The Thoroughbred of the Sea

W. A. FRASER September 1 1924

The Thoroughbred of the Sea

W. A. FRASER September 1 1924

The Thoroughbred of the Sea


IF THERE is anything that homes in the sea that, in class, approaches the blue-blooded horse, it is the salmon. And the river he loves so well is the Restigouche.

Once upon a time a famous author wrote a fascinating description of killing a salmon; it was enthralling, exciting. Years later, in a letter to me, he told of the joy of landing one’s first salmon. I fancy an imaginative man could possibly do with a salmon yarn what Stephen Crane did with the battle scene in the Red Badge of Courage, for I now find that the thrill, the god-like enthusiasm, the vaulting feeling of conquest, the desire to jump up and down on the gravel bar and yell—all these things reviewed in my study have lost their vitality. In fiction, untrammeled by the responsibility of truth, an author can go as far as he likes, but exaggeration in exact narrative is to be deplored.

To begin, the Restigouche fishing is controlled by the Restigouche Club, a body of men comfortably well off,

Vanderbilt, the late W. S.

Kennedy, of New York—all the members are men of fair standing financially. The late Stanford White had in his locker, for instance, fishing tackle that cost probably a thousand dollars.

They were men who could afford the thing, and, really, the sort of men that should have the right to kill salmon in a way of sport. With others, of smaller means, there is always that terrible virus in the human animal to combat, greed.

Because of this the Riparian Association guards the river through its officer, a most conscientious man, Max Mowat; and he, at times, hales into court men who, by the convicting evidence, show what a slaughtering brute untrammeled man is. Last year a company of lumberjacks were fined heavily for killing salmon with their axes in the extreme upper waters of the Restigouche, as the salmon were spawning in the shallow water. It was iong past the open season, which closes August 15.

Distributing the Joy

D UT as to my fish : I have developed a theory that there . should be a limit fixed of one salmon per one man in a lifetime; that would distribute this priceless joy, and I think make humanity happier.

I killed one—just one, and I am satisfied.

The season was late, the last of July; the river was low, and the water clear, so the salmon were in the deep pools, and these pools were not mirrored, surfaced bowls of dream-waters; they were turbulent depths, condensed expanses of the river. In these pools we might find the late run of salmon, the fish that come up from the sea in the latter part of July and August, and are still full of vigor and have the health bloom of beauty on their silver sides. Up the river the salmon that have stayed all summer were now becoming soft and flabby, and dark-brown of skin.

And for this late fishing in the pools a small fly; I was given a line carrying a No. 6 Black Dose, really a small trout fly; earlier in the season a flamboyant Jock Scot, double 0, or three 0, cast upon the muddy waters would attract the feeding fish, but not now.

Well, we set out in the canoe; in the bow Mike, in his hand a rope attached to a stone anchor; in the stern John Lawlor, bearer of the gaff; in the centre my host, the club member, possessor of the salmon rod. I looked upon this with apprehension; it was like an elongated hop-pole and to be manipulated from a pinchbeck canoe.

By regulation of the Restigouche Club two rods may not be fished from one canoe—a member’s guest must fish the member’s rod. My host, with no swank of showing me how the thing was done, stood up, planted the butt of the big rod below his waist band, and threw yards of the silken segment of a spider’s web out upon the troubled

waters—off to the right he threw it. Then, manipulating that rod as the leader of an orchestra waves his baton, he brought the jiggling, spider-like fly past the stern, a hundred feet down stream on to the left, then reeled it in, and cast again. This time I saw him suddenly stiffen, his jaws set, his arms went rigid, and the barely discernible line was hissing through the ferrules of the rod to the song of the spinning reel. Something had struck; but the fight, though a game one, was short, because a four pound grilse had been hooked. But he was a bounding toy, a silver thing of springs; he was out of the water like a series of tossed coins; and, as he was reeled in, my friend explained that a grilse was a young salmon two years old that had gone out to sea as a yearling, to come back for a visit to the old home the following year. He was a male fish, the female salmon not coming back until four years old, ready to spawn.

Fraser Takes the Rod

THEN the rod was turned over to me. Heavens! Stage fright, with a good solid plank floor underneath one and a possible exit through the wing, is child’s play to standing there in that jiggling canoe knowing perfectly well that I would hook that Black Dose into John’s cheek, or my friend’s eye, or possibly Mike’s leg. The rod weighed eight hundred and seventy pounds, and it was thirty-three feet long; I’ll swear to this, though some of my friends won’t believe me!

I cast—out of courtesy it might have been called a cast, but, at any rate, the line and the fly all got overboard, and started down stream. Then I remembered, and I pumped the rod as I had seen my friend pump it. I don’t think it had anything to do with the result; I think that a little brass Buddha I carried for good luck managed the. whole thing.

