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"SIMPSON. – Have you ever seen any American books on angling, Fisher?FISHING IN BOOKS
"FISHER. – No. I do not think there are any published. Brother Jonathan is
not yet sufficiently civilized to produce anything original on the gentle art.
There is good trout-fishing in America, and the streams, which are all free,
are much less fished than in our Island, 'from the small number of gentlemen,'
as an American writer says, 'who are at leisure to give their time to it.'"
– WILLIAM ANDREW CHATTO: The Angler's Souvenir (London, 1835).
THAT wise man and accomplished scholar, Sir Henry Wotton, the friend of Izaak Walton and ambassador of King James I. to the republic of Venice, was accustomed to say that "he would rather live five May months than forty Decembers.'' The reason for this preference was no secret to those who knew him. It had nothing to do with British or Venetian politics. It was simply because December, with all its domestic joys, is practically a dead month in the angler's calendar.
His occupation is gone. The better sort of fish are out of season. The trout are lean and haggard: it is no trick to catch them and no treat to eat them. The salmon, all except the silly kelts, have run out to sea, and the place of their habitation no man knoweth. There is nothing for the angler to do but wait for the return of spring, and meanwhile encourage and sustain his patience with such small consolations in kind as a friendly Providence may put within his reach.
Some solace may be found, on a day of crisp, wintry weather, in the childish diversion of catching pickerel through the ice. This method of taking fish is practised on a large scale and with elaborate machinery by men who supply the market. I speak not of their commercial enterprise and its gross equipage, but of ice-fishing in its more sportive and desultory form, as it is pursued by country boys and the incorrigible village idler.
You choose for this pastime a pond where the ice is not too thick, lest the labour of cutting through should be discouraging; nor too thin, lest the chance of breaking in should be embarrassing. You then chop out, with almost any kind of a hatchet or pick, a number of holes in the ice, making each one six or eight inches in diameter, and placing them about five or six feet apart. If you happen to know the course of a current flowing through the pond, or the location of a shoal frequented by minnows, you will do well to keep near it. Over each hole you set a small contrivance called a "tilt-up." It consists of two sticks fastened in the middle, at right angles to each other. The stronger of the two is laid across the opening in the ice. The other is thus balanced above the aperture, with a baited hook and line attached to one end, while the other end is adorned with a little flag. For choice, I would have the flags red. They look gayer, and I imagine they are more lucky.
When you have thus baited and set your tilt-ups, -- twenty or thirty of them, -- you may put on your skates and amuse yourself by gliding to and fro on the smooth surface of the ice, cutting figures of eight and grapevines and diamond twists, while you wait for the pickerel to begin their part of the performance. They will let you know when they are ready.
A fish, swimming around in the dim depths under the ice, sees one of your baits, fancies it, and takes it in. The moment he tries to run away with it he tilts the little red flag into the air and waves it backward and forward. "Be quick!" he signals all unconsciously; "here I am; come and pull me up!"
When two or three flags are fluttering at the same moment, far apart on the pond, you must skate with speed and haul in your lines promptly.
How hard it is, sometimes, to decide which one you will take first! That flag in the middle of the pond has been waving for at least a minute; but the other, in the corner of the bay, is tilting up and down more violently: it must be a larger fish. Great Dagon! there's another red signal flying, away over by the point! You hesitate, you make a few strokes in one direction, then you whirl around and dart the other way. Meantime one of the tilt-ups, constructed with too short a cross-stick, has been pulled to one side, and disappears in the hole. One pickerel in the pond carries a flag. Another tilt-up ceases to move and falls flat upon the ice. The bait has been stolen. You dash desperately toward the third flag and pull in the only fish that is left,probably the smallest of them all!
A surplus of opportunities does not insure the best luck.
A room with seven doors -- like the famous apartment in Washington's headquarters at Newburgh -- is an invitation to bewilderment. I would rather see one fair opening in life than be confused by three dazzling chances.
