Trout, Volume 1
Ernest George Schwiebert
E.P. Dutton, 1984 - 1834 pages
Many early figures like Cotton Mather, Joseph Secombe, Daniel Webster, and Henry Ward Beecher were often found on [Long Island] trout water. Brook trout from the slow-flowing Nissequogue and weedy little Carman's River on Long Island were favorites of Daniel Webster, and the region still abounds in anecdotes about his brook-trout fishing. There are two versions of Daniel Webster and his record brook trout on Long Island. One has the site of its capture as the millpond of the old Wyandanche Club on the Nissequogue. The other version places the capture of the giant fish outside the graceful colonial church at Brookhaven, where Webster and his friends often fished at the Suffolk Club.
Brookhaven is still a quiet village among the beach-grass dunes and sheltered harbors of the South Shore. Its snug colonial saltboxes and elm-shaded streets have a special character, dominated by the slender bell tower of its Presbyterian church, built by local shipwrights in 1745. Such a patina of time is often enough to give a church some measure of fame, but this church is also part of the Webster legend. One hundred forty years ago its congregation apparently witnessed his legendary exploit with with the giant brook trout. Evidence supporting the story is relatively meagre: it consists of a carved cherrywood facsimile of the fish, obscure records and diaries, the brass plate of the Suffolk Club in one of the church pews, and the famous Currier & Ives lithograph of Webster catching the trout—a colorful lithograph that ultimately became part of the Congressional Record in 1854.
Webster himself is part of American folk legend, and his fame lies in several directions: orator, statesman, lawyer, congressman, and fly-fisherman. Webster was born at Franklin in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in 1782 and graduated from Dartmouth College. During both his boyhood and his college years Webster spent much time fishing the mountain brooks and brook-trout ponds of New Hampshire. He was elected to the Congress in 1813, and soon moved his residence to Boston. The legendary Dartmouth College case first gave him great fame as an attorney in 1819, and his defense of the United States Treasury in McCullough vs. Maryland cemented his reputation in the circles of power. His growing fame soon brought him into contact with men like Martin Van Buren, who would become president of the United States in 1837; Philip Hone, the mayor of the city of New York; and John Stevens, pioneer developer of steamboats, boilers, and locomotives. These men were all dedicated fly-fishers, and they subsequently invited Daniel Webster to join their Suffolk Fishing Club on Long Island.
Webster became a senator from Massachusetts in 1827, having established law offices in both Boston and New York. History tells us that he loved the brook-trout rivers found on eastern Long Island, and that his circle of fishing friends spent many weekends in the Fireplace Tavern operated by Sam Carman. It was a hard-fishing crew, fond of free-flowing rum and conversation that regularly gathered in front of his hearth, although each Sunday morning found them across the road in the Presbyterian church, nursing tehir headaches in the pew reserved for the Suffolk Club.
It was a bright spring morning in 1823 when Philip Hone first discovered the huge brook trout in the little river below Carman's Tavern. Hone quickly found Webster and both men tried their luck for several hours without interesting the fish. Webster became obsessed with the huge brook trout, but it was four years later before he saw it again. Webster and Hone had left on the last Friday stagecoach from Booklyn, and arrived at the Fireplace Tavern long after dark. They found the dining room alive with stories of the giant fish. Downstream from the tavern Sam Carman also operated a general store and grist mill and that afternoon his employees had been working on its water wheel. When the work ù dismantling the big cypress-framed wheel ù had started, the huge brook trout had darted out from the millrace into the weedy channel upstream.
Webster and Hone fished the millpond through the following day without locating the big trout again. Saturday night found them commiserating their poor luck in Jamaican rum with liberal tankards of Carman's of Carman's hard cider for variety, and both men were ultimately carried to bed by Carman's black servants. It proved a difficult and restless night. The following Sunday morning both men were faithfully seated in the pew across the road, perhaps groaning inwardly that the Presbyterian sense of austerity forbade such ornamental amenities as as stained-glass windows that might reduce the glare and mollify their headaches. Carman accompanied them to services that morning, but left instructions that his servant Lige should stand watch at the millpond for the giant trout. It was a beautiful spring morning and every man in the church stared longingly at the little river, with its pale willows and shadbush blooming and the ruby-colored buds of the swamp maples in the bend above the grist mill.
