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A WRETCHED MESS OF TYPE, MOSTLY ABOUT FISHING
Robert Cantwell
December 20, 1965
Begun as a parody of other fishing periodicals, 'The Wretched Mess News' combines wacky advice to the angler with attacks against conservation injustices
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December 20, 1965

A Wretched Mess Of Type, Mostly About Fishing

Begun as a parody of other fishing periodicals, 'The Wretched Mess News' combines wacky advice to the angler with attacks against conservation injustices

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Bascom was equally bemused in his early fishing days by the mystique of fly-fishing and the awed accounts of mysterious feathers, colors, patterns, hatches, shapes and accidental discoveries that run through its literature. He was trying to tie a fly himself one day, but since he was using a very large hook he was forced to add many ingredients—feathers, tin, ribbons, Christmas tree ornaments, bits of velour and yarn—so many he had created a fly like no other on earth. "What a wretched mess!" he exclaimed, and thus named the fly The Wretched Mess. He gave it to a friend, who gave it to another, and so on, until people gradually learned about it and began to inquire where they could get these mysterious lures for themselves. This led Bascom to make more and place them on sale in a West Yellowstone, Mont. shop for 98� each.

The first issue of The Wretched Mess News was in reality an advertisement for The Wretched Mess fly. Bascom mimeographed a hundred copies and sent them to his friends, principally in the advertising business. So many people heard how funny it was that Bascom began publishing regularly—or at least fairly regularly for an editor devoting only 5% of his time to a job. He raised the subscription price from $1 to $1.50 for four issues a year, producing it whenever the time and creative mood coincided. After a while The Wretched Mess News had 3,500 to 4,000 subscribers, and guaranteed 3,000 to its advertisers. The early issues ran to only 12 pages, but as circulation and advertising grew issues ran to as many as 32 pages and included 10 pages or so of advertising. The advertising arrangement was singular. A page cost $24.58, and advertisers have included Jack Daniel's, Guild, Bascom & Bonfigli, Carling's Black Label Beer, Shakespeare Spinning Reels, Gerry Down Clothing, Ralston Cereal, Suzuki Trail Bikes, Chicken of the Sea Tuna, Western Airlines and the San Francisco Chronicle —"makes the best fish-wrapper in the world," says its ad. In fact, most of the ads read like the jokes, and the non-advertising pages are indistinguishable from the ones that advertisers pay for. The Wretched Mess News offers its advertisers a package in which the periodical prepares the ads. However, it refuses to submit the ads to the advertisers for approval. "We know a good ad when we see 1," says the rate card.

In view of Bascom's saturation with fishing literature, it was natural that The Wretched Mess News should be packed with new studies of familiar fishing axioms and how-to-do-it instructions for beginners. One of the magazine's most thoughtful works dealt with shooting fish in a rain barrel. The editors managed to find and photograph a man actually shooting fish in a rain barrel and asked him if it was easy. "Anyone who thinks shooting fish in a rain barrel is easy ought to try it," said G. T. Fondler, of Belmont, Calif. "I believe rain barrel shooting stands a fine chance of replacing present less sporty ways of meat fishing." The how-to-do-it articles in The Wretched Mess News range from instructionals to the perplexed beginner on how to tell one end of a fishing rod from the other to advice to the expert on what to do if he is lost in the woods. Around West Yellowstone it is no use trying to employ the old boy scout trick of finding north by noting which side of a tree carries more moss. There is no moss on the trees in that area. The Wretched Mess News suggests that visiting fishermen bring their own moss with them in case they become lost. Another good outdoor hint is that geese fly north in the spring and south in the fall. If the prudent fisherman will take a wild goose with him, he can release it if he becomes lost and discover true north or south from the way it flies.

Occasionally The Wretched Mess News does become serious, and when it does it is usually about something having to do with the Madison River and Hebgen Lake. Once the Montana Fish and Game Commission opened the Madison to year-round fishing. The Wretched Mess News launched a terrific attack against the prime example of " Montana Fish and Game knotheadedness." The biologists reasoned that if a stream were stocked frequently, fishing pressure would not matter. The Wretched Mess News argued that unless the river was closed part of the time, anglers could catch only small fish. And nonresident fishermen came to Montana in the hope of getting big ones. It might be scientifically true that a cubic foot of water could support only so much fish, but it made a difference to fishermen whether it was one five-pound trout or five one-pound trout.

In that battle The Wretched Mess News won; the river was closed part of the year (SI, June 29, 1963). The attack of The Wretched Mess News on the U.S. Forest Service has been less successful—so far. Hebgen Lake is in the Gallatin National Forest. In 1964 the Forest Service began the sale of 900 acres of timber in the area around Hebgen Lake and authorized the cutting. Eventually 6,000 acres are to be cut. The sort of cutting authorized was clear cutting, which leaves not a stick growing. One result was that The Wretched Mess News came out with a picture of the mountain lake, seen through the devastated area left when the trees had been felled along the shore, a picture captioned "A 900-Acre Mistake of the U.S. Forest Service." The position of the Forest Service was that the timber stands around Hebgen Lake were overmature and were infected with dwarf mistletoe. The position of The Wretched Mess News was that vast areas of forest far removed from places of scenic value and outdoor recreation were in the same condition, that dwarf mistletoe was damaging but not catastrophic, that half the merchantable lodgepole pine in Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho and Montana was in the same condition and, in any event, it made no difference where the quota of timber to be sold from the Gallatin National Forest was taken. So it could be taken just as effectively in regions far from the sight of man. But in fact, as the photograph eloquently testified, it was being taken along the lovely shore of Hebgen Lake.

The Wretched Mess News has not become entirely a crusading journal—far from it. "I would like to again stress that the creation and publication of The Wretched Mess News is strictly fun on my part," Bascom said the other day. "It has absolutely no connection with the other things with which I am involved." The effectiveness of the magazine's first efforts in behalf of conservation makes one wonder what would happen if Bascom—or Milford Poltroon, for that matter—decided to devote 95% of his time to it. If it could save places like Hebgen Lake it might be a worthwhile endeavor providing a good deal of pleasure for a lot of people for a long time to come.

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