Above the roar in my ears, due to suppressed feeling, I heard John yell, “The butt, sir, the butt!—play him,” and I felt, running down through the rod and tingling my fingers, vibrating static, a quivering stimulation that thrilled me; some unknown, some hidden power of action possessed me. Already Mike was pulling up the anchor. John had his paddle in the water; the canoe sheered off, and headed for a gravel bar. Suddenly, John backed water with his paddle; my rod was bending like a slim tree in a breeze, and he was yelling, “Give him line, give him line—!” The line was singing out; the rod was smoking with the friction speed of it. Then the rod straightened, the line dangled loose, and a great thing of

silver and bronze shot out of the water, a full three feet. John said, advisingly, “He’s a matter of twenty-five pounds, sir—just humor him, but quick up with the slack, sir—reel in, reel in!” How I reeled at that line, for the fish was now shooting up stream, and the silk cord was slackening fast! John pushed the canoe toward the bar with a cut of his paddle blade, and I could feel a gentle pull that tapered the slim point of the rod. I was learning; fortunately I had good hands—in riding I had known that, for horses had always said my hands were good hands. Presently we were grounded on the gravel bar. We stepped out, and my friend said to the guide, “John, walk out a bit, and be ready to gaff the salmon, so Mr. Fraser won’t lose him.”

With His Soul in His Finger

DO YOU know what that guide did—he winked at me, and answered, “Yes, sir, we’ll be gaffin’ him,” and he winked at me again, which meant plainly, we won’t gaff him; for, you see, it was a large matter of eclat to land a heavy fish without the mark of a gaff hook in him—drown him in the water till he could be lifted out by a hand grasping his tail.

I understood, and I worked with my soul in my finger tips.

For an hour and fifty minutes that silver sheened thoroughbred of the sea fought for his life, game to the last. It was almost a pity to kill him ; but when the lust of conquest is on, all the humanities are dead.

At last I had him, tired out by that inexorable bending, yielding rod, making his last fight in shallow water— below him the sharp gravel, above the paralyzing air. Then John waded out, grasped him by the tail, brought him forth from his element, and laid him at my feet, saying, “You have good hands, sir; I’m glad I didn’t have to gaff him.”

The Beauty of the Fish

THERE he lay on the white gravel, one of the most beautiful, symmetrical, created in gentle curves, beings on earth; and such gentleness of artistry in the adornment of his colorization—the lustre of pearl swept over his silver plates like a glaze, and the suspicion of ebony black, in spots, the spots that when he was a “par,” a babe, less than a year old, had been as crimson as blood. And the strong-jawed head, fronting the powerful shoulders, designed by a Creator so wise that the magnitude of the skill leaves one powerless of full adoration; that fighting head and shoulder to battle right-of-way with the dwellers of the briny deep, and mount over rocks threshed by an avalanche of falling water, to reach a place of safety for the birth of young. John, the guide, partly birthed these thoughts as we sat and smoked a pipe, the nerve smoother after knotted tension.

“It would do your eyes good, sir,” John said, “to see a bull salmon like this one, who is nearer thirty pounds than twenty-five, guarding his wife when she’s layin’ the eggs, spawnin’, higher up; that’ll be a couple of months, later. I’ve watched him many a time. The female ’ud be sorter wallowin’ in the fine gravel, every once in a while floppin’ over on her side to give a few kicks—that’s when the roe is passin’, a spasm, not as some say diggin’ the hole. Sure, there’s a hollow scooped out, but that comes of the water carryin’ the small sand and gravel from under the fish. It’s nature’s way to get the eggs down among bigger stones, so’s the thief trout can’t get ’em. And down stream there’d be a dozen or more of them murderin’ trout, two an’ three pounders, watchin’ for a chance at the roe. That’s where the bull comes in. He stands guardin’ the female; he knows what they’re after, and once in. a while the waters’ll swirl

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The Thoroughbred of the Sea

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when he turns to rush ’em—sure he’d break their backs with one clutch of that hooked jaw. And when the female has spawned the eggs he swims over them to drop the melt that fertilizes ’em. Curious, that, sir; ’em soft little eggs gets as hard as coated pills because of the melt.”

The Brain in an Armored Head

THEN John had some trouble with the fierce strong pipe, and I had time to worry futilely over the how, and why, j and what, of all this wondrous developI ment, of the curious exactitude of the tiny brain in that armored head that kept tab of dates for arrival and departure,

of the necessity to get away up to the top waterá for coolness, for cleanliness, and for safety for the egg of incubation. And of locality, of dwelling place, for certain salmon go up certain rivers, even certain branches of the same river. Eighteen miles inland from the mouth of the Restigouche enters into it the Upsalquitch River, and the salmon that run up this branch are a different caste, though they have come in with the caste of the Restigouche. They are smaller, slimmer of body, with a slight difference in the color scheme. And again the salmon of the Matapedia are slightly different from those of the Restigouche, being heav\ bodied fish.