Parson Jedediah King was also a fly-fisherman but his long-winded sermons typically lasted all morning, and that morning was no King droned endlessly about temptation, the eternal faults of mankind, wickedness, hellfire and and brimstone, gluttony,, carnality ù and fixing his fierce blue-gray eyes on the Suffolk Club pew, debated the evils of cider and Jamaican rum. The sermon lasted an eternity itself. Shall we gather at the river, the congregation finally chorused, , the beautiful, beautiful river? The hymn finally ended, but the service still had thirty-odd minutes left.
There was a soft scraping at the churchyard door just as the congregation was settling for a second harangue from Parson King. Carman knew instantly what it was, and turned to see his servant Lige tiptoeing along the side aisle. Lige had located the big brook trout in the millpond, and only his orders to report sighting the fish could have forced Lige to interrupt Parson King and his morning services.
Lige slipped into the pew, and whispered to his employer briefly. Senator, Carman whispered to Webster, Lige has seen the big trout, it's lying in the throat of the millrace, and it's rising!
There is no subterfuge for leaving the front pew inconspicuously in the middle of a church service. Webster and Hone looked at each other briefly, averted their eyes and stook awkwardly, and quietly filed out of the church. The minister stopped and the congregation watched the four men leave. Every eye in the church watched them slip out the panelled door, quietly closing its polished-brass latch, and and everyone in the pews knew about the big fish.
Some of the men soon followed, nodding shamefacedly toward the pulpit and their wives, and soon only the pious women and children were left. Finally the minister himself succumbed, giving a hasty benediction as he moved down the aisle, and the remaining congregation followed. It gathered by the river to watch, as Lige rowed Senator Webster and Mayor Hone into position above the millrace where the fish was lying.
Webster caught a small brookie, and the millpond congregation groaned, thinking the big trout had had been frightened.
Thirty minutes passed and most of the of the congregation began walking home, when Webster made a long cast toward the grist mill and the fish was hooked.
Like all brook trout, this fish fought stubbornly under the trailing weeds and along the masonry foundations of the mill, and finally Webster forced it into the open, gravel-bottomed channel in the elodea and pickerel-weed.
The struggle lasted almost as long as the church service and sermon, with cheers and groans from the congregation, and finally the huge trout came grudgingly toward the skiff. It was almost black from living in the dark masonwork shadows under the mill wheel, its mottled gill covers and white-edged orange fins moving weakly. The faithful Lige reached expertly with the long-handled boat net. His words when he slipped the trout into its meshes are are included on the Currier & Ives print that recorded the event, and were later placed in the Congressional Record. We hab you now, sar! Lige laughed.
The congregation stood cheering along the millpond, and Parson King threw his prayer book into the air. Sam Carman and Lige wrestled the fish ashore, and carried it to the general store. Legend holds that the fish weighed as much as the current world record of fourteen pounds eight ounces, but it seems unlikely at best. Carman and Hone traced its outlined on linen, and their tracing was later transferred to a cherrywood plank. The carpenter made another wooden facsimile of the fish, enlarging it a third to give it a proportion equal to its lofty place on the weathervane of the church steeple . . .
[Conclusion not yet copied.]
The cast of characters has probably been embellished too, and everyone knows that our Republic would collapse tomorrow if men who disliked each other totally refused each other's company.
The old Wyandanche Club on the Nissequogue had some Webster memorabilia in its collection, and the principal artifact of his triump still exists at the Bellport Historical Society. It is the cherrywood weathervane carved for the Presbyterian Church to commemorate Webster's fish, bearing its honest scars of lightning. Such artifacts would not exist if the story were totally a myth. pointless challenges in recent months too.