The Father of New England Bass Fishing

With the exception of the Lake Champlain watershed in western Vermont, it was not until 1850 that a black bass was known to swim in New England.

Prior to 1850, both largemouth and smallmouth bass did not exist anywhere in New England, with exception of Lake Champlain. (Photo by Engbretson Underwater Photography)

It is hard to imagine freshwater angling in New England without black bass, the generic classification of both large and smallmouth bass. They are favorites of many thousands of anglers across New England.  On any weekend in season, popular (and many “secret”) waters from northern Maine to southern Connecticut are dotted with all manner of watercraft crewed by anglers tossing plugs, baits, and flies of every description with the hope of boating a lunker.

However, the vast majority of bass anglers in our region are probably not aware that it wasn’t always that way. With the exception of the Lake Champlain watershed in western Vermont, it was not until 1850 that a black bass was known to swim in New England.

During the 19th century, freshwater fisheries were not well understood. In New England, especially, fish had always been abundant. Prodigious runs of salmon, striped bass, shad, herring, alewives, and other anadromous fishes swarmed into their natal streams and rivers, keeping fishermen busy. Primitive techniques for taking fish ensured that more than enough survived in great numbers from year to year to perpetuate the populations. But, with the dawning of the industrial age, New England’s great rivers were dammed to power giant mills. New, more efficient methods were employed to take vast quantities of fish as they made their annual migrations. Fish stocks plummeted, and those who made their living—or found their enjoyment—in the pursuit of fish grew concerned.

During that era, sport angling was becoming more common among a growing middle class, and bass were already establishing themselves as popular quarry elsewhere. For most anglers in New England, however, bass were an exotic species – the subject of articles in sporting journals and magazines, and little more.

But in 1850, Samuel Tisdale, a wealthy merchant from Wareham, Massachusetts, hatched a plan to introduce this gamefish to his home waters. Author Jack Noon talks about this in his book, The Bassing of New Hampshire: How Black Bass Came to the Granite State (1999, Moose Country Press). He cites a report from the U.S. Commission on Fish and Fisheries, stating that Tisdale acquired 27 bass from Saratoga Lake in New York and put them in Flax Lake (no longer the pond’s name) near his home in Wareham.

Tisdale sent an associate, Preston Hodges, to Saratoga for the sole purpose of catching bass to be stocked in Flax Lake. Tisdale paid Hodges’ expenses and the cost of transporting the fish by rail back to eastern Massachusetts. During the following two years, Tisdale arranged to have even more bass—200, according to the commission’s report—caught and transported to Wareham to be stocked in other ponds in Plymouth County. It is not known if the bass Hodges brought to Tisdale’s lake were largemouth (known in New York at the time as “Oswego bass”), smallmouth (known then as black bass), or samples of both species. What is known is that the fish thrived.

Tisdale kept the matter secret, and those who were aware of the endeavor were encouraged to leave the bass to their own devices for five years to allow them to settle into their new home. His efforts were a success. Those first fish—ancestors of the stocks New Englanders now enjoy—had multiplied. Encouraged by the results of his stocking, Tisdale arranged for the progeny of those fish to be stocked in ponds throughout eastern Massachusetts and, according to Noon’s research, in waters of other New England states.

Enthusiastic reports from anglers in the region praised Tisdale, crediting him for their enjoyment of the newfound sport of bass fishing in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Bass from the Tisdale line were also transported to New Hampshire, probably in 1867, where they were stocked in a pond near Wolfeborough (possibly Rust Pond). Noon’s exhaustive investigations turned up a great deal of contradictory information and misinformation as to the precise series of events that brought bass to the Granite State, but by the early 1870s, the success of that first New Hampshire stocking inspired an aggressive program that introduced bass to no fewer than 140 water bodies by 1880. Maine state records show smallmouth bass were introduced in 1869 and, in 1897, largemouth bass were stocked in Forbes Pond in Gouldsboro by state fisheries personnel. Bass fever had spread.

Thanks to Samuel Tisdale, in less than 50 years, New Englanders were enjoying the pleasure of chasing the most popular fish in the country, the black bass. Unfortunately, while his project was wildly successful, few know of Tisdale’s role in establishing one of New England’s beloved sport fisheries. Black bass are so much a part of the region’s fishing that people assume they have always been here.

In today’s world, Tisdale’s efforts would be viewed much differently. We can look back 150 years or so and understand and appreciate what he did in the context of his time, but his endeavors (and those of the various New England states after his first stockings) were conducted without knowing the long-term impact such introductions would have. At the time, it was assumed that lakes and ponds would be able to support a diverse and nearly unlimited number of desirable fish. Today, the impact of introducing nonnative species is better understood, and state fishery biologists are careful to manage waters to protect native species. Illegally introduced fish can expose native species to disease, threaten them by consuming immature fish faster than the natives can reproduce, and outcompete them for available forage. Many waters that once held thriving populations of trout – including some strains of trout unique to a particular lake or area – no longer support self-sustaining populations of those native species due to competition from invasive or introduced species.

But bass are here to stay, and there are thousands of anglers who think there is no better adversary. So, grab a rod, hit the water and enjoy a gift given to New England over a century ago by a fellow outdoorsman and bass enthusiast, Samuel Tisdale.

Related Content 

The History of Largemouth Bass in the Northeast

Long Island’s Largemouth Bass Legends

Discovering College Bass Fishing

1 thought on “The Father of New England Bass Fishing

  1. Carl Ruegg

    Great article on black bass as it was introduced to CT lakes. I grew up on Lake Hitchcock in Wolcott CT in the 1950s . There was an abundant population of largemouth and small mouth bass in both sides of the lake that is divided by a causeway . My best bass taken from either side weighed six pounds fourteen ounces measured on a meat market scale at the Walsh market store next to the lake . Those bass fed on a great supply of yellow perch which were quite abundant in both sides of the pond . One could easily catch a dozen yellow perch while ice fishing .The bottom of the lake has the remnants of sunken stone walls and huge tree stumps with sprawling broken limbs that the bass hide under. There are also several small beaches with sandy areas that attract numerous baitfish and perch bugs as feed for the many types of panfish. My grandfather operated the only private boat rental located on the lake for nearly 50 years . He had four wooden rowboats that were always out on the lake . My grandmother inspired groups of women to come and go boating and fishing and to bring their daughters for the experience . She allowed Girl scout groups to use the boats free of charge . I admired her for that . They of course were provided with lifejackets oars and anchors included . My grandparents sold the lake property to my brother in 1970 and then moved to Florida . My brother passed away from a heart attack ten years later and his wife sold the house soon after and moved to California . All that said , I know that there are many people who learned to enjoy fishing and boating on Lake Hitchcock. I am so blessed to have seen that happen .

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