Humans learn by trial and error. It’s true in medicine, where treatments once accepted are found worthless or dangerous. For centuries, physicians bled the sick until they realized the practice weakened—and often killed—patients.
It’s also true with fish. Since ancient times, those who’ve wanted fish in a body of water have simply put them there. Only later did they discover the downside. Locally, fishermen led by 19th-century “pisciculturist” Thaddeus Norris decided to make their sport more interesting by introducing fish not previously found in local rivers and creeks. Later, experts discovered that these interlopers—bass, in particular—were eating the eggs and young of the American shad, thereby helping to push that species further into decline.
“People were struggling to figure out a way to simply get fish to live in increasingly polluted rivers as the Industrial Revolution transformed the landscape of America,” said Todd Larson, visiting professor of history at Xavier University in Ohio and a blogger on the history of fishing. “It seemed a good idea at the time to try and replace a dying fish, the shad, with a heartier one, the bass.”
Born in Warrenton, Va., in 1811, Norris grew up in West Virginia, where he learned to fish. At 18, he moved to Philadelphia and was a retailer for 40 years. Norris was sufficiently successful that, when his American Angler’s Book was published in 1864, one reviewer was able to describe the author as “one of our rich merchants.” He married Dorothea Abel in 1837 and had from three to nine children, depending on the source.
In 1861, Norris closed his business, Thaddeus Norris & Co., and turned to fishing. According to Larson, the decision may have been a result of confiscation of his company’s New Orleans branch by the unions, which cost him more than $200,000 by modern reckoning.
As a rich man, Norris was similar to other wealthy Americans who, in the late 19th century, had the time and resources to convert mere pastimes into expensive hobbies. Often, these hobbies were attempts to emulate European gentry.
Golf, with ancient roots in Scotland, arrived in the 1880s and immediately inspired private clubs, where it could be played with others of the same social class. Tennis, too, has ancient roots, though the modern game dates to the mid-19th century. The first tournament was played at Wimbledon in 1877, and the U.S. National Lawn Tennis Association was formed in 1881.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs discovered a market for constantly improving gear. Both golf clubs and tennis rackets evolved from wood to metal to fiberglass, and now to modern composite materials.
Fishing is more ancient. Our utilitarian ancestors fished with bare hands, spears and, later, nets to catch as many fish as possible. The issue was survival, not sport. Fly-fishing, the art of fooling a fish with an artificial fly that gently lands on the water, is also ancient. The Roman poet Martial may have written the earliest reference to fly-fishing: “Who has not seen the scarus rise, decoyed and killed by fraudful flies?” But its purpose was utilitarian: Fly-fishing was used on rivers too shallow, fast and rocky for nets.
Modern fly-fishing has been traced to Scotland and northern England. The first book on the subject, A Treatyse on Fysshynge with an Angle (1496), was very popular. Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler (1653) is still in print. (An angler is one who fishes with a hook.)
In America, recreational fishing was banned in some colonies, but not in liberal Philadelphia. In 1732, locals founded the Schuylkill Fishing Company, the oldest sporting club in the world. By the 1740s, Philadelphians could buy the latest imported English equipment from a variety of merchants.
According to fishing-tackle expert Steve Vernon, George Washington and several delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention spent off-hours fishing at Valley Forge. Earlier, he wrote, Benjamin Franklin had designed a fishing boat with an oval sail that swiveled to the horizontal to function as an umbrella. “[Franklin’s] drawing illustrates what appears to be a small fleet of rowboats equipped with satellite antennas,” wrote Vernon.
Before 1800, fishing tackle—hooks, lines, floats, rods and reels—was manufactured in several U.S. cities, including Philadelphia. Most were aimed at the mass market. The fussiest and richest anglers often chose to have their equipment handmade.
Norris helped supply these wants. He’d returned to his boyhood sport in the mid-1840s, becoming a proficient fly-fisher. In 1848, Philadelphia writer Jones Wister witnessed a fly-casting competition at which Norris bet $100 (more than $2,500 today) that he could outcast William Cadwalder:
“Time and time again, Cadwalder threw his ‘fly’ out over the water, trying to outdistance that thrown by Mr. Norris, but in vain, as the latter’s ‘fly’ soared far beyond his own. Both men had beautifully equipped rods and reels, which were envied by me. The onlookers said that Norris had the best rod, which he had made himself. At any rate, it soon became evident that Cadwalder had lost the bet.”
