By Richard Lessner
Trout fishing was an important part of European settlement in the American West from the very beginning. Explorers, trappers, pioneers, soldiers, and homesteaders all brought along fishing tackle as they pushed westward across the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains, where they found rivers and streams flowing with clear, cold water and fairly bursting with new and exotic members of the family Salmonidae. Angling for trout (and salmon) had a significant place in the Lewis and Clark expedition and also played an improbable role in the outcome of the one of the most famous Indian battles on the nineteenth-century frontier.
From A. C. Laut, Pathfinders of the West (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1904). Retrieved from Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18216/18216-h/18216-h.htm#img-317.
The Corps of Discovery (1803–1806) led by Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark was the first to scientifically describe several new species of fish, including the Yellowstone and Westslope cutthroat trout. The captains and their men mostly went fishing for food to supplement their diet of buffalo, elk, deer, pronghorn, and bear meat, but they also pursued what today we would call sport or recreational fishing. The Corps’s designated fisherman, Silas Goodrich, was an avid angler, and according to the expedition’s journals, he was a man of extraordinary ability. Paul Russell Cutright, in his authoritative book Lewis & Clark: Pioneering Naturalists, describes Goodrich as “the Izaak Walton of the expedition.”1 There were places along the trail where game became scarce and meat was difficult to come by. During these lean times, the Corps often came to rely on Goodrich’s notable angling skills to hold hunger at bay and provide needed sustenance so the men could push on toward the Pacific.
Silas Goodrich’s prowess with rod and line is mentioned throughout the journals of the various expedition members. On the day that Meriwether Lewis reached the Great Falls of the Missouri, 13 June 1805, Goodrich is reported in the captain’s journal to have caught “several large trout,” which the advance scouting party cooked for dinner.2
The trout the men dined on that night next to the majestic Great Falls (today much reduced in splendor by hydroelectric dams) were undoubtedly cutthroat. In his journal entry, Lewis described the trout Goodrich caught for supper as resembling “our mountain or speckled [brook] trout in form and in the position of their fins, but the specks on these are of a deep black instead of the red or goald colour [sic] of those common to the U. States. these [sic] are furnished long sharp teeth on the pallet and tongue and have generally a small dash of red on each side of behind the front ventral fins.”3 Almost anyone who has fished in the Rocky Mountains would instantly recognize Lewis’s description as a cutthroat. The record in Lewis’s journal of Goodrich’s catch is the first scientific description of the cutthroat trout by an Anglo-American. Of course, the trout was already well known to the Native American inhabitants of the Rockies.
The discovery and description of the cutthroat by Silas Goodrich and Meriwether Lewis at the Great Falls of the Missouri is justly celebrated in the natural history of the West. But perhaps no episode in the long and colorful history of western trout fishing is more bizarre than the one that occurred in Montana seven decades later and not too far from the very place where Silas Goodrich pulled his first cutthroat trout from the pristine waters of the Missouri River.
On 13 September 1877, Capt. Frederick Benteen led a company of the 7th Cavalry into the Battle of Canyon Creek armed . . . with a fly rod! An inveterate fisherman, Benteen led a wild cavalry charge against the Nez Percés Indian encampment near the Yellowstone River, madly waving a rod and urging his men forward as bullets whizzed about his head. All the troopers engaged later agreed that Benteen had demonstrated considerable coolness and courage under fire.
A few weeks later, at the surrender of the Nez Percés following the Battle of Bear’s Paw, Chief Joseph, their legendary leader on the heroic but ill-fated flight to Canada, asked to meet the man his warriors had tried so hard to kill at Canyon Creek. The Nez Percés warriors clearly were impressed by their opponent’s bravery, if not his eccentricity. Chief Joseph identified this courageous soldier as an officer wearing a buckskin jacket, chewing on a pipe, and madly waving a fishing rod.4 The two men were duly introduced and had an amiable chat. No record of the conversation is known to exist, but one cannot help speculate that perhaps the erstwhile enemies swapped stories about their respective fishing exploits. It’s probably unlikely given the circumstances, but it’s pleasant to think that maybe they traded tall tales, as fishermen almost universally are so inclined to do.
