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An Angler's August Day
It was late in the afternoon of a superb August day, and I had yet some fifteen miles to drive, all the way over hills, and the last three miles up the mountain. I was driving the black horses, heavy animals, but swift devourers of mountain roads, rushing up hills and going down them with sure steps.
I had been far down the western valley, fishing a magnificent stream which is seldom visited by anglers, and has in it a goodly stock of trout. It is not to be supposed that in this hot month one can take a large basket of fish in any lake or stream, unless the weather be exceptionally favorable. And this day had been by much too bright. Nevertheless I had accomplished all that could be desired, all that any sensible angler has right to desire. I had strolled a mile or more, sometimes in, sometimes alongside of a glorious torrent, wandering its ancient way through primeval forest, down the last slope of a mountain ravine. My basket was not full, but there were a couple of dozen of fair-sized fish in it, and some dozens of smaller and more toothsome trout; for to my taste the only trout which equal fresh sardines in delicacy and flavor are the little fellows, from clear cold waters, which, fried brown and crisp with good salt pork, you take by their tails in your fingers and eat bodily, to your gastronomic satisfaction.
The road now led along a flat stretch of wooded country and came out in a clearing, where has been for more than thirty years a small saw-mill. A stream, rising in a swamp a mile or two above the mill, is dammed at the road-crossing, and sets back a small pond of two or three acres, mostly shallow, except where the old bed of the brook winds through it. The pond was a mirror in the now reddening light of the sun which just rested on the ridge of a tree-fringed hill to the westward. A small boy was standing at the road-side, looking at the water. Oddly enough he recognized me, as having more than once met me on streams in the neighborhood. "Oh, mister!" he shouted, as he saw me, and ran towards the buck-board. Of course I pulled up.
"There's a buster of a trout in the pond this year. You can see him walloping around every day just about this time. There he goes now. Isn't he a slosher?"
Up at the head of the pond, where the stream came in, there was a great swash in the water, and the waves which rolled away in a circle indicated a heavy animal of some sort.
"Isn't it a musk-rat?"
"No, sir,"with emphasis on the last word. "I've seen him go two feet up into the air more times nor you can count. He mostly stays up there. But he won't take no worm nor grasshopper. Last June father tried him with a white grub, but you see its shaller water up there, and we can't get nowhere near him with the raft without scaring him."
"Where is your raft?"
"Down there by them willers."
I handed over the reins to my driver and took my rod. It was ready for instant use. I never drive in this country without a rod in the wagon, and when actually off for a day's fishing I do not take the rod apart until I have left the last possible angling places behind me for the day. There were two flies on the leader, which was stout, for fishing a rough river. They were not flies likely to be of any use on a still pond; so I put on a gossamer leader, with two small gnats for bobbers and a small white moth for the tail. It was early for the moth, but as it was already on the leader in my flybook I did not change it.
The raft was a boy's, built for some seventy-five pounds of humanity to float on. Two hundred weight was almost too much for it, and it sunk one or the other end as I balanced myself on it, standing in my rubber boots with a varying depth of water swashing over my feet. I poled out into and across the pond towards the inlet. The boy was right as to the swirl being that of a trout. As I pushed along carefully and looked ahead I saw two similar swirls three rods apart. There were two of them then, at least, and possibly more; for now I began to recall the fact that years ago the owner of the saw-mill told me there were large trout in his pond which he could not take; but I then thought, from its shallow character, with muddy bottom, that he probably saw pickerel or some other fish, especially as the next owner a few years afterwards had told me there were no trout in the pond and no small trout in the swamp brook above it.
Did you ever pole a raft over a pond with soft mud bottom? No? Then you have never enjoyed the finest possible illustration of many scientific principles, action and reaction, the correlation and conservation of forces, the attraction of cohesion, innumerable interesting subjects of consideration, all of which would be pleasant to study if you were not occupied with your immediate purpose of getting across the water. There is a pleasant assurance of advance as you drop the end of the pole, push gently downward and backward, looking forward, and the pole passes through your grasp, renewed again and again, till the end is in your hand and you hold on to draw forward for another shove. But you can't draw it forward. It draws you backward, and the heavy raft, moving almost imperceptibly, has yet, with your added weight, sufficient momentum to go forward with your feet while your hands remain stationary, and you turn around, desperately grasping one end of the pole whose other end has gone down deep into the tenacious bottom mud. It went down so easily, gently, softly, that while you thought you had pushed your raft ten feet forward, you had only pushed your pole nine feet into the mud; and yet, lovingly as it went into the soft bottom, it refuses to return. Look out for yourself now. Hold on to the pole, or you will be adrift on the pond with no means of reaching shore. Hold on with your toes, with the soles of your boots, with your knees, anyhow you can, hold on to the raft. I have seen many an inexperienced man push his raft out from under his feet. I have done it myself in days of juvenile inexperience.