After retiring, Norris made rods for others at his home on Logan Square. His trout and salmon rods—made of ironwood, lancewood, greenheart and rent and glued bamboo—were considered among the best of their time. He even made his own ferrules—metal connectors that join a rod’s sections. In 1873, fishing writer William Cowper Prime mentioned taking “many hundred pounds of fish in Europe, Asia, Africa and America; and I would not part with either of my [Norris] rods for a hundred times its cost.”
But it was the American Angler’s Book that made Norris famous—and his rods much sought-after. The 692-page work “may almost be called an encyclopedia of the subject,” said a New York Times reviewer. In addition to describing each American game fish and how to catch it, Norris told how to make a rod, how to tie flies and how to behave. “Fishing,” wrote Norris, “is a recreation, and a calmer of unquiet thoughts,” which should be defended “from the aspersions and ridicule of those who cannot appreciate its quiet joys.”
Fishing, Thaddeus Norris believed, was about being a better person, not about catching the bigger fish. Norris used his prominence to advocate for fishing interests. In an 1869 article in Lippincott’s Magazine, he argued that dam owners should be required to build fish ladders to allow migrating fish to reach their spawning grounds. He also proposed heavy penalties for those who dumped “any poisonous or deleterious matter” into rivers and streams. Taken together, concluded Norris, pollution and dams were making the once common American shad a rarity.
When Norris arrived in Philadelphia in 1829, “a single shad furnished a substantial meal for a day laborer and his large family,” he wrote. “Now, it is a luxury beyond his means.”
Among fishermen, “Uncle Thad” was a beloved figure. But he had an underside: Among African-American scholars, he is remembered as a racist whose magazine articles ridiculed “negroes”—and he didn’t use that word. His was also the first written account of “Bre’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby,” a story later made famous by Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus tales.
The American Angler’s Book was followed in 1868 by another classic, American Fish Culture, which detailed all that was then known about breeding trout, salmon and other water creatures, including oysters. An important contribution to the current diversity of fish in inland U.S. waters, it was based on his own private efforts raising and stocking fish.
Norris started a trout farm soon after American Fish Culture was published, but sold the Bloomsbury, N.J., business in 1870. Perhaps merely getting it started was the point; state fish commissions later formed to assume this duty. (Private stocking of public streams is now illegal.)
In 1870, Norris raised $1,116.50 from “a number of public spirited gentlemen” around Philadelphia to bring small-mouthed black bass to the Delaware River. According to the Delaware County Republican, this required an expedition to Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., where local men were paid 25 cents each for 706 bass placed in two large tanks equipped with aerators. The tanks were loaded on a railroad car and, 46 hours later, arrived near Easton.
“Many of the bass were of noble proportions, about the size of an adult shad,” reported the newspaper. “The large number that survived the trip as soon as they were placed in the Delaware swam off as lively as if in their native Potomac.”
This was later repeated in the Lehigh, Schuylkill and other rivers. And once in local waters, the bass ate.
Shad reproduce like salmon. They live in the ocean but spawn by swimming upriver to release their eggs in fresh water. The eggs fall to the bottom, where they adhere to grass or rocks, and are left unguarded. They hatch after a few days and, in theory, are large enough to survive on their own by the time the current carries them to sea.
Bass, meanwhile, like to hide in nooks and crannies, among rocks and grass.
Predators had always preyed on young shad. Pollution and dams were probably bigger threats, but the bass didn’t help.
Fishermen couldn’t agree there was a problem. Some liked bass better. Bass are a strong, energetic type of fish. They’re more fun to catch than shad. In 1876, Norris associate H.J. Reeder—insisting “no fish was more valuable” than bass—told the American Fish Culturists Association that they would “never interfere” with the value of shad streams.
Last century, the shad had nearly disappeared. In 1949, only three were caught by a commercial fisherman at Lambertville, N.J. By 1953, there were none. Two years later, hurricane-driven floods flushed from the rivers many pollutants and man-made obstacles, and shad have since rebounded. Perhaps the designer of the shad thought it was time those errors were pointed out.
E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at email@example.com.