A native Virginian who remained loyal to the Union, Benteen fought with notable courage both during the Civil War and in the wars with the Plains Indians. He was a popular commander among his troops who appreciated his unpretentious informality and obvious concern for his men’s well-being. One of his troopers later recalled fondly, “I saw him wade over his boot tops many times into cold water to get mountain trout.”5 By all reports, Benteen took full advantage of his military service in the West to explore the virgin streams of the Rocky Mountains and to pursue trout whenever his duties permitted.
Despite his dashing charge at Canyon Creek and well-deserved reputation for courage, however, Benteen had made more than his share of enemies in the army because of his loathing for—and very vocal criticism of—his commanding officer, George Armstrong Custer. Benteen regarded Custer a braggart, a blowhard, and a vainglorious incompetent. Worse, Benteen made little effort to conceal his opinion. In fact, he once boasted that he was proud to say he thoroughly despised the flamboyant Custer. Benteen believed Custer was reckless with the lives of his troops in pursuit of personal glory.
Captain Frederick William Benteen, Troop H, 7th U.S. Cavalry, no date. Photo by D. F. Barry. From the Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, Montana. Catalog #940-855. Used with permission.
General George A. Custer (holding a buffalo tail in his right hand), circa 1872. Photo by D. F. Barry, From the Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, Montana. Catalog #941-834. Used with permission.
In June 1876, a year before his fly-rod–waving heroics at Canyon Creek, Benteen was with Custer on the trail of Sitting Bull. As is now well known, at the Little Bighorn Custer twice divided forces before an enemy of unknown strength, a major military blunder. Without making any effort to determine the number of the Indians in the huge encampment on his front, Custer dispatched Benteen and three companies of troopers on what turned out to be a wild goose chase. Some historians suspect Custer did not want his bitter enemy, Benteen, to share in the glory of defeating Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Everyone knows the inevitable result of Custer’s dubious command decisions.
Returning from his long and pointless excursion around the right flank of the Lakota–Cheyenne encampment, Benteen arrived back near the scene of the celebrated Last Stand just in time to witness the disaster unfolding. He coolly rallied the panic-stricken and retreating company of Maj. Marcus Reno, who had lost both his composure and control of his men. Although Reno outranked him, Benteen effectively took command and restored order. He mounted an effective fighting retreat and perimeter defense against the Indian onslaught. Having finished off Custer, the combined Indian force fought for a day and a half in an effort to wipe out the battered remnants of the 7th Cavalry. Benteen’s coolheaded leadership is generally credited with having saved the balance of Custer’s command from annihilation.
After the ignominious debacle at Little Bighorn, Custer’s widow mounted a public relations campaign to exonerate her martyred husband of responsibility and transform him into a tragic hero—and equally to blame Benteen for not leading his troops into the maelstrom at Last Stand Hill to rescue the reckless boy general. Had Benteen done so, almost without doubt, both he and his men would have also been lost.
Horse Shoe Falls (part of Rainbow Falls in the distance), height 20 feet (no date). From the Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, Montana. Catalog #949-579. Used with permission.
Incredibly, Custer’s fate actually may have been sealed as much by the allure of Montana’s trout fishing as his own foolhardy, glory-seeking bungling. As Ken Owens details in his excellent article, “While Custer Was Making His Last Stand,”6 while Custer was blundering into Sitting Bull’s camp and getting himself and his men massacred, a column of reinforcements under Gen. George Crook that might have saved the day was comfortably camped close by on Goose Creek near the Tongue River—fishing!7 It seems that Capt. Benteen was not the only soldier to be awestruck by the remarkable trout fishing available in Montana that fateful summer of 1876.
Crook’s column was one of three that commanding Gen. Alfred Terry had dispatched to search out and converge on the Indian confederation: one under Terry himself (including Custer), and two others under Gen. Crook and Col. John Gibbon. On 17 June 1876, a week before the nation-rattling events at the Little Bighorn, the column commanded by Gen. Crook stumbled into the Battle of the Rosebud near the Yellowstone River. Crook was manhandled by Crazy Horse, and he withdrew to an earlier encampment on Goose Creek, where his troopers previously had enjoyed some spectacular trout fishing while on the march to join up with Custer.
