This article appeared originally in The American Fly Fisher, Journal of the American Museum of Fly Fishing (Fall 1999, Volume 25, Number 4). It is reprinted with permission of the author, Douglas R. Precourt and the courtesy of the publisher, The American Museum of Fly Fishing.
LORD ROBERT S.S. BADEN-POWELL of Gilwell, England, is most recognized these days for starting the worldwide Boy Scout movement in 1908, as well as for his military genius as a lieutenant-general during the Boer Wars. But B-P (as he was affectionately known among his friends and associates) was also a rabid fly fisherman who saw his time alone on a river as compensation for his charitable works, and an early proponent of an angling conservation practice that would not become fashionable nor widely accepted for nearly half a century.
Born in London in 1857, during the Victorian era, B-P was the seventh of ten children, one of nine boys from a highly regarded, upper-class family. Academically, he performed relatively well. He excelled at team sports and performing arts, especially drama, at Rose Hill School at Tunbridge Wells, and he eventually gained acceptance to Charterhouse, a private high school in London. During the summers, B-P and his brothers spent several weeks on a small boat, together cruising the southern regions of the English coastline.
Eventually, he gained a commission as an officer in Her Majesty's Army. He traveled to India to be with the 13th Hussars Regiment, where he saw action in the Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 1880. Later, the campaign in Zululand and the Ashanti conflict in West Africa also saw his involvement. Like most British officers, he enjoyed polo and excelled at “pig sticking,” a sport using many native “beaters” and long sharp lances while riding on horseback.
In 1899, he wrote a training book, Aids to Scouting, which outlined essential camping, stalking, and survival skills for soldiers to use during difficult conflicts. The Boer Wars in South Africa saw B-P distinguish himself as the commanding officer charged with protecting the township of Mafeking from the invading Boer forces. Using many of the skills found in his book, B-P and his men were able to survive the siege of Mafeking for 217 days before British reinforcements broke through. Back in England, B-P was a hero. Word of the relief of Mafeking arrived in London on 18 May 1900 and created a cheering and frenzied crowd in the area around Piccadilly Circus.
B-P's popularity, particularly with young men, was very high, and large numbers of boys began reading Aids to Scouting. This worried B-P, because his book was intended as an army survival manual, not a book for boys. He recognized that young men found the subjects in his book interesting, however. Further, the Boer Wars and other conflicts left many fatherless boys who would need a program 0r organization to help them develop character and leadership. To this end, he wrote another book, Scouting for Boys, in 1908, which launched the worldwide Boy Scout movement we know today.
In 1910, B-P retired from Her Majesty's Army, onto reserve, and began his second life-that of leading the new and fast-growing scouting organization-which he did with great vigor and enthusiasm at the age of fifty-three. Having followed normal British custom, B-P had not married while an officer, but eventually fell in love with Olave Soames, a lovely woman who at the time was only twenty-two. They would be together for more than twenty-eight years and would raise three children: a son, Peter, and two daughters, Betty and Heather. Lady Baden-Powell would eventually take the reins of the Girl Guide Organization (called Girls Scouts in the United States) and lead its expansion for several decades. The Baden-Powells settled into a large old home named Pax Hill, located in the small, rural township of Bentley, in Hampshire, south of London.
FISHING WITH BADEN-POWELL
B-P's daughter, Heather, has best recorded his angling exploits. Most of the following quotes come from her writings. Here she describes how he began his lifelong love of fishing.
He had inherited from his brother Warington some salmon and trout rods and box after flat tin box of flies, ranging from the most gigantic and brightly coloured salmon flies down to the tiniest little dark gnats. And with Peter at his side as a willing pupil they would jog off together with the oft-repeated chant in their minds:
It's nice to sit and think and fish
B-P's new interest in fly fishing received some curious assistance from his Labrador retriever, who helped him develop his skill at playing fish.
Shawgm was my father's faithful black shadow for many years ... Also he played a lively part acting as a salmon or trout when Dad went to practice casting a line on the lawn. As soon as he heard the rod being lifted down from its pegs, high on the wall of the verandah, he would leap to his feet and bounce round my father, then turn and dash on ahead, jumping down the banks and out across the lawn. My father then tried casting a “fly” (but substituting a white pigeon's feather) and Shawgm would seize it up and tear away with it while the line screamed through the reel. Dad would play his “fish” for a time, then quietly reel him in to his feet-perhaps to repeat the whole game over again.2
A decade later, B-P would dive into a local river to save his blind and gray old Shawgm from drowning.3
In town, B-P initiated interest in a local river for angling purposes, involving his children and others in the venture. We also learn from Heather's recollection an uncommon form of fish resuscitation and are reminded of B-P's consistent kindness toward children.
