Who was O.W. Smith?

How did the memory of an iconic American fly fishing writer disappear from angling history?
author and angler O.W. Smith
Smith captioned this photo of himself "I resort to night fishing when I have caught a glimpse of a square-tailed monster that refused to show any interest in my daylight lures" (photo: uncredited / public domain).

One summer day in 1937, the mother of Simon Schultz—his given name was Clarence, but no one called him that—sent him on the kind of errand most teenaged boys only dream about: catching a mess of trout for supper. Like a lot of families in Depression-era Wisconsin, the Schultzes, who lived in Washburn on the shores of Lake Superior, depended heavily on hunting, fishing, and foraging to keep the larder stocked and their bellies filled.

There were a lot of Schultz bellies to fill, too: Simon was one of 16 children.

Armed with a telescoping steel casting rod and a Colorado spinner, Simon hiked to the Sioux River to try his luck. It wasn’t good—and as his frustration mounted he began to vent it by uttering words that shaded towards the blue side of the language spectrum.

Then, mid-curse, he was startled to hear a voice call out to him. He turned to see a gray-haired gentleman on the river bank, where he was kindling a small fire.

“I’m about to make a pot of coffee,” he said. “Why don’t you join me?”

They chatted, and sipped their coffee, and after a time the man, who had a kindly, somewhat bemused demeanor, asked Simon if he’d ever tried fly-fishing. When Simon explained that fly-fishing gear was beyond his family’s means, the man said “I’ll tell you what. Meet me at seven o’clock tonight at the café in town, and I’ll give you a fly-fishing outfit.”

Back home, Simon told his mother what had transpired on the river.

“Did this man tell you his name?” she asked.

“O.W. Smith,” he replied.

“Reverend Smith!” she exclaimed. “Well, if he promised to give you something, he will.”

Red-faced with shame over the language he’d used in front of a man of the cloth, Simon slunk into the café—and Reverend Smith was as good as his word. He gave young Simon a fine split-bamboo fly rod, a rod he fished with for the rest of his life. Over time, the spark kindled by Smith’s gesture blossomed into a flame, and as word of Simon Schultz’s mastery spread he came to be regarded, among the outdoorsmen of Lake Superior’s south shore, as a trout fishing savant.

Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.

O.W. Smith—the initials stood for Onnie Warren—taught a lot of men to fish. While serving as a Wisconsin clergyman for some 46 years, he also found time to write, prolifically, for numerous national publications. He became so popular, in fact, that he earned the nickname “Outdoor” Smith. The Angling Editor for Outdoor Life in the 1910s and ‘20s (shortly before the venerated Ray Bergman took over the job), he held the same position at Outdoors, another popular hunting-and-fishing title of the day, from 1936 until his death in 1941.

Smith also authored seven books on fishing and fly-tying, the best-known of which was Trout Lore. Published in 1917—and said to be a best-seller both in the United States and England—it was perhaps the most comprehensive “how to” trout fishing book of its day, with chapters on everything from tackle and techniques (fly, bait, and hardware), to how to dress for a day on the water, to how to cook your catch. He even provides several recipes for homemade mosquito repellant.

“The author,” according to the dust jacket, “has cast his line in many waters of America, east and west. He is a keen observer, an ardent seeker after knowledge and a wonderful teacher or guide. Moreover he is a humorist and a philosopher.”

Indeed, Smith was a philosopher, and this contemplative bent, which has characterized the best writing about fishing since Izaak Walton inked his quill
nearly 400 years ago, is the mark of his work. As he put it in another book, the posthumously published Musings of an Angler, “… the belief which has been the backbone of my philosophy is ‘It is not all of fishing to catch fish.’” Predictably, Smith’s writing is peppered with quotes not only from Walton, but from Emerson, Thoreau, Robert Louis Stevenson, and numerous lesser lights from the realms of philosophy, literature, and natural history.

The ironic thing, given how prolific and apparently popular he was, is how comprehensively his memory vanished following his death. There isn’t a single mention of Smith in Ernest Schwiebert’s encyclopedic Trout, nor does his name appear in the discussion of literary figures in Exploring Wisconsin Trout Streams, the guidebook authored by Born et. al. that, for my money, is a model of its kind. So little biographical information exists, in fact, that were it not for the heroic efforts of University of Wisconsin-Green Bay archivist Debra Anderson, who scoured church histories, census records, and the like, even this skeletal rendering of Smith’s life and career would have been impossible.

Certainly the timing of Smith’s death, at the outset of World War II, contributed to his later obscurity; only the brightest light could have penetrated the war’s long shadow. But I think the larger reason is that he had a very romantic, 19th century sensibility, a sensibility that would have struck readers in progressive post-war America as distinctly old-fashioned: a horse-drawn carriage in an atomic-powered age. Consider this passage from Trout Lore:

“A poet has asserted that ‘perfect’ days come in June; but I do not agree: May produces them. The air was soft and caressing, with that peculiar piquant odor characteristic of early spring, and palpitant with the hum of bees, as they sought far and wide for scarce sweets. A first brood of may-flies brushed the surface of the rippling stream with gauzy wing, seeming as much creatures of the water as of the air; perhaps one could call them embodied spirits of the evanescent ripples. Flowers, modest and retiring—hepaticas, spring beauties, arbutus, anemones, trilliums—rank on rank, marched down to the very water’s edge to watch the insects at their sports and nod encouragement. In the trees, for it was the high-tide of warbler migration—those beautiful wee sprites, the aristocrats of birddom, called incessantly, ‘Sweet, sweet, sweet’; while in the low shrubbery the more humble but not less lovable birds poured out their very souls in a torrent of melody.”

