“What do we do with hundreds of Confederate monuments and related statuary across the United States? Americans face a challenge that might be called the mass curation of our public spaces, in light of contemporary sensibilities, yes, but just as important, in service of what has always been the truth.” —Washington Post
Everybody knows women can fish. In fact, they often outfish their fathers, brothers, boyfriends, and husbands. Joan Wulff, Meredith McCord, Alex Woodsum, my cousin Torie, my sister Amanda—it’s a long list of proud female anglers that can outfish any man. But what about guiding?
Well, here in Gadsden, Alabama, there is Emma Sansom, who, as the world’s first carp guide, poled the way for guides like me who long dreamt of emulating her work on the famed warmwater flats of ‘Bama. Most people know Emma as the heroic 16-year-old farmgirl who helped Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest capture Union colonel Abel Streight during the Civil War. But there is much more to Emma’s story.
Abel, who later became a reel manufacturer, planned to conduct swift raids. But his 1,700 troops were given mules instead of horses, which slowed things down. Plus, this was a “civil” war, so there were often respites between fighting where soldiers would relax into lawn darts, card games, cornhole, or guided carp-fishing.
This is where we find the lesser-known history about Emma. Not only was she the world’s first carp guide, she was also the first flyfishing guide in the United States, taking full advantage of all her Johnny Reb brethren joining the War of Northern Aggression. With every Southern bass guide fighting for the Confederacy, she formed her own LLC and started searching for tailing carp. (It’s Emma’s carp guiding, rather than her assist to General Forrest, that is lovingly depicted on her monument in Gadsden.)
The media frenzy that surrounded the Judge Roy Moore scandal has hurt the flats-fishing around Gadsden Mall, where carp stalking had always been more important than the other kind of stalking. But the Coosa River and Black Creek were fine carp waters in Emma’s day. In fact, it was because of Emma’s time spent flyfishing Black Creek that she knew where General Forrest could ford the creek after Streight and his men had burned the only bridge.
Back in 1852, Emma arrived with her parents to work on farms just outside Gadsden. Her eleven brothers and sisters were farm laborers, but when her father got sick Emma realized that it was up to her to help support the brood. She learned from her Cherokee uncle that dugout canoes made solid shallow-water carping craft. (This was a structural forebearer to the Towee skiff.) She was responsible for contracting a craftsmen from the Cumberland Plateau to build her a poling tower out of American chestnut tree limbs, as chestnut was thought to be the sturdiest wood available. Then she tied chicken feathers from the farm onto a few rudimentary blacksmithed hooks and ordered silkworm gut from the Far East through the Sears catalog. Emma was then ready for business, and a well-known general was ready for some topwater bass action!
Nathan Bedford Forrest traveled to the Sansom farm with the hope of learning about the local fishery. “Are the bass biting?” he asked Emma’s father. (Forrest was somewhat sexist about girls who fish, and he just assumed the father would know. He didn’t. Instead, Emma’s pa struggled to tell the general that Emma was trying something different with the family’s bamboo buggy whip.)
Emma said to Forrest: “Hook that horse up to my Towee, and I’ll put you on an adventure you’ll not soon forget.” An Asian species of fish had made its way into a farm pond to feed the families of men at war, and when the rains came and the pond flooded, the Gadsden flats were filled with Alabama golden ghosts.
As she poled the general up and down the Coosa flats, they started to see tails… Forrest caught nine carp that day, which invigorated him all the way through the next morning, when he pursued and cornered Abel Straight near Cedar Bluff.
In 1908 the Rainbow Fly Fishing Club commissioned a sculpture be erected in Emma’s honor. Some people say carping is for lost-cause dreamers, but Emma Sansom saw the nobility in it all.