As Custer rushed headlong toward his destiny at the Little Bighorn, Gen. Crook and his beleaguered men were only too happy to take a break from the messy, dangerous, and unpredictable business of Indian fighting. The command settled down on Goose Creek for more than a week of R & R. And what better way to rest and relax than indulge in a little fishing? Occupying themselves thusly, the company produced some truly prodigious catches. Using a combination of artificial flies and natural bait—live grasshoppers impaled on a bare hook were found to be especially effective—the greedy troopers caught huge numbers of eager Yellowstone cutthroat. They might not have been able to defeat the Sioux on the Rosebud, but by God, they could put a whipping on the trout in Goose Creek! Three days after Custer’s Last Stand, for example, Crook’s men bagged no fewer than 500 trout! According to Capt. John Bourke, who authored a book on his western adventures with Crook, the general was every bit as caught up in the fishing frenzy as his troopers. Most anglers took fifteen to thirty trout daily. Capt. Bourke recorded that one fellow officer, aided by two troopers, bagged 146 trout in a single day, so willingly did the cutthroat rise to the bait. Bourke’s On the Border with Crook, published in 1891, is an invaluable primary source and firsthand account of the general’s controversial fishing expedition during the Sioux– Cheyenne campaign of 1876.8
Although Crook’s column was supposed to advance to unite with Custer and Gibbon near the Little Bighorn to corner the elusive Indians—and thereby reinforce the 7th Cavalry before it engaged the Lakota–Cheyenne warriors—instead, the general and his command spent a leisurely week not in pursuit of Sitting Bull, but chasing trout. All thought of pursuing Indians was put aside as Crook and his men idled away the days on the banks of Goose Creek, which was at that time brimming with trout.
Crook Battlefield at the big bend of Rosebud Creek in 1901, twenty-five years after the fight (Battle of the Rosebud, 1876). Left to right: Two Moons (Cheyenne Indian), interpreter William Roland, and Olin D. Wheeler. Photo by L. A. Huffman. From the Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, Montana. Catalog #981-800. Used with permission.
Historians ever since have speculated how events might have turned out differently that summer had the cutthroat been a little less eager and had Crook not dallied for a week of splendid trout fishing while Custer hurried to his doom. On the other hand, had Custer been a little more interested, like Gen. Crook, in exploring the angling opportunities frontier Montana afforded and a little less bent on seeking personal glory, he might not have blundered into his dubious place in history.
As with all “what if” history, we will never know if Crook could have reached Custer in time to prevent the disaster at the Little Bighorn. Most fly fishers, however, will understand and perhaps forgive Gen. Crook’s reluctance to saddle up and take premature leave of such extraordinary fishing. Few fly fishers would willingly abandon the stream when the fish are on the bite, as they were that fateful June week in 1876.
And what of Custer’s nemesis, the heroic but impolitic fly fisherman Capt. Frederick Benteen? Well, his enemies finally caught up with him. He was charged with drunkenness on duty and convicted by a court marshal. Reduced in rank and pay, Benteen maintained his innocence—both of the alleged drunkenness and his failure to ride to Custer’s rescue—until his death in 1898. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Frederick Benteen remains, so far as is known, the only American soldier ever to go into combat armed with a fly rod.
- Paul Russell Cutright, Lewis & Clark: Pioneering Naturalists (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 66.
- Bernard DeVoto, ed., The Journals of Lewis and Clark (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1953), 138.
- Jerome A. Greene, Nez Perce Summer 1877: The U.S. Army and the Nee-Me-Poo Crisis (Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 2000), 227.
- Charles K. Mills, Harvest of Barren Regrets: The Army Career of Frederick William Benteen, 1834–1898 (Glendale, Calif.: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1985), 299.
- Ken Owens, “While Custer Was Making His Last Stand: George Crook’s 1876 War on Trout in the Bighorn Country,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History (vol. 52, no. 2, Summer 2002), 58–61.
- John H. Monnett wrote about this for the American Fly Fisher in “Mystery of the Bighorns: Did a Fishing Trip Seal Custer’s Fate?” (Fall 1993, vol. 19, no. 4), 2–5.
- John G. Bourke, On the Border with Crook (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), 329–32.