... The River Wey ambles along below Bentley—about a mile to the south—on its way from Holybourne eventually to join the River Thames at Weybridge. “What a lovely little trout stream that would make,” my father once thought during one of our walk-rides over the bridge past Isington Mill. .. . We found a grand occupation for ourselves in the summer holidays. Leaving our ponies loose in Carters' field, we tore off our clothes and waded into the stream, pulling out dead branches, uprooted some of the rushes and reeds and having many a lovely wet, muddy hour or more clearing the banks where they broadened out below the bridge. Putting proposition forward to a few local friends and the riparian farmers owning the river banks, my father soon found that the Bentley Fly Fishing Club had sprung into being.
To stock the river, a lorry from Hungerford brought tanks of small fish from a trout hatchery. As we “helped” to release them into the stream, we found that some of them had fainted on the journey and had to have air breathed into their gaping mouths-they were given the “kiss of life” before they were lowered into the water and wiggled their way up-stream. An old Bentley resident can remember how, as a small girl afflicted with polio, she would watch for my father's arrival because he would lift her in and out of the stream, telling her to catch some “worms” for him to fish with. He never could resist having a laugh and a game with small children.4
After his death, the Bentley Fly-Fishing Club would be renamed the Bentley Baden-Powell Fly-Fishing Association in honor of its founder. The association continued to be responsible for stocking and caring for five miles of the River Wey.5
Although Lady Baden-Powell did not share his love of fishing and rarely accompanied him on his annual angling trips to Scotland and the west country, she did go with him once and was not allowed to forget the experience for many years.
There was the oft-quoted time when they went off to Wales to fish on the Wye and she elected to stay in the car while he went down to the river. He took a whistle with him so that when he got into a salmon he could blow for her to come and help him land it. He did get into a fish and he blew and he blew and he blew on his whistle. But she didn't come and she didn't come and eventually he managed to beach it by himself. When he carried his prize back up the bank to the car she was filled with surprise and delight—but why had she not heard his frantic whistle? She had brought her portable typewriter in the car and was clattering away at her letters!6
B-P also used angling as a way of helping others through their difficulties and sorrows as he did with Heather in 1934: “In mid-summer ... the fishing-rods came out again and Dad swept me away to the River Deveron for a fortnight's fishing in Scotland. He could see that the best way to help me disentangle myself from my wrong love-life was to disentangle my fishing-line from an overhanging tree! How clever of him; it did the trick …”.7 Similarly, a few years later, when Heather turned twenty-one, B-P surprised her yet again:
... While out for a walk along Pall Mall with my father, he casually said “Let's go in here.” I followed him in as he turned in at the door of Hardy's shop [a famous London anglers' store], and ten minutes later I followed him out again, with a beautiful three jointed trout rod tucked under my arm ...
And now, he thought, perhaps I'd like to try out my new trout rod? In the midst of all his London commitments, he made time to snatch a few days off and we sped away to Wales ... We took the silver fleur-de-lis Scout badge off the bonnet (of our automobile) and substituted a humbler radiator cap and drove off into the blue, incognito.
Somewhere near Ffestiniog we found the Oakley Arms and booked in as “Major Pryor and his daughter”-Major Beresford Pryor we quickly corrected on seeing the hall-porter looking sideways at the initials (B-P) on the luggage. It was ever difficult for my father to be incognito, somebody always recognized him-someone who had been a Scout and had seen him at a Rally, a Camp, a Jamboree. “That's what comes of being so ugly,” he would reply, shaking them warmly by the left hand [the Scout hand clasp].8
E. E. Reynolds was a B-P biographer. In his book, A Biography of Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell, he includes the following passages about B-P's love of fishing.
A fellow angler contributes the following note on B-P as a fisherman:
I should say B-P was as good an angler as he was at most things. He preferred river fishing for sea trout or salmon, and liked to be on his own, particularly on any river requiring more than the usual care and courage.
