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- Prose Idylls - 10/37 -


light London rod, which is in three cases out of four as weak and 'floppy' in the middle as a waggon whip, and get to himself a stiff and powerful rod, strong enough to spin a minnow; whereby he will obtain, after some weeks of aching muscles, two good things--a fore- arm fit for a sculptor's model, and trout hooked and killed, instead of pricked and lost.

Killed, as well as hooked; for how large trout are to be killed in a weedy chalk-stream without a stiff rod which will take them down, is a question yet unsolved. Even the merest Cockney will know, if he thinks, that weeds float with their points down-stream; and that therefore if a fish is to be brought through them without entangling, he must be 'combed' through them in the same direction. But how is this to be done, if a fish be hooked below you on a weak rod? With a strong rod indeed you can, at the chance of tearing out the hook, keep him by main force on the top of the water, till you have run past him and below him, shortening your line anyhow in loops--there is no time to wind it up with the reel--and then do what you might have done comfortably at first had you been fishing up--viz., bring him down-stream, and let the water run through his gills, and drown him. But with a weak rod--Alas for the tyro! He catches one glimpse of a silver side plunging into the depths; he finds his rod double in his hand; he finds fish and flies stop suddenly somewhere; he rushes down to the spot, sees weeds waving around his line, and guesses from what he feels and sees that the fish is grubbing up-stream through them, five feet under water. He tugs downwards and backwards, but too late; the drop-fly is fast wrapt in Ceratophyllum and Glyceria, Callitriche and Potamogeton, and half-a-dozen more horrid things with long names and longer stems; and what remains but the fate of Campbell's Lord Ullin? -

'The waters wild went o'er his child, And he was left lamenting.'

Unless, in fact, large fish can be got rapidly down-stream, the chance of killing them is very small; and therefore the man who fishes a willow-fringed brook downward, is worthy of no crown but Ophelia's, besides being likely enough, if he attempt to get down to his fish, to share her fate. The best fisherman, however, will come to shame in streams bordered by pollard willows, and among queer nooks, which can be only fished down-stream. I saw, but the other day, a fish hooked cleverly enough, by throwing to an inch where he ought to have been, and indeed was, and from the only point whence the throw could be made. Out of the water he came, head and tail, the moment he felt the hook, and showed a fair side over two pounds weight . . . . and then? Instead of running away, he ran right at the fisherman, for reasons which were but too patent. Between man and fish were ten yards of shallow, then a deep weedy shelf, and then the hole which was his house. And for that weedy shelf the spotted monarch made, knowing that there he could drag himself clear of the fly, as perhaps he had done more than once before.

What was to be done? Take him down-stream through the weed? Alas, on the man's left hand an old pollard leant into the water, barring all downward movement. Jump in and run round? He had rather to run back from the bank, from fear of a loose line; the fish was coming at him so fast that there was no time to wind up. Safe into the weeds hurls the fish; the man, as soon as he finds the fish stop, jumps in mid-leg deep, and staggers up to him, in hopes of clearing; finds the dropper fast in the weeds, and the stretcher, which had been in the fish's mouth, wantoning somewhere in the depths--Quid plura? Let us draw a veil over that man's return to shore.

No mortal skill could have killed that fish. Mortal luck (which is sometimes, as most statesmen know, very great) might have done it, if the fish had been irretrievably fast hooked; as, per contra, I once saw a fish of nearly four pounds hooked just above an alder bush, on the same bank as the angler. The stream was swift: there was a great weed-bed above; the man had but about ten feet square of swift water to kill the trout in. Not a foot down-stream could he take him; in fact, he had to pull him hard up-stream to keep him out of his hover in the alder roots. Three times that fish leapt into the air nearly a yard high; and yet, so merciful is luck, and so firmly was he hooked, in five breathless minutes he was in the landing-net; and when he was there and safe ashore, just of the shape and colour of a silver spoon, his captor lay down panting upon the bank, and with Sir Hugh Evans, manifested 'a great disposition to cry.' But it was a beautiful sight. A sharper round between man and fish never saw I fought in Merry England.

I saw once, however, a cleverer, though not a more dashing feat. A handy little fellow (I wonder where he is now?) hooked a trout of nearly three pounds with his dropper, and at the same moment a post with his stretcher. What was to be done? To keep the fish pulling on him, and not on the post. And that, being favoured by standing on a four-foot bank, he did so well that he tired out the fish in some six feet square of water, stopping him and turning him beautifully whenever he tried to run, till I could get in to him with the landing-net. That was five-and-thirty years since. If the little man has progressed in his fishing as he ought, he should be now one of the finest anglers in England.

* * * * *

So. Thanks to bank fishing, we have, you see, landed three or four more good fish in the last two hours--And! What is here? An ugly two-pound chub, Chevin, 'Echevin,' or Alderman, as the French call him. How is this, keeper? I thought you allowed no such vermin in this water?

