A Fatal Success
by Henry van Dyke
Beekman De Peyster was probably the most passionate and triumphant fisherman in the Petrine Club. He angled with the same dash and confidence that he threw into his operations in the stock-market. He was sure to be the first man to get his flies on the water at the opening of the season. And when we came together for our fall meeting, to compare notes of our wanderings on various streams and make up the fish-stories for the year, Beekman was almost always “high hook.” We expected, as a matter of course, to hear that he had taken the most and the largest fish.
It was so with everything that he undertook. He was a masterful man. If there was an unusually large trout in a river, Beekman knew about it before any one else, and got there first, and came home with the fish. It did not make him unduly proud, because there was nothing uncommon about it. It was his habit to succeed, and all the rest of us were hardened to it.
When he married Cornelia Cochrane, we were consoled for our partial loss by the apparent fitness and brilliancy of the match. If Beekman was a masterful man, Cornelia was certainly what you might call a mistressful woman. She had been the head of her house since she was eighteen years old. She carried her good looks like the family plate; and when she came into the breakfast-room and said good-morning, it was with an air as if she presented every one with a check for a thousand dollars. Her tastes were accepted as judgments, and her preferences had the force of laws. Wherever she wanted to go in the summer-time, there the finger of household destiny pointed. At Newport, at Bar Harbour, at Lenox, at Southampton, she made a record. When she was joined in holy wedlock to Beekman De Peyster, her father and mother heaved a sigh of satisfaction, and settled down for a quiet vacation in Cherry Valley.
It was in the second summer after the wedding that Beekman admitted to a few of his ancient Petrine cronies, in moments of confidence (unjustifiable, but natural), that his wife had one fault.
“It is not exactly a fault,” he said, “not a positive fault, you know. It is just a kind of a defect, due to her education, of course. In everything else she’s magnificent. But she does n’t care for fishing. She says it’s stupid,—can’t see why any one should like the woods,—calls camping out the lunatic’s diversion. It’s rather awkward for a man with my habits to have his wife take such a view. But it can be changed by training. I intend to educate her and convert her. I shall make an angler of her yet.”
And so he did.
The new education was begun in the Adirondacks, and the first lesson was given at Paul Smith’s. It was a complete failure.
Beekman persuaded her to come out with him for a day on Meacham River, and promised to convince her of the charm of angling. She wore a new gown, fawn-colour and violet, with a picture-hat, very taking. But the Meacham River trout was shy that day; not even Beekman could induce him to rise to the fly. What the trout lacked in confidence the mosquitoes more than made up. Mrs. De Peyster came home much sunburned, and expressed a highly unfavourable opinion of fishing as an amusement and of Meacham River as a resort.
“The nice people don’t come to the Adirondacks to fish,” said she; “they come to talk about the fishing twenty years ago. Besides, what do you want to catch that trout for? If you do, the other men will say you bought it, and the hotel will have to put in a new one for the rest of the season.”
The following year Beekman tried Moosehead Lake. Here he found an atmosphere more favourable to his plan of education. There were a good many people who really fished, and short expeditions in the woods were quite fashionable. Cornelia had a camping-costume of the most approved style made by Dewlap on Fifth Avenue,—pearl-gray with linings of rose-silk,—and consented to go with her husband on a trip up Moose River. They pitched their tent the first evening at the mouth of Misery Stream, and a storm came on. The rain sifted through the canvas in a fine spray, and Mrs. De Peyster sat up all night in a waterproof cloak, holding an umbrella. The next day they were back at the hotel in time for lunch.
“It was horrid,” she told her most intimate friend, “perfectly horrid. The idea of sleeping in a shower-bath, and eating your breakfast from a tin plate, just for sake of catching a few silly fish! Why not send your guides out to get them for you?”
But, in spite of this profession of obstinate heresy, Beekman observed with secret joy that there were signs, before the end of the season, that Cornelia was drifting a little, a very little but still perceptibly, in the direction of a change of heart. She began to take an interest, as the big trout came along in September, in the reports of the catches made by the different anglers. She would saunter out with the other people to the corner of the porch to see the fish weighed and spread out on the grass. Several times she went with Beekman in the canoe to Hardscrabble Point, and showed distinct evidences of pleasure when he caught large trout. The last day of the season, when he returned from a successful expedition to Roach River and Lily Bay, she inquired with some particularity about the results of his sport; and in the evening, as the company sat before the great open fire in the hall of the hotel, she was heard to use this information with considerable skill in putting down Mrs. Minot Peabody of Boston, who was recounting the details of her husband’s catch at Spencer Pond. Cornelia was not a person to be contented with the back seat, even in fish-stories.
When Beekman observed these indications he was much encouraged, and resolved to push his educational experiment briskly forward to his customary goal of success.
“Some things can be done, as well as others,” he said in his masterful way, as three of us were walking home together after the autumnal dinner of the Petrine Club, which he always attended as a graduate member. “A real fisherman never gives up. I told you I’d make an angler out of my wife; and so I will. It has been rather difficult. She is ‘dour’ in rising. But she’s beginning to take notice of the fly now. Give me another season, and I’ll have her landed.”