His technique being what it was, he perhaps gave less attention to his technical appliance than is sometimes necessary in some northern rivers, and I can well remember an instance of him using a beautiful presentation rod and gaff, which had the misfortune to meet a 25-lb. salmon, with the result that both gave way at the critical moment, and but for the services of a gillie of courage and resource, the salmon would have won!
I think his chief joy in fishing was that it took him away from the ordinary business of life more effectively than anything else, particularly when the formalities too often connected with sport were by-passed. He was always entranced with the beauty of river life, especially in the (Scottish) highlands in the autumn, with its gorgeous colouring.
Even the Boy Scouts had to give place to science and philosophy when the day's work was finished on the river. B-P was never so supremely happy as he was when wading deep and waiting for that electrical thrill of a taking fish. I am quite sure Izaak Walton9 never had a more devoted disciple.10
As the “Chief Scout” of the growing Boy Scout movement, B-P traveled the world. He oversaw the development of the organization, attended jamborees, and provided leadership and inspiration. Everywhere he went, his fly rods, reels, and fishing kit went with him so he could collect his personal “fishing fee” for the time he had given to scouting. Of B-P's fishing travels, and the way he most enjoyed them, again E. E. Reynolds provides insight.
When he needed to get right away from everything and everybody, he would go off for a few days' fishing: this for many years was his chief sport. He was never apart from polo—a ball-playing man, and he needed a sport which he could enjoy alone, for there were times when he could only recover tone by being solitary. This he could write to a friend in 1925, “I am a different animal to what I was two months ago thanks to a severe course of fishing:” And in 1929 he wrote to an angler friend, “As to New Zealand, I shall be going there, via Panama, sailing early Feb. 1931, arriving in early March. I don't know how that suits trout fishing there—but I should indeed like to get a little if it is possible. Only I do like to do it alone. In X they would make up parties to go with me, which just destroyed the whole pleasure of it.”11
FISHING TO THE END
After almost constant travel, the Baden-Powells were back at Pax Hill in 1937, just in time for the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. There were thousands of sightseers, and the country was decorated for the celebration. B-P was by then recognized worldwide for Boy Scouting, which has provided guidance and leadership to so many thousands, perhaps even millions, of youth. During the summer of 1937, B-P was awarded the Order of Merit on the Coronation Honors list—an honor held by only twenty-four other people—“in appreciation of his valuable services to the Empire.” He was requested to receive it personally at the hands of the new king during an informal chat in the king's study.12
Later in 1937, B-P would attend his final Boy Scout World Jamboree and bid farewell to all the scouts and leaders he loved so well. Afterward, a fishing trip to the north country was much deserved.
Now, at last after the Jamboree, Dad was ready to get away on holiday to Scotland ... Here Dad and I enjoyed a week's fishing. We hardly caught a fish—they seemed to be away on holiday too-it was getting late in the season. But that didn't detract from the enjoyment of the scenery and the relaxation at the riverside; the tranquility of mountains and sea, rocky islands and deep bays ... Everybody seemed determined that Dad should get a fish, offering him the best stretches of water; the Bryce Allens offered their beat on the Aros and the Mellises said, “Come and try the sea-pools in the River Baa.” Colonel Gardiner suggested his loch in Glen More and Lady Scott sent us off down to Aros Bridge. But to no avail! We had our mid-day picnics lying on burn-side banks in the bracken and heather, basking in the sun, and then in to tea with some nearby crofters. MacPail, the ghillie, took us to lovely pools on General Maitland's water, but it was too low and clear and although we could see those idle salmon just loafing about enjoying themselves, never a touch did we get.13
With B-P now eighty years old and his health failing, his doctors recommended he move to a warmer climate to extend his years. The Baden-Powells would soon relocate to Nyeri, Kenya, spending B-P's last three years in a bungalow, which they named Paxtu (as in Pax Hill 2). But even in his final years of unaccustomed leisure, he found new locations to wet a line. During one family reunion at Paxtu, his family remembered: “We went by a narrow grass track down to Dad's favorite fishing place on thega River and took picnics down to the bend where we could see four of the best trout pools.”14
IN HIS OWN WORDS
In 1936, B-P published a rambling text of some of his favorite stories and experiences titled Lessons from the Varsity of Life, which included a few yarns under the heading “Fishing.” These stories, sometimes humorous, shed light onto B-P's feelings as he enjoyed his fishing. His enthusiasm for angling and its rejuvenating effect on the soul is evident in the text that follows.
