excerpts, but they are wonderful. While in England, on May 8, 1845 he wrote:

    I went fishing with Father Richard Smithies in the river ribble. He is 70 years of age & is considerd the greatest fisherman in the country. He fishes with the fly which is the greatest art in fishing ever introduced. His fish pole or rod was about 14 feet long sum thing like cane vary slender & delecate. His long fine line made of 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 half a dozen brass rings or ilet holes fastend at a sutible distance along on the rod to the small end of it. One the end of the fine fish line is fastend 5 or 6 arti-fishal 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 with a hook concealed in each swims down the stream. 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.

    The fisherman does not pull the fish out of 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 shore 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.

    Father Smithies caught 7 trout & two Cheven in this way while we were with him. 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. 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 will often take them before the natural fly. I was much gratifyed with this days fishing.

    Then during the vangaurd trek to Salt Lake (July 4, 1847) he wrote of his use of the technique:

    As soon as I got my breakfast I riged up my trout rod that I had brought with me from Liverpool, fixed my reel, line, & Artificial fly & went to one of the brooks close by Camp to try my luck catching trout. The man at the fort said there were but vary few trout in the streams, And a good many of the brethren were already at the creeks with their Rods & lines trying their skill baiting with fresh meat & grass hoppers, but no one seemed to ketch any. I went & flung my fly onto the [-] And it being the first time that I ever tried the Artificial fly in America, or ever saw it tried, I watched it as it floated upon the water with as much intens interest As Franklin did his kite when he tried to draw lightning from the skies. And as Franklin recieved great Joy when he saw electricity or lightning descend on his kite string in like manner was I highly gratifyed when I saw the nimble trout dart my fly hook himself & run away with the line but I soon worried him out & drew him to shore & I fished two or three hours including morning & evening & I cought twelve in all And About one half of them would weigh abought 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.

  2. I also remember Charles Ora Card writing in his diary when he was Stake President in Canada about Woodruff coming up to visit and them fishing for a lengthy time. If I remember correctly, Woodruff embarrassed everyone by catching so much.

  3. Fantastic quotes, J.

    On one of his missions to England, he was fishing with some investigators when they were caught by the game warden, fishing on closed waters. He was outraged, and records the incident in his journal without guilt or shame.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    A wonderful tribute; thanks. And I agree with the comments about missionary work!

  5. Izaak Walton says:

    Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.

  6. Our prophets can not ever be “hiding from the law” because we believe in honoring, obeying, …. blah, blah blah.

  7. My testimony is strengthened. Thank you.

  8. thanks for the excerpts Mark & J. Stapley. Speaking of fishing, do you think the Lord asked the fish that swallowed Jonah if he wanted to be a fisher of men?

  9. Norbert says:

    Well, that’s the coolest thing I’ve read in ages. Thanks.

  10. Exactly what Norbert said. This simply was cool.

  11. I used this to introduce the Pres. Woodruff manual in priesthood. As the son and grandson of passionate fishermen, I loved knowing this about Pres. Woodruff.

    For those interested, a good book in this genre is “Fly Fishing Through The Midlife Crisis” by Howell Raines, former editor of the N Y Times.

  12. Researcher says:

    Sorry to break into this male discussion.

    I have a book called Three Mormon Classics. It includes “Leaves From My Journal” by Wilford Woodruff and also sections on George Q Cannon and Jacob Hamblin.

    I’ve read it many times but never picked up on the fish thing. I did have a memory of a lot of water stories though, so on opening the book randomly I find an account of Wilford Woodruff’s missionary work in the Fox Islands off the coast of Maine. He describes the field of his labors including the following:

    Great quantities of fish, and in almost endless variety, inhabit the coves and harbors around the island. The whale, blackfish, shark, ground shark, pilot-fish, horse mackerel, sturgeon, salmon, halibut, cod, pollock, tom cod, hake, haddock, mackerel, shad bass, alewife, herring, pohagen, dolphin, whiting, frost-fish, flounder, smelt, skate, shrimp, skid, cusk, blueback, scollop, dogfish, muttonfish, lumpfish, squid, five-fingers, monkfish, horsefish, sunfish, swordfish, thresher, cat, scupog, tootog, eyefish, cunner, ling, also the eel, lobster, clam, muscle, periwinkle, porpoise, seal, etc., are found there.

    Definitely someone who would take naturally to the field of oceanography or limnology.

    A little later he tells the following story:

    One day Elder Hale and I ascended to the top of a high granite rock upon the South Island for prayer and supplication. We sat down under the shade of a pine tree which grew out of a fissure in a rock, and Elder Hale read the 16th chapter of Jeremiah, where mention is made of the hunters and fishers that God would send in the last days to gather Israel.

    (I’m sure we don’t need to spend much brainpower wondering whether he saw himself as a hunter or fisher.) He continues:

    Of a truth, here we were upon an island of the sea, standing upon a rock where we could survey the gallant ships and also the islands…And what had brought us here? To search out the blood of Ephraim, the honest and meek of the earth, and gather them from those islands…unto Zion.

    We prayed and rejoiced together. The Spirit of God rested upon us…and we rejoiced that we were upon the islands of the sea searching out the blood of Israel.

    While being filled with these meditations and the Spirit of God, we fell upon our knees and gave thanks to the God of heaven, and felt to pray for all Israel.

    After spending most of the day in praise and thanksgiving, we descended to the settlement and held a meeting with the people.

    On the 6th of September we called upon Captain Benjamin Coombs, and visited his flakes, where he had one thousand quintals of codfish drying for the market….While we were passing Carvey’s Wharf our attention was called to a large school of mackerel playing by the side of the wharf. Several men were pitching them out with hooks. We also flung in a hook and caught all we wanted, then went on our way.

    I could keep looking for more examples, but this comment is long enough already. Thanks for the fun discussion!

  13. Brilliant post. I’m sending this around to my friends.

  14. What a great tribute to a wonderful man. Like Brighan Young, I shake my head when I think of the time Wilford Woodruff presided over the church and how much he did in the circumstances. Not to highjack the thread, but I couldn’t help but think of some quotes from A River Runs Through it:

    ” In my family, there was no clear division between religion and fly fishing.”

    “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things – trout as well as eternal salvation – came by grace”

    “…there’s three things we’re never late for: church, work, and fishing.”

  15. “…there’s three things we’re never late for: church, work, and fishing.”

    That describes my dad and my maternal grandpa perfectly.

  16. A relative of the emeritus GA Royden Derrick reported that other GA’s gave him gas over his perpetual absence from the first session of General Conference in the Fall. Why did he miss the session? It’s the opening day of the Duck & Goose hunt in Utah.

    I’ve used that story as an excuse (along with, “I’ll read it later,” or, “I’ll just TiVo it”) many times, myself, for the same activity.

  17. I believe Pres. Monson enjoys fly fishing. I remember recently reading that he and Jon Huntsman fished together.

    Another reason to go fly fishing, so I can follow a prophet.

  18. Stirling says:

    At this time of the year in 1838, Woodruff was in Maine records gathering clams in low tide.

    This weekend we’re headed to Maine, not for clams but to go smelt fishing on the Kennebec river. We’ll fish the late tide (9:48 pm to 4 am) from an ice shack (the river still has 30 inches of ice). Mark,iIf you’re available and interested let me know and we can talk details.


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