There was a good story about fishing through the ice which formed part of the stock-in-conversation of that ingenious woodsman, Martin Moody, Esquire, of Big Tupper Lake. "'T was a blame cold day,' he said, "and the lines friz up stiffer 'n a fence-wire, jus' as fast as I pulled 'em in, and my fingers got so alum' frosted I could n't bait the hooks. But the fish was thicker and hungrier 'n flies in June. So I jus' took a piece of bait and held it over one o' the holes. Every time a fish jumped up to git it, I 'd kick him out on the ice. I tell ye, sir, I kicked out more 'n four hundred pounds of pick'rel that morning. Yaas, 't was a big lot, I 'low, but then 't was a cold day! I jus' stacked 'em up solid, like cordwood."
Let us now leave this frigid subject! Iced fishing is but a chilling and unsatisfactory imitation of real sport. The angler will soon turn from it with satiety, and seek a better consolation for the winter of his discontent in the entertainment of fishing in books.
ANGLING is the only sport that boasts the honour of having given a classic to literature.
Izaak Walton's success with The Compleat Angler was a fine illustration of fisherman's luck. He set out, with some aid from an adept in fly-fishing and cookery, named Thomas Barker, to produce a little "discourse of fish and fishing" which should serve as a useful manual for quiet persons inclined to follow the contemplative man's recreation. He came home with a book which has made his name beloved by ten generations of gentle readers, and given him a secure place in the Pantheon of letters, -- not a haughty eminence, but a modest niche, all his own, and ever adorned with grateful offerings of fresh flowers.
This was great luck. But it was well-deserved, and therefore it has not been grudged or envied.
Walton was a man so peaceful and contented, so friendly in his disposition, and so innocent in all his goings, that only three other writers, so far as I know, have ever spoken ill of him.
One was that sour-complexioned Cromwellian trooper, Richard Franck, who wrote in 1658 an envious book entitled Northern Memoirs, calculated for the Meridian of Scotland, & c., to which is added The Contemplative and Practical Angler. In this book the furious Franck first pays Walton the flattery of imitation, and then further adorns him with abuse, calling The Compleat Angler "an indigested octavo, stuffed with morals from Dubravius and others," and more than hinting that the father of anglers knew little or nothing of "his uncultivated art." Walton was a Churchman and a Loyalist, you see, while Franck was a Commonwealth man and an Independent.
The second detractor of Walton was Lord Byron, who wrote"The quaint, old, cruel coxcomb in his gullet
Should have a hook, and a small trout to pull it."
But Byron is certainly a poor authority on the quality of mercy. His contempt need not cause an honest man overwhelming distress. I should call it a complimentary dislike.
The third author who expressed unpleasant sentiments in regard to Walton was Leigh Hunt. Here, again, I fancy that partizan prejudice had something to do with the dislike. Hunt was a radical in politics and religion. Moreover there was a feline strain in his character, which made it necessary for him to scratch somebody now and then, as a relief to his feelings.
Walton was a great quoter. His book is not "stuffed," as Franck jealously alleged, but it is certainly well sauced with piquant references to other writers, as early as the author of the Book of Job, and as late as John Dennys, who betrayed to the world The Secrets of Angling in 1613. Walton further seasoned his book with fragments of information about fish and fishing, more or less apocryphal, gathered from ∆lian, Pliny, Plutarch, Sir Francis Bacon, Dubravius, Gesner, Rondeletius, the learned Aldrovandus, the venerable Bede, the divine Du Bartas, and many others. He borrowed freely for the adornment of his discourse, and did not scorn to make use of what may be called live quotations, -- that is to say, the unpublished remarks of his near contemporaries, caught in friendly conversation, or handed down by oral tradition.
But these various seasonings did not disguise, they only enhanced, the delicate flavour of the dish which he served up to his readers. This was all of his own taking, and of a sweetness quite incomparable.
I like a writer who is original enough to water his garden with quotations, without fear of being drowned out. Such men are Charles Lamb and James Russell Lowell and John Burroughs.
