It is difficult to think of the slow-moving, corpulent President Grover Cleveland, who weighed 240 pounds and loathed exercise ("Bodily movement alone...is among the dreary and unsatisfying things of life"), as an active outdoorsman, a north woods camper, deer stalker, wing shot and fresh-and salt-water fisherman. Yet he was all of these and spent so much time fishing and hunting—more than any other President—that he was constantly criticized in the press.
Cleveland considered the barbs "petty forms of persecution...nothing more serious than gnat stings suffered on the banks of a stream." He admitted in his book Fishing and Shooting Sketches that "as far as my attachment to outdoor sports may be considered a fault, I am...utterly incorrigible and shameless."
Cleveland's first remembered home was in Fayetteville, a village in central New York, where as a lad he formed his lifelong fondness for fishing. From the pinhook and sapling stage he graduated to rod and reel and later became a fly caster, though never an enthusiastic one.
Plain Grover was no fancy angler. He was essentially a bait fisherman and looked with suspicion upon the stream-wading purists who insisted, as he put it, that "fly-casting is the only style of fishing worthy of cultivation, and that no other method ought to be undertaken by a true fisherman. This is one of the deplorable fishing affectations."
On Cape Cod, where he spent the summers in the '90s, President Cleveland fished almost daily—for bluefish and weakfish on Buzzards Bay and for bass on the inland freshwater ponds and on Cape streams for sea-run brook trout known locally as salters. His favorite companions were Joe Jefferson, the famous actor, and Richard W. Gilder, the editor of the Century. The President, Gilder marveled, "will fish when it shines and fish when it rains; I have seen him pull bass up in a lively thunder-storm, and refuse to be driven from a Cape Cod pond by the worst hail-storm I ever witnessed or suffered. He will fish through hunger and heat, lightning and tempest." Cleveland, who wore a flopping straw hat and an encircling kerchief which was knotted under his triple chin, once told Gilder that when he was on the water he could cast his public cares aside but that they would come crushing down upon him the moment he put foot on dry land.
The President had great admiration for the smallmouth black bass. "I consider these," he said of them, "more uncertain, whimsical and wary in biting, and more strong, resolute and resourceful when hooked, than any other fish ordinarily caught in fresh waters. They will in some localities rise to a fly; but this cannot be relied upon. They can sometimes be taken by trolling; but this is very often not successful, and is at best a second-class style of fishing. On the whole it is best and most satisfactory to attempt their capture by still-fishing with bait."
A fine wing shot, Cleveland was as persistent a gunner as he was an angler. On Chesapeake Bay and in the Carolinas, where he so often shot, he would sit in a duckblind from dawn to darkness, scorning the customary midday return to camp and quitting only when he got his limit. Today, three of the decoys Cleveland used during his duck-hunting marathons are a prized part of the collection of game bird lures belonging to William Mackey Jr. of Belford, N.J.
Cleveland frequently got doubles and often "wiped the eye" of a shooting companion (i.e., brought down a bird with a long shot after the other had missed it). Cleveland, who sometimes had his own eye wiped, said that "gouging the eye" would be a more fitting term. Once he tried out an enormous 8-gauge shotgun and let go both barrels. The recoil knocked him flat in the bottom of the blind, and he never used the gun again.
President Cleveland was not so skillful at quail shooting, although he considered the sport (next to fishing) to be the most satisfying of all. He would willingly tramp miles over rough terrain for quail, but the quick-rising birds whirring up in the field gave him a good deal of trouble. "I do not assume to be competent to give instruction in quail shooting," he admitted. "I miss too often to undertake such a role." The deliberate Cleveland was more at home in a duckblind where he could see the birds coming and get set for a shot.
In 1897, following the second of his separated Presidential terms (1885-89, 1893-97), Cleveland went into retirement at Princeton. For several years thereafter he went duck and quail shooting every season, fished New Hampshire's lakes and the waters of Buzzards Bay each summer and at Princeton roamed the fields for rabbit. "An entirely suitable member of the game community," he said in defense of the cottontail. "I am not ashamed of their pursuit; and I count it by no means bad skill to force them by a successful shot to a topsy-turvy pause when at their best speed."
In his last years-Cleveland's figure lost its fullness, his tread became more slow and measured and his shooting trips were postponed "until next fall." Before "next fall" came, he died at Princeton in 1908, aged 71.