Good old Beekman! Little did he think—But I must not interrupt the story with moral reflections.
The preparations that he made for his final effort at conversion were thorough and prudent. He had a private interview with Dewlap in regard to the construction of a practical fishing-costume for a lady, which resulted in something more reasonable and workmanlike than had ever been turned out by that famous artist. He ordered from Hook and Catchett a lady’s angling-outfit of the most enticing description,—a split-bamboo rod, light as a girl’s wish, and strong as a matron’s will; an oxidized silver reel, with a monogram on one side, and a sapphire set in the handle for good luck; a book of flies, of all sizes and colours, with the correct names inscribed in gilt letters on each page. He surrounded his favourite sport with an aureole of elegance and beauty. And then he took Cornelia in September to the Upper Dam at Rangeley.
She went reluctant. She arrived disgusted. She stayed incredulous. She returned—Wait a bit, and you shall hear how she returned.
The Upper Dam at Rangeley is the place, of all others in the world, where the lunacy of angling may be seen in its incurable stage. There is a cosy little inn, called a camp, at the foot of a big lake. In front of the inn is a huge dam of gray stone, over which the river plunges into a great oval pool, where the trout assemble in the early fall to perpetuate their race. From the tenth of September to the thirtieth, there is not an hour of the day or night when there are no boats floating on that pool, and no anglers trailing the fly across its waters. Before the late fishermen are ready to come in at midnight, the early fishermen may be seen creeping down to the shore with lanterns in order to begin before cock-crow. The number of fish taken is not large,—perhaps five or six for the whole company on an average day,—but the size is sometimes enormous,—nothing under three pounds is counted,—and they pervade thought and conversation at the Upper Dam to the exclusion of every other subject. There is no driving, no dancing, no golf, no tennis. There is nothing to do but fish or die.
At first, Cornelia thought she would choose the latter alternative. But a remark of that skilful and morose old angler, McTurk, which she overheard on the verandah after supper, changed her mind.
“Women have no sporting instinct,” said he. “They only fish because they see men doing it. They are imitative animals.”
That same night she told Beekman, in the subdued tone which the architectural construction of the house imposes upon all confidential communications in the bedrooms, but with resolution in every accent, that she proposed to go fishing with him on the morrow.
“But not on that pool, right in front of the house, you understand. There must be some other place, out on the lake, where we can fish for three or four days, until I get the trick of this wobbly rod. Then I’ll show that old bear, McTurk, what kind of an animal woman is.”
Beekman was simply delighted. Five days of diligent practice at the mouth of Mill Brook brought his pupil to the point where he pronounced her safe.
“Of course,” he said patronizingly, “you have ‘nt learned all about it yet. That will take years. But you can get your fly out thirty feet, and you can keep the tip of your rod up. If you do that, the trout will hook himself, in rapid water, eight times out of ten. For playing him, if you follow my directions, you ‘ll be all right. We will try the pool tonight, and hope for a medium-sized fish.”
Cornelia said nothing, but smiled and nodded. She had her own thoughts.
At about nine o’clock Saturday night, they anchored their boat on the edge of the shoal where the big eddy swings around, put out the lantern and began to fish. Beekman sat in the bow of the boat, with his rod over the left side; Cornelia in the stern, with her rod over the right side. The night was cloudy and very black. Each of them had put on the largest possible fly, one a “Bee-Pond” and the other a “Dragon;” but even these were invisible. They measured out the right length of line, and let the flies drift back until they hung over the shoal, in the curly water where the two currents meet.
There were three other boats to the left of them. McTurk was their only neighbour in the darkness on the right. Once they heard him swearing softly to himself, and knew that he had hooked and lost a fish.
Away down at the tail of the pool, dimly visible through the gloom, the furtive fisherman, Parsons, had anchored his boat. No noise ever came from that craft. If he wished to change his position, he did not pull up the anchor and let it down again with a bump. He simply lengthened or shortened his anchor rope. There was no click of the reel when he played a fish. He drew in and paid out the line through the rings by hand, without a sound. What he thought when a fish got away, no one knew, for he never said it. He concealed his angling as if it had been a conspiracy. Twice that night they heard a faint splash in the water near his boat, and twice they saw him put his arm over the side in the darkness and bring it back again very quietly.
“That’s the second fish for Parsons,” whispered Beekman, “what a secretive old Fortunatus he is! He knows more about fishing than any man on the pool, and talks less.”
Cornelia did not answer. Her thoughts were all on the tip of her own rod. About eleven o’clock a fine, drizzling rain set in. The fishing was very slack. All the other boats gave it up in despair; but Cornelia said she wanted to stay out a little longer, they might as well finish up the week.
At precisely fifty minutes past eleven, Beekman reeled up his line, and remarked with firmness that the holy Sabbath day was almost at hand and they ought to go in.
“Not till I ‘ve landed this trout,” said Cornelia.
“What? A trout! Have you got one?”
“Certainly; I ‘ve had him on for at least fifteen minutes. I ‘m playing him Mr. Parsons’ way. You might as well light the lantern and get the net ready; he’s coming in towards the boat now.”