Walton's book is as fresh as a handful of wild violets and sweet lavender. It breathes the odours of the green fields and the woods. It tastes of simple, homely, appetizing things like the "syllabub of new verjuice in a new-made haycock" which the milkwoman promised to give Piscator the next time he came that way. Its music plays the tune of A Contented Heart over and over again without dulness, and charm us into harmony with
"A noise like the sound of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune."
Walton has been quoted even more than any of the writers whom he quotes. It would be difficult, even if it were not ungrateful, to write about angling without referring to him. Some pretty saying, some wise reflection from his pages, suggests itself at almost every turn of the subject.
And yet his book, though it be the best, is not the only readable one that his favourite recreation has begotten. The literature of angling is extensive, as any one may see who will look at the list of the collection presented by Mr. John Bartlett to Harvard University, or study the catalogue of the piscatorial library of Mr. Dean Sage, of Albany, who himself has contributed an admirable book on The Ristigouche.
Nor is this literature altogether composed of dry and technical treatises, interesting only to the confirmed anglimaniac, or to the young novice ardent in pursuit of practical information. There is a good deal of juicy reading in it.
Books about angling should be divided (according to De Quincey's method) into two classes,the literature of knowledge, and the literature of power.
The first class contains the handbooks on rods and tackle, the directions how to angle for different kinds of fish, and the guides to various fishing-resorts. The weakness of these books is that they soon fall out of date, as the manufacture of tackle is improved, the art of angling refined, and the fish in once-famous waters are educated or exterminated.
Alas, how transient is the fashion of this world, even in angling! The old manuals with their precise instruction for trimming and painting trout-rods eighteen feet long, and their painful description of "oyntments" made of nettle-juice, fish-hawk oil, camphor, cat's fat, or assafœdita, (supposed to allure the fish,) are altogether behind the age. Many of the flies described by Charles Cotton and Thomas Barker seem to have gone out of style among the trout. Perhaps familiarity has bred contempt. Generation after generation of fish have seen these same old feathered confections floating on the water, and learned by sharp experience that they do not taste good. The blasť trout demand something new, something modern. It is for this reason, I suppose, that an altogether original fly, unheard of, startling, will often do great execution in an over-fished pool.
Certain it is that the art of angling, in settled regions, is growing more dainty and difficult. You must cast a longer, lighter line; you must use finer leaders; you must have your flies dressed on smaller hooks.
And another thing is certain: in many places (described in the ancient volumes) where fish were once abundant, they are now like the shipwrecked sailors in Vergil his ∆neid, --
"rari nantes in gurgite vasto."
The floods themselves are also disappearing. Mr. Edmund Clarence Stedman was telling me, the other day, of the trout-brook that used to run through the Connecticut village when he nourished a poet's youth. He went back to visit the stream a few years since, and it was gone, literally vanished from the face of earth, stolen to make a water-supply for the town, and used for such base purposes as the washing of clothes and the sprinkling of streets.
I remember an expedition with my father, some twenty years ago, to Nova Scotia, whither we set out to realize the hopes kindled by an Angler's Guide written in the early sixties. It was like looking for tall clocks in the farmhouses around Boston. The harvest had been well gleaned before our arrival, and in the very place where our visionary author located his most famous catch we found a summer hotel and a sawmill.
'T is strange and sad, how many regions there are where "the fishing was wonderful forty years ago"!
THE second class of angling books -- the literature of power -- includes all (even those written with some purpose of instruction) in which the gentle fascinations of the sport, the attractions of living out-of-doors, the beauties of stream and woodland, the recollections of happy adventure, and the cheerful thoughts that make the best of a day's luck, come clearly before the author's mind and find some fit expression in his words. Of such books, thank Heaven, there is a plenty to bring a Maytide charm and cheer into the fisherman's dull December. I will name, by way of random tribute from a grateful but unmethodical memory, a few of these consolatory volumes.
