Frank Smoot made conservation count

July 16, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON

Teddy Roosevelt was president when Frank Smoot entered the world.

That might help explain Smoot's incredible life, which ended May 30, just weeks short of his 100th birthday.

Roosevelt, the embodiment of an outdoors life well lived, created the National Wildlife Refuge System, tramped the Yosemite wilderness with John Muir and praised the "strenuous life."

Puffing on his long-stemmed pipe filled with Tennessee tobacco, Smoot looked as if he belonged with the old Rough Rider, helping to lead the conservation charge decades before the term was invented.

But Smoot not only looked the part, he acted it.

With gumption and humor, he lobbied the federal government in 1928 on behalf of the Migratory Bird Conservation Act.

With an eye toward the future, he pestered Congress to spend $32 million to buy Assateague Island in 1964. He helped stock Maryland's trout streams and run hunter safety courses for the state at the now-defunct Pikesville Sportsman's Club.

With the stroke of charcoal to paper, Smoot sketched wildlife and taught thousands of youngsters about the critters with whom we share this planet. As a founding member of the Brotherhood of the Jungle Cock in 1938, he taught young anglers about ethics and conservation.

"He's probably the leading conservationist in the history of Maryland," says Paul Helm, a close friend and member of the governor's Sport Fish Advisory Commission from 1970-1988.

Smoot, a modest man, explained his efforts in a 2002 Sun interview:

"I had a selfish interest in protecting the fish and game I hunted," he said. "But I realized that protecting the environment was much more than protecting fish and game."

Born in Baltimore, Smoot spent his early years on Virginia's Northern Neck. He moved back to Baltimore and dropped out of high school. A self-taught artist, he worked for 25 years as an art director for the News American.

Howard Stinefelt, a Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist for 33 years, remembers Smoot out stocking brown trout on Morgan Run when he was in his mid-70s.

"We started at Jim Bowers Road and worked our way down to Klee Mill Road. That was a long haul, even for a younger man," recalls Stinefelt. "I was waiting at the end, and I'm thinking, `Is he going to make it, or what?'

"I finally saw the weeds shaking and puffs of smoke and I knew it was Frank. When he got to me, he was soaking wet and had tangled with some thorns. He said to me, `I got the job done, but I don't think I'll do it again.' "

DNR honored the Pikesville resident in the early 1990s by renaming Big Hunting Creek's trout-rich Great Drake Hole "Frank Smoot Pond" and carving his name on a huge rock. It was along that stretch that friends and family gathered last week for a memorial service, and it is where his ashes were scattered.

"He was an original," says Lefty Kreh, Maryland's home-grown fly fishing guru and an original himself. "Everybody talks about his conservation work, but I think one of the most remarkable things about him was his sense of humor. He was one of the most spontaneously funny people I've ever known. He didn't use anyone else's jokes; he made up his own."

Keith Walters, the outdoors writer for Easton's Star Democrat, remembers attending the Assateague Mobile Sportfishermen's Association show several years back and seeing Smoot in a booth, doing animal sketches for kids.

Teasing, Walters asked Smoot if it was true he had to fight dinosaurs to get to school.

"No," replied Smoot, without missing a beat, "but it's not commonly known that I invented the Jurassic fly." He then drew Walters a picture of the fly and noted it was best for catching pterodactyls.

Helm took Smoot on his last three fishing trips, all on Little Hunting Creek.

"I stayed close to him because of his age. But all of the sudden, he's jumping over from one rock to another, not missing a beat. That day, I slipped and fell into the water, and he saw it. At lunch, he said, `After I saw you fall in, I thought I'd stay close to you.' He didn't show his age until he was well into his 90s."

On Smoot's last fishing trip in the fall of 2004, he caught a 22-inch rainbow trout.

"What a way to go," says Helm.

In the 1950s, Smoot cajoled a group of suburban outdoorsmen into buying land and building the Pikesville Sportsman's Club, where members could practice marksmanship, children could learn outdoors skills and families could socialize.

"You have to get out where you can stop and think," he said in a 1997 Sun interview. "It's a spiritual rebuilding that people are more and more finding a necessity. A place where you can stop and not have to listen to any automobiles, or smell exhaust or listen to people holler."

The club was demolished in 1997 to make way for an extension of Red Run Boulevard in Owings Mills.

Last year, Helm's request that the state name Smoot "Conservationist of the Century" was rejected. The reason, he said, was that there were no other candidates.

"A man nearly 100 years old who dedicated 80 years of his life to conservation," Helm says. "Well, of course, there were no other contestants in that category."

Not now. Probably not ever. candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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