In its January 1923 issue, Forest and Stream magazine ranked the U.S. presidents on the basis of their interests and abilities as “outdoorsmen.” Editors determined that almost all of the first 29 commanders in chief were “devotees of the rod and the gun.”
Without question, Theodore Roosevelt was the “greatest hunter” among the presidents, said reporter Alexander Stoddart. He was the only president to range outside the United States – taking safaris in Africa and expeditions to South America – to hunt big game.
Roosevelt nearly got himself killed, however, when he was charged by an angry bull moose in 1915 near Sainte-Anne River in Quebec, Canada.
Roosevelt’s foray into the realm of hunting devilfish (giant manta rays) with harpoons and lances in 1917 qualified more as hunting than as fishing, according to Stoddart’s definition of the two sports.
This “ruling” led Stoddart to select Stephen Grover Cleveland as the “greatest of fishing presidents,” with Chester Alan Arthur a close second.
In an article for Sports Illustrated magazine, published in 1956, John Durant wrote: “It’s difficult to think of the slow-moving, corpulent President Grover Cleveland, who weighed 240 pounds and loathed exercise (having once said “bodily movement alone...is among the dreary and unsatisfying things of life”), as an active outdoorsman…and fresh-and salt-water fisherman.”
“Yet he was…and spent so much time fishing and hunting – more than any other president – that he was constantly criticized in the press,” Durant commented.
“Cleveland considered the barbs nothing more serious than gnat stings suffered on the banks of a stream. “As far as my attachment to outdoor sports may be considered a fault, I am...utterly incorrigible and shameless,” Cleveland admitted.
Cleveland grew up in Fayetteville, N.Y., a village near Syracuse, where he “formed his lifelong fondness for fishing,” Durant said.
Grover Cleveland holds the distinction as being the only U.S. president to leave office after one term (1885-89) and later return for a second term (1893-97).
One of his loyal fishing buddies remarked: “Grover ‘will fish when it shines and fish when it rains.’” (That’s akin to what we hear from present-day Carteret County fishermen who say “the best time to fish is when it’s rainin’ and when it ain’t.”)
Cleveland’s favorite fish was the smallmouth black bass. “I consider these more uncertain, whimsical and wary in biting, and more strong, resolute and resourceful when hooked, than any other fish ordinarily caught in fresh waters.”
Cleveland also is the only president to be married in the White House. He took the hand of Frances Clara Folsom of Buffalo, N.Y., in 1886.
The couple began a vacationing tradition when they spent their first anniversary in the Adirondacks on Upper Saranac Lake, N.Y., staying in a rustic cabin…and going fishing.
One of the local fishing guides told the story that when President Cleveland “first threw his line into the lake, there was quite a commotion among the fish. A great trout stuck his head out of the water and asked, ‘Is that you, President Cleveland?’” Came the reply: ‘Yes, my name is Cleveland.’”
The trout said: “All right, Mr. Cleveland, I am at your service.” The fish leaped out of the water and landed at the president’s feet.
Perhaps a more reliable account was filed in a report published in 1892 in Current Literature magazine. Fishing guide Jake Cronk said: “Mrs. Cleveland made some wonderful catches.” She hooked a big one, and the president asked: “Frances, shall I take your rod and land him for you?”
Frances laughed and muttered: “Many thanks, dear sir, but I’m quite capable of landing him myself.” And so she did. The trout weighed more than 6 pounds.