My raft was not a very heavy one, and the rule is to use your pole without deep pushing on such ponds, rather dragging, with the end only a little way in the mud.
I had followed the edge of the old bed of the brook, and with patience and perseverance came within a hundred feet of the place where the last trout had risen. There was no perceptible motion in the air, but there was a motion, nevertheless, such as anglers are familiar with, indicated by the fact that your cast goes out more easily with than against it. My rod was good for long casting, and I could lay the white moth-tail fly down within a few feet of the spot I desired to reach. I laid it down there a dozen times, and nothing else disturbed the surface, which now reflected a rosy cloud in the south-west. The sun had gone down. The original impetus given the raft and the existing movement of the atmosphere were carrying me slowly towards the mouth of the brook, which came out, a rod wide, between high banks covered with dense sedges. Up in the stream I saw three or four times the lift of a trout's head as he rose gently to the surface and took in some floating insect. He was feeding, August fashion, on some very small gnat, too small for imitation. So I tried approximation, changing the tail-fly, and for the white moth substituting a minute black object, the smallest lure known to my book, or any one's book, being a tiny hook, smaller than any regular number, tied with a yellow body and a delicate sparse black hackle, not an eighth of an inch long. I had drifted to the very mouth of the brook by the time this was ready, and the first cast sent it far up the canal-like stream. As it struck the water there was a magnificent roll of the glassy surface, a flash of reflected blue and crimson and pink and white in the water. It was as if some gorgeous piece of fireworks had burst on the dark surface between the sedge banks.
How many pounds of trout flesh and force were now on the end of that gossamer leader I shall never be able to tell you, for when he felt the slight stroke which fixed the tiny hook in his mouth, he made one swift, short rush, and I found that the leader was fastened on something heavier than a trout. There was nothing to do but break it loose or pole up the stream and try to unfasten it. I broke it, for I wanted another cast over that water. Half of the leader came home, with one fly yet on. I looped the end, put on another of the same small black hackles, cast three times; at the third cast again saw the brilliant explosion of the water-surface, again struck a heavy fish, and was again fast to something immovable.
This time I poled up to the spot. I might have hooked a hundred fish there and should never have gotten one. For my tail-fly had fallen each time just about ten feet beyond a great tree-trunk — a smooth, round log, two feet thick — of which the two ends were embedded in the banks on either side, while the log itself stretched across the stream about six inches below the surface. Under it the water was ten feet deep, and the fish had risen from this hole and plunged back into it, catching the upper flies in the log.
Twilight was established by the time I had put on the small white moth which I proposed to use for the last few casts. You will observe that my raft would not go over the log, and I could go no farther up-stream. So I sent the flies up again and again and again, while the night gathered rapidly. Our twilights grow short up here in August. The air was ringing with the voices of frogs, with indescribable variety of tone and annunciation. The sharp cry of a night-bird in the air overhead pierced my ears. I saw a great Cecropia moth crossing the stream just beyond my cast, and a dozen smaller moths flitting over the sedges. Suddenly, behind me, a trout rose in the old place. I fixed the pole against the log, pushed the raft back, and dropped the tail-fly in the centre of the circle of waves. This time I struck my fish firmly, and he went for open water; it was an easy matter to bring him in; he was only a two-pounder. A two-pound trout is a small affair to the angler who has lost a four-pounder. And those two fish I lost were, of course, four-pounders — five-pounders; who can prove to me that they were not?
Whatever their weight, I was fully as content as if they were in my basket, which hung on my shoulder, or on the dry end of my raft if they were too large for the basket. I see your smile of incredulity, my friend; but you are one of the miserably uneducated community who will never appreciate the fact that the joy of the angler's day is in the surroundings of his sport. The very regrets he may have for lost fish are pleasant, not painful, if the day has been bountiful in the ordinary delights which attend the fisherman. My day had been exceedingly rich. As the horses came up the dark mountain road, guiding their own steps since I could not see to guide them, I recalled a score of beautiful scenes along the course of the mountain torrent, great bowlders lying in the foam, fern-covered cliffs, under which the river ran swift and smooth, giant white birch-trees on the bank, the outposts of armies of mighty trees behind them, rank on rank as far as eye could penetrate their array. And the dark lagoon-like stream, on which the twilight came down till the stars were reflected in it; the swoop of the nighthawks overhead; the call of the whippoorwill sitting on the saw-mill roof and the answer of his kin on the hill-side beyond — where can one close the catalogue of sights and sounds and thoughts, which made the hour's delay at the mill-pond a charming episode at the close of an angler's August day?