First of all comes a family of books that were born in Scotland and smell of the heather.
Whatever a Scotchman's conscience permits him to do, is likely to be done with vigour and a fiery mind. In trade and in theology, in fishing and in fighting, he is all there and thoroughly kindled.
There is an old-fashioned book called The Moor and the Loch, by John Colquhoun, which is full of contagious enthusiasm. Thomas Tod Stoddart was a most impassioned angler, (though over-given to strong language,) and in his Angling Reminiscences he has touched the subject with a happy hand, -- happiest when he breaks into poetry and tosses out a song for the fisherman. Professor John Wilson of the University of Edinburgh held the chair of Moral Philosophy in that institution, but his true fame rests on his well-earned titles of A. M. and F. R. S., -- Master of Angling, and Fisherman Royal of Scotland. His Recreations of Christopher North, albeit their humour is sometimes too boisterously hammered in, are genial and generous essays, overflowing with passages of good-fellowship and pedestrian fancy. I would recommend any person in a dry and melancholy state of mind to read his paper on "Streams," in the first volume of Essays Critical and Imaginative. But it must be said, by way of warning to those with whom dryness is a matter of principle, that all Scotch fishing-books are likely to be sprinkled with Highland Dew.
Among English anglers, Sir Humphry Davy is one of whom Christopher North speaks rather slightingly. Nevertheless his Salmonia is well worth reading, not only because it was written by a learned man, but because it exhales the spirit of cheerful piety and vital wisdom. Charles Kingsley was another great man who wrote well about angling. His Chalk-Stream Studies are clear and sparkling. They cleanse the mind and refresh the heart and put us more in love with living. Of quite a different style are the Maxims and Hints for an Angler, and Miseries of Fishing, which were written by Richard Penn, a grandson of the founder of Pennsylvania. This is a curious and rare little volume, professing to be a compilation from the "Common Place Book of the Houghton Fishing Club," and dealing with the subject from a Pickwickian point of view. I suppose that William Penn would have thought his grandson a frivolous writer.
But he could not have entertained such an opinion of the Honourable Robert Boyle, of whose Occasional Reflections no less than twelve discourses treat "of Angling Improved to Spiritual Uses." The titles of some of these discourses are quaint enough to quote. "Upon the being called upon to rise early on a very fair morning." "Upon the mounting, singing, and lighting of larks." "Upon fishing with a counterfeit fly." "Upon a danger arising from an unseasonable contest with the steersman." "Upon one's drinking water out of the brim of his hat." With such good texts it is easy to endure, and easier still to spare, the sermons.
Englishmen carry their love of travel into their anglimania, and many of their books describe fishing adventures in foreign parts. Rambles with a Fishing-Rod, by E. S. Roscoe, tells of happy days in the Salzkammergut and the Bavarian Highlands and Normandy. Fish-Tails and a Few Others, by Bradnock Hall, contains some delightful chapters on Norway. The Rod in India, by H. S. Thomas, narrates wonderful adventures with the Mahseer and the Rohu and other pagan fish.
But, after all, I like the English angler best when he travels at home, and writes of dry-fly fishing in the Itchen or the Test, or of wet-fly fishing in Northumberland or Sutherlandshire. There is a fascinating booklet that appeared quietly, some years ago, called An Amateur Angler's Days in Dove Dale. It runs as easily and merrily and kindly as a little river, full of peace and pure enjoyment. Other hooks of the same quality have since been written by the same pen, -- Days in Clover, Fresh Woods, By Meadow and Stream. It is no secret, I believe, that the author is Mr. Edward Marston, the senior member of a London publishing-house. But he still clings to his retiring pen-name of "The Amateur Angler," and represents himself, by a graceful fiction, as all unskilled in the art. An instance of similar modesty is found in Mr. Andrew Lang, who entitles the first chapter of his delightful Angling Sketches (without which no fisherman's library is complete), "Confessions of a Duffer." This an engaging liberty which no one else would dare to take.