Beekman broke three matches before he made the lantern burn; and when he held it up over the gunwale, there was the trout sure enough, gleaming ghostly pale in the dark water, close to the boat, and quite tired out. He slipped the net over the fish and drew it in,—a monster.
“I ‘ll carry that trout, if you please,” said Cornelia, as they stepped out of the boat; and she walked into the camp, on the last stroke of midnight, with the fish in her hand, and quietly asked for the steelyard.
Eight pounds and fourteen ounces,—that was the weight. Everybody was amazed. It was the “best fish” of the year. Cornelia showed no sign of exultation, until just as John was carrying the trout to the ice-house. Then she flashed out:—”Quite a fair imitation, Mr. McTurk,—is n’t it?”
Now McTurk’s best record for the last fifteen years was seven pounds and twelve ounces.
So far as McTurk is concerned, this is the end of the story. But not for the De Peysters. I wish it were. Beekman went to sleep that night with a contented spirit. He felt that his experiment in education had been a success. He had made his wife an angler.
He had indeed, and to an extent which he little suspected. That Upper Dam trout was to her like the first taste of blood to the tiger. It seemed to change, at once, not so much her character as the direction of her vital energy. She yielded to the lunacy of angling, not by slow degrees, (as first a transient delusion, then a fixed idea, then a chronic infirmity, finally a mild insanity,) but by a sudden plunge into the most violent mania. So far from being ready to die at Upper Dam, her desire now was to live there—and to live solely for the sake of fishing—as long as the season was open.
There were two hundred and forty hours left to midnight on the thirtieth of September. At least two hundred of these she spent on the pool; and when Beekman was too exhausted to manage the boat and the net and the lantern for her, she engaged a trustworthy guide to take Beekman’s place while he slept. At the end of the last day her score was twenty-three, with an average of five pounds and a quarter. His score was nine, with an average of four pounds. He had succeeded far beyond his wildest hopes.
The next year his success became even more astonishing. They went to the Titan Club in Canada. The ugliest and most inaccessible sheet of water in that territory is Lake Pharaoh. But it is famous for the extraordinary fishing at a certain spot near the outlet, where there is just room enough for one canoe. They camped on Lake Pharaoh for six weeks, by Mrs. De Peyster’s command; and her canoe was always the first to reach the fishing-ground in the morning, and the last to leave it in the evening.
Some one asked him, when he returned to the city, whether he had good luck.
“Quite fair,” he tossed off in a careless way; “we took over three hundred pounds.”
“To your own rod?” asked the inquirer, in admiration.
“No-o-o,” said Beekman, “there were two of us.”
There were two of them, also, the following year, when they joined the Natasheebo Salmon Club and fished that celebrated river in Labrador. The custom of drawing lots every night for the water that each member was to angle over the next day, seemed to be especially designed to fit the situation. Mrs. De Peyster could fish her own pool and her husband’s too. The result of that year’s fishing was something phenomenal. She had a score that made a paragraph in the newspapers and called out editorial comment. One editor was so inadequate to the situation as to entitle the article in which he described her triumph “The Equivalence of Woman.” It was well-meant, but she was not at all pleased with it.
She was now not merely an angler, but a “record” angler of the most virulent type. Wherever they went, she wanted, and she got, the pick of the water. She seemed to be equally at home on all kinds of streams, large and small. She would pursue the little mountain-brook trout in the early spring, and the Labrador salmon in July, and the huge speckled trout of the northern lakes in September, with the same avidity and resolution. All that she cared for was to get the best and the most of the fishing at each place where she angled. This she always did.
And Beekman,—well, for him there were no more long separations from the partner of his life while he went off to fish some favourite stream. There were no more home-comings after a good day’s sport to find her clad in cool and dainty raiment on the verandah, ready to welcome him with friendly badinage. There was not even any casting of the fly around Hardscrabble Point while she sat in the canoe reading a novel, looking up with mild and pleasant interest when he caught a larger fish than usual, as an older and wiser person looks at a child playing some innocent game. Those days of a divided interest between man and wife were gone. She was now fully converted, and more. Beekman and Cornelia were one; and she was the one.
The last time I saw the De Peysters he was following her along the Beaverkill, carrying a landing-net and a basket, but no rod. She paused for a moment to exchange greetings, and then strode on down the stream. He lingered for a few minutes longer to light a pipe.
“Well, old man,” I said, “you certainly have succeeded in making an angler of Mrs. De Peyster.”
“Yes, indeed,” he answered,—”have n’t I?” Then he continued, after a few thoughtful puffs of smoke, “Do you know, I ‘m not quite so sure as I used to be that fishing is the best of all sports. I sometimes think of giving it up and going in for croquet.”
FISHING IN BOOKS
“SIMPSON.—Have you ever seen any American books on angling,
“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 dum’ 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, ETC., 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 Aelian, 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 charms 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 assafoedita, (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 blase 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 Aeneid,—
“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 watersupply 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 books 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 H. D. Black-more, 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 1732, 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 to-day.”
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 Langhorne’s translation; I think it is in the second volume, near the end.
Sir Walter Scott, who once described himself as
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.”