The keeper answers, with a grunt, that 'they allow themselves. That there always were chub hereabouts, and always will be; for the more he takes out with the net, the more come next day.'

Probably. No nets will exterminate these spawn-eating, fry-eating, all-eating pests, who devour the little trout, and starve the large ones, and, at the first sign of the net, fly to hover among the most tangled roots. There they lie, as close as rats in a bank, and work themselves the farther in the more they are splashed and poked by the poles of the beaters. But the fly, well used, will--if not exterminate them--still thin them down greatly; and very good sport they give, in my opinion, in spite of the contempt in which they are commonly held, as chicken-hearted fish, who show no fight. True; but their very cowardice makes them the more difficult to catch; for no fish must you keep more out of sight, and further off. The very shadow of the line (not to mention that of the rod) sends them flying to hover; and they rise so cautiously and quietly, that they give excellent lessons in patience and nerve to a beginner. If the fly is dragged along the surface, or jerked suddenly from them, they flee from it in terror; and when they do, after due deliberation, take it in, their rise is so quiet, that you can seldom tell whether your fish weighs half a pound or four pounds and a half--unless you, like most beginners, attempt to show your quickness by that most useless exertion, a violent strike. Then, the snapping of your footlink, or- -just as likely--of the top of your rod, makes you fully aware, if not of the pluck, at least of the brute strength, of the burly alderman of the waters. No fish, therefore, will better teach the beginner the good old lesson, 'not to frighten a fish before you have tired him.'

For flies--chub will rise greedily at any large palmers, the larger and rougher the better. A red and a grizzled hackle will always take them; but the best fly of all is an imitation of the black beetle-- the 'undertaker' of the London shops. He, too, can hardly be too large, and should be made of a fat body of black wool, with the metallic black feather of a cock's tail wrapped loosely over it. A still better wing is one of the neck feathers of any metallic-plumed bird, e.g., Phlogophorus Impeyanus, the Menaul Pheasant, laid flat and whole on the back, to imitate the wing-shells of the beetle, the legs being represented by any loose black feathers--(not hackles, which are too fine.) Tied thus, it will kill not only every chub in a pool (if you give the survivors a quarter of an hour wherein to recover from their horror at their last friend's fate), but also, here and there, very large trout.

Another slur upon the noble sport of chub fishing is the fact of his not being worth eating--a fact which, in the true sportsman's eyes, will go for nothing. But though the man who can buy fresh soles and salmon may despise chub, there are those who do not. True, you may make a most accurate imitation of him by taking one of Palmer's patent candles, wick and all, stuffing it with needles and split bristles, and then stewing the same in ditch-water. Nevertheless, strange to say, the agricultural stomach digests chub; and if, after having filled your creel, or three creels (as you may too often), with them, you will distribute them on your way home to all the old women you meet, you will make many poor souls happy, after having saved the lives of many trout.

But here we come to a strip of thick cover, part of our Squire's home preserves, which it is impossible to fish, so closely do the boughs cover the water. We will walk on through it towards the hall, and there get--what we begin sorely to need--something to eat. It will be of little use fishing for some time to come; for these hot hours of the afternoon, from three till six, are generally the 'deadest time' of the whole day.

And now, when we have struggled in imagination through the last bit of copse, and tumbled over the palings into the lawn, we shall see a scene quite as lovely, if you will believe it, as any alp on earth.

What shall we see, as we look across the broad, still, clear river, where the great dark trout sail to and fro lazily in the sun? For having free-warren of our fancy and our paper, we may see what we choose.

White chalk-fields above, quivering hazy in the heat. A park full of merry haymakers; gay red and blue waggons; stalwart horses switching off the flies; dark avenues of tall elms; groups of abele, 'tossing their whispering silver to the sun;' and amid them the house. What manner of house shall it be? Tudor or Elizabethan, with oriels, mullioned windows, gables, and turrets of strange shape? No: that is commonplace. Everybody builds Tudor houses now. Our house shall smack of Inigo Jones or Christopher Wren; a great square red-brick mass, made light and cheerful though, by quoins and windows of white Sarsden stone; with high-peaked French roofs, broken by louvres and dormers, haunted by a thousand swallows and starlings. Old walled gardens, gay with flowers, shall stretch right and left. Clipt yew alleys shall wander away into mysterious glooms: and out of their black arches shall come tripping children, like white fairies, to laugh and talk with the girl who lies dreaming and reading in the hammock there, beneath the black velvet canopy of the great cedar- tree, like some fair Tropic flower hanging from its boughs. Then they shall wander down across the smooth-shorn lawn, where the purple rhododendrons hang double, bush and image, over the water's edge, and call to us across the stream, 'What sport?' and the old Squire shall beckon the keeper over the long stone bridge, and return with him bringing luncheon and good ale; and we will sit down, and eat and drink among the burdock leaves, and then watch the quiet house, and


Prose Idylls - 10/37

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