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Salmon Fishing

Salmon-fishing for this season is over, and, in spite of the fresh and open weather, most anglers will feel that the time has come to close the fly-book, to wind up the reel, and to consign the rod to its winter quarters. Salmon-fishing ceases to be very enjoyable when the snaw broo, or melted snow from the hilltops, begins to mix with the brown waters of Tweed or Tay; when the fallen leaves hamper the hook; and when the fish are becoming sluggish, black, and the reverse of comely. Now the season of retrospect commences, the time of the pleasures of memory, and the delights of talking shop dear to anglers Most sporting talk is dull to every one but the votaries of the particular amusement. Few things can be drearier to the outsider than the conversation of cricketers, unless it be the recondite lore which whist-players bring forth from the depths of their extraordinary memories. But angling talk has a variety, recounts an amount of incident and adventure, and wakens a feeling of free air in a way with which the records of no other sport, except perhaps deer-stalking, can compete. The salmon is, beyond all rivalry, the strongest and most beautiful, and most cautious and artful, of fresh-water fishes. To capture him is not a task for slack muscles or an uncertain eye. There is even a slight amount of personal risk in the sport. The fisher must often wade till the water reaches above the waist in cold and rushing streams, where his feet are apt to slip on the smooth stones or trip on the rough rocks beneath him. When the salmon takes the fly, there is no time for picking steps. The line rushes out so swiftly as to cut the fingers if it touches them, and then is the moment when the angler must follow the fish at the top of his speed. To stand still, or to go cautiously in pursuit, is to allow the salmon to run out with an enormous length of line; the line is submerged--technically speaking, drowned--in the water, the strain of the supple rod is removed from the fish, who finds the hook loose in his mouth, and rubs it off against the bottom of the river. Thus speed of foot, in water or over rocks, is a necessary quality in the angler; at least in the northern angler. By the banks of the Usk a contemplative man who likes to take things easily may find pretty sure footing on grassy slopes, or on a gravelly bottom. But it is a different thing to hook a large salmon where the Tweed foams under the bridge of Yair down to the narrows and linns below. If the angler hesitates there, he is lost. Does he stand still and give the fish line? The astute creature cuts it against the sharp rocks below the bridge, and the rod, relieved of the weight, leaps straight in the fisher's hand, and in his heart there is a sense of emptiness and sudden desolation. Does he try to follow, the chances are that his feet slip; after one or two wild struggles he is on his back in the water, and nearly strangled with his fishing-basket. In either case the fish goes on his way rejoicing, and, after the manner of his kind, leaps out of the water once or twice--a maddening sight.

Adventures like this are among the bitter memories of the angler. The fish that break away are monstrous animals; imagination increases their bulk, and fond desire paints them clean-run and bright as silver. There are other chances of the angler's life scarcely less sad than this. When a hook breaks just as the salmon was losing strength, was ceasing to struggle, and beginning to sway with the mere force of the stream, and to show his shining sides--when a hook breaks at such a moment, it is very hard to bear. The oath of Ernulphus seems all too weak to express the feelings of the sportsman and his wrath against the wretched tackle-maker. Again, when the fish is actually conquered; when he is being towed gently into some little harbour among the tall slim water- grasses, or into a pebbly cove, or up to a green bank; when the bitterness of struggle is past, and he seems resigned and almost happy; when at this crisis the clumsy gilly with the gaff scratches him, rouses him to a last exertion, and entangles the line, so that the salmon breaks free--that is an experience to which language cannot do justice. The ancient painter drew his veil over the face of Agamemnon present at his daughter's sacrifice. Silence and sympathy are all one can offer to the angler who has toiled all day, and in this wise caught nothing. There is yet another very bitter sorrow. It is a hard thing for a man to leave town and hurry to a river in the west, a river that perhaps he has known since he fished for minnows with a bent pin in happy childhood. The west is not a dry land; effeminate tourists complain that the rain it raineth every day. But the heavy soft rain is the very life of an angler. It keeps the stream of that clear brown hue, between porter and amber, which he loves; and it encourages the salmon to keep rushing from the estuary and the sea right up to the mountain loch, where they rest. But suppose there is a dry summer--and such things have been even in Argyleshire. The heart of the tourist is glad within him, but as the river shrinks and shrinks, a silver thread among slimy green mosses in the streams, a sheet of clear water in the pools, the angler repines. Day after sultry day goes by, and there is no hope. There is a cloud on the distant hill; it is only the smoke from some moor that has caught fire. The river grows so transparent that it is easy to watch the lazy fish sulking at the bottom. Then comes a terrible temptation. Men, men calling themselves sportsmen, have been known to fish in the innocent dewy morning, with worm, with black lob worm. Worse remains behind. Persons of ungoverned passions, maddened by the sight of the fish, are believed to have poached with rake-hooks, a cruel apparatus made of three hooks fastened back to back and loaded with lead. These are thrown over the fish, and then struck into him with a jerk. But the mind willingly turns away from the contemplation of such actions.

It is pleasanter to think of not unsuccessful days by lowland or highland streams, when the sun was veiled, the sky pearly grey, the water, as the people say, in grand order. There is the artistic excitement of choosing the hook, gaudy for a heavy water, neat and modest for a clearer stream. There is the feverish moment of adjusting rod and line, while you mark a fish "rising to himself." You begin to cast well above him, and come gradually down, till the fly lights on the place where he is lying. Then there is a slow pull, a break in the water, a sudden strain at the line, which flies through the rings of the rod. It is not well to give too much line; best to follow his course, as he makes off as if for Berwick and the sea. Once or twice he leaps clean into the air, a flying bar of silver. Then he sulks at the bottom, a mere dead weight, attempting devices only to be conjectured. A common plan now is to tighten the line, and tap the butt end of the rod. This humane expedient produces effects not unlike neuralgia, it may be supposed, for the fish is off in a new fury. But rush after rush grows tamer, till he is drawn within reach of the gaff, and so on to the grassy bed, where a tap on the head ends his sorrows, and the colours on his shining side undulate in delicate and beautiful radiance. It may be dreadfully cruel, as cruel as nature and human life; but those who eat salmon or butcher's meat cannot justly protest, for they, desiring the end, have willed the means. As the angler walks home, and watches the purple Eildon grow grey in the twilight, or sees the hills of Mull delicately outlined between the faint gold of sky and sea, it is not probable that his conscience reproaches him very fiercely. He has spent a day among the most shy and hidden beauties of nature, surprising her here and there in places where, unless he had gone a-fishing, he might never have penetrated. He has set his skill against the strength and skill of the monarch of rivers, and has mastered him among the haunts of fairies and beneath the ruined towers of feudalism. These are some of the delights that to-day end for a season. {16}

{16} The author once caught a salmon. It did not behave in any way like the ferocious fish in this article.


Andrew Lang