We have had stories about fishermen and stories about fish caught by fishermen but it has remained for a Canadian writer, Hubert Evans, to give us fish stories that reveal the grim, under-water world in a manner which leaves no doubt as to the right of your real flesh-and-blood fish to be included among the heroes of nature stories
THE big char—the wolf of that underwater world—could not have chosen a more deadly place from which to launch her raids.
The end of the lake between the wooded mountains, closed in upon the water until it slipped into the creek that guided it down the valley. It was mid-April and the soft Pacific Coast rains had so eaten into the snow crowning the mountains, that the lake’s scanty beaches were made narrower still by the rising water and the creek was brimming between its low clay and gravel banks. Just inside the creek, where the short waves churned up by the south-west wind, which sometimes rolled into the lakeend, could not move it, a dead fir tree lay over the bank and across the bottom to within a few feet of the farther side. Its branches had long ago rotted away, leaving only resinous horns that caught the drifting water plants and trailed them like limp banners in the current. The crushing weight of the water-soaked log had bedded it into the break-off of the bank and into the sloping bottom, so that most of the stream had to crowd around the shattered end. The converging lake shores, the channel and lastly the fir log, funnelled down the passage, to a narrow gap, through which all migrating fish must pass. In the edge of the backwash against the log’s broken end, the big Dolly Varden, the char, lay in wait.
It was time for the salmon yearlings to leave their native lake and go out to the Pacific. Every year in April and until early in May, these little adventurers, with the silver sides and blue-gray backs, rose from the depths of the lake and followed its shoreline until they felt the pull of its outgoing water. Then, in schools of varying numbers, they slipped into the creek where the spotted, long-jowled char lay to levy toll on the little pilgrims to the sea.
In the evening when the sunset’s long shadows merged and were lost in the flowing indistinctness of deepening night, the hungry char waited. Experience of other Aprils had taught her that this was the hour when most yearlings passed her lair. Then, and until almost midnight, the schools would follow each other closely. All the next day there would be stragglers, but from sunset until complete night came was her best feeding time. For then the migrants were hastening to cover as many miles of the narrow creek as they could before daylight showed them fully to their enemies.
In one hour of twilight she could capture ten or more of these four-to-five inch fish, then, gorged, could lie in the backwater of the log until next evening brought another feast.
The big Dolly Varden was lean.
After the spawning last fall, she had not recovered weight before the winter set its listlessness upon the waters and forced an armistice on hunter and hunted until the coldest months had gone.
So now her body was gaunt and her back narrower than in times of plenty. The savage head, with its many inwardhooking teeth, seemed like a mask out of all proportion to the hungerdrawn body.
For ten days she had lurked in the fast water of the gap, with her white-edged fins moving cautiously, widespread for a lunge into that funnel-end of water. But hardly a yearling came. The weather was delaying commencement of the run.
During the month there had been little sunshine. Clouds had drifted over the valley and only at intervals had the sun found an opening in that dull ceiling through which to send his cheering rays. Not until he had drawn the winter chill from the shallows and the surface strata of the lake, would the young salmon start for the sea. They hung back, waiting for bright assurance that spring had really come. As long as they kept to the lake’s deep waters, the char would have difficulty in catching the fat food which could bring her spent body back to lusty primeness.
ON THE tenth afternoon she moved up from her lair and entered the lake. She cruised, close in, along the southwest bank, for there the shallows had felt what little sunshine there had been, and there, in places, the deadening chill had left the water and quickened life.
Around the curving shoreline, a hundred yards from the creek, was a miniature bay, along whose edges last year’s grass stood in bedraggled clumps. She turned into the bay, and, made bold by the cover of the dead grass and by her gnawing hunger, followed a twisted lane between the clumps close to the water’s edge. She swam slowly, but so shallow was the bay that the slow thrusts of her tail stirred the fine debris from the bottom and made eddies that boiled lazily to the surface, leaving a coiling wake. With stealthy watchfulness the cunning huntress moved between the grey and sodden clumps.