The best English fish-story pure and simple, that I know, is "Crocker's Hole," by R. D. Blackmore, the creator of Lorna Doone.
Let us turn now to American books about angling. Of these the merciful dispensations of Providence have brought forth no small store since Mr. William Andrew Chatto made the ill-natured remark which is pilloried at the head of this chapter. By the way, it seems that Mr. Chatto had never heard of "The Schuylkill Fishing Company," which was founded on that romantic stream near Philadelphia in 1782, nor seen the Authentic Historical Memoir of that celebrated and amusing society.
I am sorry for the man who cannot find pleasure in reading the appendix of The American Angler's Book, by Thaddeus Norris; or the discursive pages of Frank Forester's Fish and Fishing; or the introduction and notes of that unexcelled edition of Walton which was made by the Reverend Doctor George W. Bethune; or Superior Fishing and Game Fish of the North, by Mr. Robert B. Roosevelt; or Henshall's Book of the Black Bass; or the admirable disgressions of Mr. Henry P. Wells, in his Fly-Rods and Fly-Tackle, and The American Salmon Angler. Dr. William C. Prime has never put his profound knowledge of the art of angling into a manual of technical instruction; but he has written of the delights of the sport in Owl Creek Letters, and in I Go A-Fishing, and in some of the chapters of Along New England Roads and Among New England Hills, with a persuasive skill that has created many new anglers, and made many old ones grateful. It is a fitting coincidence of heredity that his niece, Mrs. Annie Trumbull Slosson, is the author of the most tender and pathetic of all angling stories, Fishin' Jimmy.
BUT it is not only in books written altogether from his peculiar point of view and to humour his harmless insanity, that the angler may find pleasant reading about his favourite pastime. There are excellent bits of fishing scattered all through the field of good literature. It seems as if almost all the men who could write well had a friendly feeling for the contemplative sport.
Plutarch, in The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, tells a capital fish-story of the manner in which the Egyptian Cleopatra fooled that far-famed Roman wight, Marc Antony, when they were angling together on the Nile. As I recall it, from a perusal in early boyhood, Antony was having very bad luck indeed; in fact he had taken nothing, and was sadly put out about it. Cleopatra, thinking to get a rise out of him, secretly told one of her attendants to dive over the opposite side of the barge and fasten a salt fish to the Roman general's hook. The attendant was much pleased with this commission, and, having executed it, proceeded to add a fine stroke of his own; for when he had made the fish fast on the hook, he gave a great pull to the line and held on tightly. Antony was much excited and began to haul violently at his tackle.
"By Jupiter?' he exclaimed, "it was long in coming, but I have a colossal bite now."
"Have a care," said Cleopatra, laughing behind her sunshade, "or he will drag you into the water. You must give him line when he pulls hard."
"Not a denarius will I give!" rudely responded Antony. "I mean to have this halibut or Hades!"
At this moment the man under the boat, being out of breath, let the line go, and Antony, falling backward, drew up the salted herring.
"Take that fish off the hook, Palinurus," he proudly said. "It is not as large as I thought, but it looks like the oldest one that has been caught today."
Such, in effect, is the tale narrated by the veracious Plutarch. And if any careful critic wishes to verify my quotation from memory, he may compare it with the proper page of Langborne's translation; I think it is in the second volume, near the end.
Sir Walter Scott, who once described himself as"No fisher,
But a well-wisher
To the game,"
has an amusing passage of angling in the third chapter of Redgauntlet. Darsie Latimer is relating his adventures in Dumfriesshire. "By the way," says he, "old Cotton's instructions, by which I hoped to qualify myself for the gentle society of anglers, are not worth a farthing for this meridian. I learned this by mere accident, after I had waited four mortal hours. I shall never forget an impudent urchin, a cowherd, about twelve years old, without either brogue or bonnet, barelegged, with a very indifferent pair of breeches, -- how the villain grinned in scorn at my landing-net, my plummet, and the gorgeous jury of flies which I had assembled to destroy all the fish in the river. I was induced at last to lend the rod to the sneering scoundrel, to see what he would make of it; and he not only half-filled my basket in an hour, but' literally taught me to kill two trouts with my own hand."