Which is the better, salmon or trout fishing? I don't know.
They are so different and for myself I can only say that I love them both. Salmon fishing is the heavier, harder, and more exasperating business, but when, after hours and days of blank effort, you suddenly get a tug on your line, and you feel that you are “into him” (and there are no other words that express it) it is well not to have a weak heart, for that organ certainly gets a bang and a thrill which is hard to beat.
Trout fishing, on the other hand, demands greater skill and cunning and is the more delicate art, and if less exciting is greater fun. A few years ago I was asked what return I should like for paying a visit of inspection to some Scouts in Wales, and, knowing the tastes of my host (the late Lord Glanusk), I said that my fee was a day's fishing. To this he readily acceded and asked me down to his charming bungalow on the Wye.
The morning after my arrival, which happened to be a Sunday, his daughter took me down to look at the river before going to church. The temptation was too great. I took a rod from the rack just to try a cast in that lovely looking pool. Just one cast. Well, one more. But—oh, I was into a fish and he a big one too. For a few minutes he swam gently round the pool, hauling steadily at me, then away he went with a rush upstream, my reel screaming its alarm.
I had to follow him, but the bank grew rocky and it was evident that I must wade in, though unprepared for it. My gallant young hostess pointed out the danger of wading, since among the rocks were holes twenty feet deep; so using the gaff as a wading staff she plunged in herself up to her waist, and, telling me to hang on to her with one hand when I could spare it from the rod, she piloted me after our fish as he dashed on up the river.
The salmon towed me downstream.
For a long distance we followed him until he got into a long open deep stretch where it was impossible for us to go farther, and he had got all my line out. The time had come when I must either hold him or he must break me.
I held on like grim death, expecting the line to go at any minute, but it held. Suddenly he turned and then came speeding down the river towards us again. Reeling in as fast as ever I could I had a slack line for an ominously long time. I thought he was off but to my ultimate relief I got the strain on him again. Then he dragged us away downstream, over the rocks, and back to his original pool, where at length we killed him; a glorious fresh-run fish of twenty-five pounds.
As we landed him great cheers burst out behind us, and to our astonishment we found that quite a concourse of people had gathered from the main road which ran close by, and were rejoiced to see the successful end of the tussle.
But this was not the last I was to hear about it, for from these
people the news spread and got into the local papers.
A week later I received a document in Welsh and English from a religious conference in which it was decreed that no boy or girl of their congregations was to join the Boy Scouts or the Girl Guides because I was guilty of having fished on the Sabbath.
The Jock Scott is the great salmon fishing fly. It derived its name from the fishing ghillie at Makerstoun in old days, and he made up this particular pattern of fly for then Duchess of Roxburgh for her to take with her to Norway, after which it became one of the most popular flies known.
Another famous ghillie at Makerstoun was Rob o' the Trows He was apparently a quaint character if the story of him be true which relates that he was acting as ghillie to a certain peer one day when this gentleman caught and landed a salmon. The peer proceeded to take a drop of refreshment out of his flask, which he then put back in his pocket.
Rob had looked at that flask with some hope that the usual custom would be carried out of offering the ghillie a drink too. Presently my lord caught another salmon and again he sipped, and again Rob hoped in vain.
A third time this happened, and Rob sprang into the boat and started to row away for his home.
The fisherman called after him: “Where are you off to?” And Rob simply growled: “Them as drink alone can fish alone,” and went home.
As an education in patience, fishing is par excellence, the very best school. It grips men of every kind.
How can all those fellows go and sit all day in a punt on the Thames, or six hundred of them line the bank of the Trent in competition for hours? But they do it in absolute content. Ask any one of them if he has had good sport. “Yes, rather,” he will reply, though as yet his creel is empty.
They go to fish, not to catch fish.
Still more do you learn patience when fly-fishing in a wind and your delicate gut cast ties itself up into an intricate tangle for you to unravel. That is bad enough in England, but it is ten times worse when you get it, as I did once in Australia, with a kukkaburra (“laughing jackass”) chortling at you from a neighbouring tree every time you get tangled or caught in a bush.