A bit (OK, a lot) on the syrupy side—especially for a generation gravitating to the likes of Schwiebert, A.J. McClane, Arnold Gingrich, Vince Marinaro, and the other pioneers of the modern fly-fishing canon.

Born in Weyauwega, Wisconsin, in 1872, Smith caught his first trout from the nearby Waupaca River when he was a little boy—and was hooked for life. But if the call of the trout stream was always strong, the call to be a fisher of men was even stronger. In 1895, after attending college preparatory school for one year, Smith was ordained a Methodist minister. One of his first assignments took him to the fabled Wolf River country in the northeastern part of the state, where he served several small churches as a “circuit rider.” The history of one of those churches notes that Rev. Smith “stayed until 1903,” adding that “those were the days when oats, hay and straw were a substantial part of the minister’s salary, and some of the families did most of their paying that way.”

Sometime in the early 1900s Smith switched his affiliation to Congregationalism. While he served a number of Congregational churches over the years, his longest-tenured position seems to have been in Oconomowoc, a small city about 30 miles west of Milwaukee which in those days, the 1920s-30s, had a population of around 4,500. At the time of his death, in September, 1941, he was minister of the First Congregational Church in Mondovi, a village of about 2,000 on the northern edge of the Driftless Region. According to the church history, “The most famous man that ever filled our pulpit, Rev. Smith was a sportsman of the first water ... He was an avid reader as well: The full truckload of books that he brought with him to Mondovi surprised a good many of his parishioners.”

Smith was also “summer pastor” for a church in Washburn, an arrangement that allowed him to spend extended periods of time at his cabin near the mouth of the Onion River on Lake Superior—and during prime trout season, too. John Teeter, a former Washburn resident who in 2001 republished Musings of an Angler under the title One Man’s River—which I gather was a somewhat unhappy (read: money-losing) experience for him—told me that the regular minister didn’t like spending summers there, and was eager to “swap” with Smith.

Smith was not a kiss-and-tell writer; he almost never divulged the names of the streams he fished. (Reading between the lines, I suspect he in fact did very little fishing beyond the borders of Wisconsin.) Teeter confirmed, however, that the stream Smith frequently referred to as “my river” was the Sioux—the site of his encounter with Simon Schultz. One Man’s River is, in essence, an extended declaration of Smith’s abiding love for this wild Lake Superior stream. Not only its fishing, but the entirety of the experience, the sensory exalted to the spiritual:

“The song of the gentle rapid is the song of the self-contained and satisfied, ministering to the disease of us moderns who must always be going somewhere, doing something, making a noise in the world. To throw ourselves down upon a mossy couch above such a rapid, and let the world go by with the singing water, is the sort of medicine we need more than we need anything else in the world … I suppose that each angler hears what he wants to hear, what he has prepared himself to hear, when he listens to the soul-stirring notes of his favorite stream.”

That, at least, hasn’t changed. One morning not long ago I was wading a boisterous rapid on the Peshtigo River, one of the few streams Smith cites by name, using a technique that would have been utterly familiar to him: swinging a pair of wet flies on a tight line through the likely holding water. I was picking up brookies with pleasing regularity, none of them big but all of them big enough. And, it goes without saying, miraculously beautiful. Good scrappers on a three-weight rod, too, especially in that frisky current.

It was the fourth Wisconsin brook trout stream I’d fished in three days, and I hadn’t seen another angler on any of them. There were the flutelike notes of thrushes and the urgent throb of drumming grouse; the modulations of the river’s music from slow and murmuring to swift and sluicing; the tingle of anticipation as each cast landed with a soft plop and the flies sank from sight in the tea-colored water.

That morning on the Peshtigo, beyond sight and sound of civilization, the sense of a grand and brooding solitude was particularly intense. It may not have

been wilderness, strictly speaking, but from where I stood it was a distinction without a difference.

O.W. Smith would have felt right at home.


Nice article about a very interesting man. Seems quite quaint in today's world, but we might be served to incorporate his philosophy into our modern lives.

Thanks for this article. I appreciate fly fishing history and try to read as much as is available from those who have gone before us.

Great article, Tom. I had never heard of O.W. Smith before reading this. Based on your beautifully-written story, I am going to explore his writings. Thank you for including the names of so many other writers as well. I have much research and reading ahead of me. Thanks again!

I read O.W. "One Man's River" and was hooked on his writing. I managed to find several of his earlier works available in reprint (of dubious quality, but still readable). Rev. Smith, as a man of the cloth, preached needed to hear sermons throughout his writing. If you can find copies of any of his books, get them and become a better fisherman, second to also becoming a better person for having done so.

Good read and good to learn of the man and his water

Great article, blending little known history and wonderful writing. Love getting new ideas and authors to spend some summer reading time on, too!

An interesting story about a little known historical figure in American fly fishing. I would point out however, that Smith died in 1941, hardly the "outset of World War II", which began in 1939.