Thus ancient and well-authenticated is the superstition of the angling powers of the barefooted country-boy, -- in fiction.
Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, in that valuable but over-capitalized book, My Novel, makes use of Fishing for Allegorical Purposes. The episode of John Burley and the One-eyed Perch not only points a Moral but adorns the Tale.
In the works of R. D. Blackmore, angling plays a less instructive but a pleasanter part. It is closely interwoven with love. There is a magical description of trout-fishing on a meadow-brook in Alice Lorraine. And who that has read Lorna Doone, (pity for the man or woman that knows not the delight of that book!) can ever forget how young John Ridd dared his way up the gliddery water-slide, after loaches, and found Lorna in a fair green meadow adorned with flowers, at the top of the brook?
I made a little journey into the Doone Country once, just to see that brook and to fish in it. The stream looked smaller, and the water-slide less terrible, than they seemed in the book. But it was a mighty pretty place after all; and I suppose that even John Ridd, when he came back to it in after years, found it shrunken a little.
All the streams were larger in our boyhood than they are now, except, perhaps, that which flows from the sweetest spring of all, the fountain of love, which John Ridd discovered beside the Bagworthy River, -- and I, on the willow-shaded banks of the Patapsco, where the Baltimore girls fish for gudgeons, -- and you? Come, gentle reader, is there no stream whose name is musical to you, because of a hidden spring of love that you once found on its shore? The waters of that fountain never fail, and in them alone we taste the undiminished fulness of immortal youth.
The stories of William Black are enlivened with fish, and he knew, better than most men, how they should be taken. Whenever he wanted to get two young people engaged to each other, all other devices failing, he sent them out to angle together.
If it had not been for fishing, everything in A Princess of Thule and White Heather would have gone wrong.
But even men who have been disappointed in love may angle for solace or diversion. I have known some old bachelors who fished excellently well; and others I have known who could find, and give, much pleasure in a day on the stream, though they had no skill in the sport. Of this class was Washington Irving, with an extract from whose Sketch Book I will bring this rambling dissertation to an end.
"Our first essay," says he, was along a mountain brook among the highlands of the Hudson; a most unfortunate place for the execution of those piscatory tactics which had been invented along the velvet margins of quiet English rivulets. It was one of those wild streams that lavish, among our romantic solitudes, unheeded beauties enough to fill the sketch-book of a hunter of the picturesque. Sometimes it would leap down rocky shelves, making small cascades, over which the trees threw their broad balancing sprays, and long nameless weeds hung in fringes from the impending banks, dripping with diamond drops. Sometimes it would brawl and fret along a ravine in the matted shade of a forest, filling it with murmurs; and, after this termagant career, would steal forth into open day, with the most placid, demure face imaginable; as I have seen some pestilent shrew of a housewife, after filling her home with uproar and ill-humour, come dimpling out of doors, swimming and courtesying, and smiling upon all the world.
"How smoothly would this vagrant brook glide, at such times, through some bosom of green meadow-land among the mountains, where the quiet was only interrupted by the occasional tinkling of a bell from the lazy cattle among the clover, or the sound of a woodcutter's axe from the neighbouring forest!
"For my part, I was always a bungler at all kinds of sport that required either patience or adroitness, and had not angled above half an hour before I had completely 'satisfied the sentiment,' and convinced myself of the truth of Izaak Walton's opinion, that angling is something like poetry, -- a man must be born to it. I hooked myself instead of the fish; tangled my line in every tree; lost my bait; broke my rod; until I gave up the attempt in despair, and passed the day under the trees, reading old Izaak, satisfied that it was his fascinating vein of honest simplicity and rural feeling that had bewitched me, and not the passion for angling."