Somehow the absence of civilization in your surroundings adds a zest to your fishing, whether it be among the ragged moorlands of Galway, or the mountains of Natal, or the forests of Canada or Tasmania; the wild has its charms.
At the same time there is a sweet attraction in the waters nearer home where, in the lush meadows of Hampshire, with the cattle knee deep among the buttercups, and the snipe drumming overhead, the rooks cawing drowsily among the stately elms, you wander slowly, stalking your trout in infinite quiet and solitude, far from the madding crowd and away from the noise and rush of modern life in towns, a comrade among the birds and water-voles. Trout fishing is the best rest-cure in the world.
On these occasions a ghillie spoils the show. A man who cannot land his own fish is not a fisherman.15
SEEDS OF CATCH AND RELEASE
In his book, Scouting for Boys, Baden-Powell included a small chapter titled “Fishes and Fishing.” As you read this passage, you will not only notice B-P's sound angling advice, but the wonderful way he communicates with, and reassures, his young readers:
Every Scout ought to be able to fish in order to get food for himself. A tenderfoot [beginner] who starved on the bank of a river full of fish would look very silly, yet it might happen to one who had never learned to catch fish.
Fishing brings out a lot of the points in Scouting, especially if you fish with the fly. To be successful you must know about the habits and ways of the fish, what kind of haunt he frequents, in what kind of weather he feeds and at what time of the day, and so on. Without knowing these, you can fish away until you are blue in the face and never catch one.
A fish generally has his own particular haunt in the stream, and when once you discover a fish at home you can go and creep near and watch what he does.
Then you have to be able to tie very special knots with delicate gut, which is a bit of a puzzler to any boy whose fingers are all thumbs.
I will only give you a few here, but there are many others ... [B-P then illustrates four fishing knots used to secure hooks, make loops, and fasten gut of differing sizes.—Author]
And you have to have infinite patience. Your line gets caught up in bushes and reeds, or in your clothes—or when it can't find any other body it ties up in a knot round itself. Well, it's no use getting angry with it. There are only two things to do—the first is to grin, and the second is to set to work very leisurely to undo it. Then you will have loads of disappointments in losing fish through the line breaking, or other mishaps. But remember they happen to everybody who begins fishing, and are the troubles that in the end make it so very enjoyable when you get them.
When you catch your fish do as I do—only keep those you specially want for food or as specimens, put back the others the moment you have landed them. The prick of the hook in their leathery mouth does not hurt them for long, and they swim off quite happily to enjoy life in their water again.
If you use a dry fly, that is, keeping your fly sitting on top of the water instead of sunk under the surface, you have realty to stalk your fish, just as you would a deer or any other game, for a trout is very sharp-eyed and shy.16
B-P's advice to boys to quickly put back those trout not needed corresponds to those time-honored words “do as I do.” Another glimpse of him and his catch-and-release philosophy comes from a correspondent who wrote:
My father met B-P on the banks of the River Dove when B-P was staying at the Isaac Walton Hotel; they were both fly-fishing and they exchanged compliments and ideas which led to a friendship. My father asked B-P what sport he had had and B-P said, “Quite good. I have caught 5 brace  of nice fish.” My father said, “May I have a look at them?” Whereupon B-P said, “I only fish for the sport of the thing, but always return the fish to the river so that they may enjoy a longer life.”17
From B-P came the advice and example of a fishing philosophy known today as catch-and-release fishing, which would not be generally recognized and practiced for another half century. The seeds of angling conservation were just beginning to germinate, later to be popularized by Lee Wulff and other great sportsmen.
Lord Baden-Powell was a man well beloved of family, friends, and millions of khaki-uniformed boys and their leaders. It is obvious from these passages that he not only enjoyed angling for trout, salmon, and other sport fish, but that his time on the water was truly an important and often guarded time of rejuvenation. Even though he frequently ate his catch, he more often let them go “so that they may enjoy a longer life,” possibly in recognition of the sport and the enjoyment it had provided him. Perhaps the most important theme gleaned from this collection of stories is the recognition of the emotionally healthy way B-P used fishing and his time on the water to compensate for the unusually high demands his life of service required. It would appear that all of us could benefit from taking our own personal “fishing fee” for the service we provide to others, and as we do so, I am sure B-P would wish us each “good-sport.”
Baden-Powell, Baden-Powell: A Family Album (New York: Alan Sutton
Publishing, 1986), p. 27.