Anyone who happened to go fishing on Cape Cod’s Mashpee Pond before the Civil War might have seen Daniel Webster there with a pole in hand. He’s an industrious and attentive fisherman, most of the time. But when he slacks off, Webster talks with the fishes.
Webster goes fishing with Grover Cleveland, the future president, who owns a summer home on Cape Cod. Cleveland reminisced about Webster in a 1906 memoir, Fishing and shooting sketches.
Webster belonged to the fishing brotherhood, “always in good and regular standing,” wrote Cleveland. He once caught a 14-1/2 pound sea-run brook trout, called a salter, from the Carmans River in Long Island. It ranked as the second biggest trout caught in the United States until 1935.
“He was, besides, a wonderful orator,” wrote Cleveland. “And largely so because he was a fisherman.”
“We know that the true fisherman finds no better time for profitable contemplation and mental exercise than when actually engaged with his angling outfit,” he wrote. “It will probably never be possible for us to gather statistics showing the moving sermons, the enchanting poems, the learned arguments and eloquent orations that have been composed or constructed between the bites, strikes or rises of fish.”
Daniel Webster Talks With the Fishes
Webster delivered one of his best speeches at the laying of the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument. In his most impressive passage, he spoke to the veterans of the American Revolution. Webster began with the words, “Venerable men!” Cleveland described how he came up with the line.
“This thrilling oratorical flight was composed and elaborated by Mr. Webster while wading waist deep and casting his flies in Mashpee waters,” wrote Cleveland.
That day, He noticed Webster had slacked off his fishing. Cleveland then approached him.
“He seemed to be gazing at the overhanging trees, and presently advancing one foot and extending his right hand he commenced to speak, ‘Venerable Men!'”
Fishing in Mashpee
Webster also talks about fishing. One summer in the 1830s, he sent eight or nine trout to his Boston Brahmin friend, Henry Cabot. In his letter to Cabot, he wrote that he caught them with his guide, John Attaquin.
He caught the fish “in that chief of all brooks, Mashpee. I made a long day of it, & with good success, for me. John was with me, full of good advice.” Webster took 26 trout, weighing 17 lb. 12 oz.
“I got them by following your advice,” he wrote. “That is, by careful and thorough fishing of the difficult places which other do not so fish. The brook is fished, nearly every day. I entered it, not so high up as we sometimes do, between 7 & 8 o’clock, & at 12 was hardly more than half way down to the meeting house path. You see I did not hurry.”
Strong, Fine Talk
John Attaquin described how Webster would finish a “strong, fine talk” to the fishes.
After landing a large trout on the bank of the stream, Webster “talked mighty strong and fine to that fish and told him what a mistake he had made, and what a fool he was to take that fly, and that he would have been all right if he had let it along.”
He’d then propose to Attaquin that they celebrate with a fitting libation.
Cleveland himself had shared in such a libation. When Attaquin told the story, he wrote, “I recalled how precisely a certain souvenir called “the Webster Flask,” carefully hoarded among my valued possessions, was fitted to the situation described.”
Webster Talks With the Fishes in Fiction
Eighty-five years after Webster’s death in 1852, Stephen Vincent Benet w
rote a hilarious short story Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent. Perhaps Benet had heard the old stories of Webster’s talks with fishes. Or maybe he’d heard about New England’s sea serpents.
In the story, a sea serpent named Samanthy encounters Daniel Webster fishing in Plymouth Harbor. Samanthy develops a crush on Webster and follows him to Washington. There she hoots in the Potomac. Webster goes to the banks of the river and tells her to go home.
“For, if you keep on hooting in the Potomac, Samanthy,” he said, “you’ll become a public menace to navigation and get sat upon by the Senate Committee for Rivers and Harbors. They’ll drag you up on land, [Pg 201]Samanthy, and put you in the Smithsonian Institution; they’ll stick you in a stagnant little pool and children will come to throw you peanuts on Sundays, and their nurses will poke you with umbrellas if you don’t act lively enough. The U. S. Navy will shoot at you for target practice, Samanthy, and the scientists will examine you, and the ladies of the Pure Conduct League will knit you a bathing suit, and you’ll be bothered every minute by congressmen and professors and visitors and foreign celebrities till you won’t be able to call your scales your own.
If you enjoyed this story about how Daniel Webster talks with fishes, you may want to read about his disastrous Seventh of March speech.
Images: Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge: By Tom Eagle – http://www.fws.gov/northeast/mashpee/images/random/4.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17414715