When legislative sessions run long and the sun bakes down on the Capitol dome, sometimes Members of Congress just want to go fishing. A congressional recess tradition, fishing has long been a respite from the humidity and politics of Washington, and a source of unbelievable stories.
Although John Nance Garner was the Speaker of the House, back in Uvalde, Texas, he was known as “Cactus Jack.” The Boston Globe observed that he puttered around his ranch in a “battered Stetson hat stained with grease and dirt, and attired in a pair of baggy-kneed, frayed-bottomed overalls.” During recess in 1932, while his wife answered telegrams from Washington, Garner set out from his farmhouse at sunrise to gather tackle for a fishing trip. He displayed the haul from his first fishing trip of the year in this photograph.
Garner’s fishing pals were Ross Brumfield and Ben Franklin, rival auto repair shop owners, and Mon Fenley, a well driller. Even after becoming Vice President, Garner continued fishing with his partners in West Texas. Fenley explained that Garner enjoyed angling but liked rowing the boat and critiquing his buddies’ technique even more. “If you miss your shot, or lose your fish—jumpin’ Jehosophat, how that old Vice President can tear you to pieces.”
“And what do you do when the Vice President starts to cuss you—take it?” the Globe reporter asked.
“Take it? Podner, you’re in Texas. Of course I don’t take it. I cuss him right back. We all do. Make him mad? Pshaw! It jest delights his soul. I guess he gets pretty fed up livin’ all the time with a bunch of mealy-mouthed politicians, and to hear a little good old clean-cut Texas language is a relief to him.”
Maine fishermen traditionally presented the first catch of the season to the President. The salmon was supposed to be presented whole then cooked for a festive meal. But in 1930, something went wrong. Representative Donald Snow of Maine rushed to the White House as soon as he heard about the fish gone astray.
The 11-pounder, reportedly a beauty, appeared first in the kitchen instead of the executive offices. “The White House chef, evidently thinking that the place for so fine a fish was in the oven, immediately decapitated it and prepared it for its journey which would end on the presidential table,” detailed the Washington Post. It might seem that a headless fish would be impossible to present ceremonially to the President. But Snow, a freshman Member from down east, tried to save the day.
“Mr. Snow at once left the floor of the House of Representatives and rushed in a taxicab to the White House where he went into conference with the chef and Col. Starling, chief of the secret service and an expert on fish and fishing,” the Post recounted. Snow and Starling (both well-named for outdoor pursuits) made a plan to restore the creature. They had just enough time to sew the fish's head back on—but not its tail. The operation proved delicate: Because President Hoover was also an avid fisherman, he would likely notice that the fish was not quite in one piece. However, no presidential complaints were reported.
After 20 years in the House, Kentucky Representative Ben Johnson found that his congressional duties took too much time away from his real life’s work—fishing. The Atlanta Constitution testified that he was popular and in good health, and could probably have served another decade. The paper noted that while his reasons for departing might seem “inadequate” to some, “there are folks galore who will applaud his decision.”
“In the past 20 years, I have not been able to go fishing half as often as I’d like,” Johnson soliloquized. “I am always behind on the greatest sport man can experience and I am leaving congress to make up for lost time. There are millions of fish in the Kentucky streams that have missed me all these years and I am eager to get back home and resume my acquaintance with them.”
Looking for another congressional rod and reel story? Go fish!
Sources: The Boston Globe, May 1, 1938; Washington Post, May 8, 1930; and Atlanta Constitution, February 28, 1927.Follow @USHouseHistory