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Presidents take to the field to escape ‘strenuous life’

August 4, 2010
By Joe Hackett, News Outdoors Columnist

I remember the report. A radio news bulletin announced, “A killer rabbit penetrated Secret Service security and attacked President Carter on a recent trip to Plains, Georgia. According to White House staff members, the President beat back the animal with a canoe paddle.”

    At the time, the press had a field day with the incident. It was spoofed on both Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Newpapers featured the cartoons for weeks.

    However, President Carter was adamant in his claim. He actually ordered enlargements of photographs of the incident to offer as proof. A White House staffer who saw the photos claimed, “It was a killer rabbit and the President was swinging for his life.”

    It wasn’t the first time the press took a President to task for activities conducted beyond the Beltway. The press has always had a field day whenever a chief executive takes to the field or stream, while attempting to escape the responsibilities of the Oval Office.

    Although President Carter was a competent flyfisherman and an avid outdoorsman, the “killer rabbit incident” forever doomed his chances of being ranked among such famous outdoor presidents as Teddy Roosevelt or Herbert Hoover.

    President Calvin Coolidge was famous for taking off on fishing excursions while in office. He spent the three summers of his presidency away from Washington at the “silent sport” of fishing. Introduced to it by Edmund Starling, Chief of the Secret Service, it fit him quite well.

    In 1926, he spent his first presidential vacation at White Pine Camp near Paul Smiths. In following summers, he visited fishing resorts in Wisconsin and South Dakota.

    Coolidge, known as Silent Cal for his concise speech, was an avid angler, but a bit of a dandy. He wore a suit with a stiff collar and tie whenever pursuing the gentleman’s sport and his only concession to formality was an occasional pair of hip boots, if needed.

    Resorts across the nation attempted to lure the President to their locales by stocking fish in their streams and providing him with private waters. Once, prodded by a member of the press with the question, “Can you tell me what they are biting on,” Coolidge coolly replied, “The end of my line.”

    His renowned brevity of tongue was similarly challenged by a lady who claimed, “I’ve made a bet against a fellow who said that it was impossible to get more than two words out of you.”

    Silent Cal politely responded, “You lose.”

    On Presidents Day, when The Sportsman Channel released a list of the Great Eight Presidential Sportsmen, another frequent Adirondack visitor, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, topped the list. Also included were Grover Cleveland, George Washington, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Chester A. Arthur and the notorious backwoodsman, Andrew Jackson.

    An explorer, hunter, birder, angler and Rough Rider, Roosevelt loved “the strenuous life” and sought it wherever and whenever he could. Roosevelt spent a great deal of time as a teenager on the St. Regis lakes in the Adirondacks, where he co-authored “Birds of Franklin County NY” with H. D. Minot.

    In later years, following the assassination of President McKinley, Roosevelt made his famous dash from the shoulder of Mt. Marcy to his inaugural in Buffalo. Despite his reputation as a hunter, TR was actually not much of a sharpshooter, explaining, “I don’t shoot well, but I shoot often.”

    Joining TR and Coolidge on the Great Eight list was President Chester Arthur, who was skewered by the press ala Jimmy Carter for falling out of a boat and into the St. Lawrence while on a fishing vacation in Alexandria Bay.

    The press also ridiculed President Cleveland, who fished almost daily during the 1890s, regardless of the weather, to seek relief from the “wearing labor and perplexities of official duty.”

    Although fishing allowed him to “cast his public cares aside … they would come crushing down upon him the moment he put foot on dry land.”

    In 1902, after serving two terms, Cleveland authored “Fishing & Shooting Sketches,” in which he offered a public apology explaining, “As far as my attachment to outdoor sports may be considered a fault, I am ... utterly incorrigible and shameless.”

    George Washington, considered by Thomas Jefferson as “the best horseman of his age,” especially enjoyed fox hunting on his 8,000-acre Mt. Vernon estate. The property also offered fine fishing along the Potomac and excellent duck hunting opportunities.

    Herbert Hoover, our 31st president, was a lifelong angler who explained, “Fishing is a great discipline in the equality of men, because all men are equal before fish!”

    Among his noted quotes, Hoover once asked, “What better excuse could there be to go fishing … to wash your soul” and added, “Next to prayer, fishing is the most personal relationship of man.”

    Hoover published two books on angling, “Fishing for Fun-and to Wash Your Soul” and “A Remedy for Disappearing Game Fishers,” which promoted game fish conservation.

    Our 21st president, Chester A. Arthur, suffered a similar mishap on the St. Lawrence River when he too was tossed overboard while fishing for muskie. Skilled in the art of flyfishing, Arthur was a member of the famous Restigouche Salmon Club, a New York City based group of anglers that frequented that famous Canadian fishery. He claimed, “There is nothing I loved more than fishing for salmon.”

    Although lampooned in the major newspapers of the day with cartoons of his exploits, at one time President Arthur actually owned the record for Canada’s Cascapedia River with a 50-pound Atlantic salmon. Media coverage of his accomplishments greatly increased interest and the popularity of fishing during his years in office.

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a worldwide sportsman, hunting and fishing from Argentina to Korea, and many points in between. As president, Eisenhower frequented Camp David to fish for trout, which were regularly stocked for his pleasure. Although better known for his golf outings, his passion for hunting and fishing adventures was immense.

    Extolling the benefits of such pursuits, he explained, “There are three sports I like for all the same reasons — golf, fishing and shooting — because they take you into the fields … they induce you to take at any one time two or three hours, when you are thinking of the bird, the ball or the wily trout. Now, to my mind, it is a very healthy and beneficial thing, and I do it whenever I get a chance.”



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