A cautious thrust of her tail sent her slowly, with pectoral fins spread and motionless, into an open place, just as a tiny four-footed thing left the matted grass-stalks a yard ahead and struck out to swim the open water. It was a water-vole, a mouse-like dweller of the low shore, and as it swam it spread the merest fluttering wedge of wake. The big prowler gave a terrific lunge. There was a boiling swirl, a floundering splash and the water-vole was snatched down. The rush threw the grass stalks into commotion and stirred whirling clouds of silt and bark fibre from the bottom. Then the char turned and thrust her way through the grass as she bolted for deeper water. That little bay was unsafe, now that she had disclosed her presence there to watchers from the shore and air. She was wary, was this lone huntress of the water-ways. Even as she turned, a bald headed eagle left the plumed top of a tall spruce and swept down toward the widening circles of ripples. He sailed low on the course the char had taken, guided by the movement in the grass, yet too late to see the big fish until she had gained the safety of six feet of water. The eagle wheeled and soared again to his lookout. The Dolly Varden went farther along the shore, more eager, now that she had tasted food, to appease the hunger of her long fast.
She passed on the off-shore side of a high lump of rock which, in low water, reached the surface. She did not see that, close to the in-shore side, a stickleback was working. Nor did the stickleback see her. The stickleback was very busy. He was building his house.
The three-spined stickleback is only a few inches long. His fins, at either shoulder, are armed with a needlepointed half-inch spike and on his dorsal fin he has three tapering stickles as strong, though shorter, than the spines of a black bass several times his size. His flanks are armoured with bony plates, his small mouth set thickly with short, stubby teeth. At all seasons he is pugnacious but just before and during the mating time no fish that swims near his sacred nest is too small or too large for him to tackle.
As the char passed the rock the stickleback was close to its opposite side, tugging to free a half-inch length of brittle weedstalk from the bottom. His transparent little fins stopped and started with the precision of welltimed machinery as he swung and wrenched to loosen the stalk. When it came free he bore it quickly to the little house which he was building against the overhanging side of a small flat stone.
The house, with a round hole at either end, was not much larger than a hen’s egg. He placed the stalk on the roof and darted to a soft place in the bottom nearer shore where there was clean silt and fine sand in a saucer-like depression. With a mouthful of this he smoothed down part of the roof, pressing his idea against it and making it secure with a glue-like secretion from under the bony plates of his sides. Then he went off a few feet and seemed critically to examine his construction work. His pectoral fins, set farther back than on most fish, moved with throbbing beats but his tail was still, curved sideways ready to propel him instantly.
The sun had come out brighter than for many days and fifteen feet along the bottom he saw something coming slowly toward him. He shot ahead six inches, held himself with pulsing fins and watched again. He swam like no other kind of fish in the lake. The others in motion had a swaying gracefulness. His stops, starts, turns, ascents and descents were abrupt and precise. He saw the form again and though the water blurred its outline at that distance, he knew it for a sucker. It was a foot long and it searched the bottom stolidly as it approached. The little armored knight came closer to his castle and waited, truculent, and ready for combat.
The sucker stopped, lowered its head and forced its rounded mouth against the bottom with measured sweeps of its forked tail. Then a cloud of mud concealed its forward parts, where it sucked and pumped up mud and water through its gills as it tested the bottom for food. It found nothing and came closer to its unseen foeman, leaving a blurred cloud of dirty water hanging over the round hole it had made in the silt.
With downcast eyes the sucker blundered closer still. Once he turned, as if to pass on the off-shore side of the big rock, i he stickleback shifted his position sharply to watch. Then a sprouting weed tuft attracted the sucker his way again. It swam toward the sprout, saw that it was not edible and came slowly toward the drab hummock of the nest against the rounded stone. Still he did not see its resolute defender.
The stickleback shot forward until he was only a foot from the tapering head. He stopped as if to block the way. Then, without waiting for the sucker to turn aside, he charged full tilt and raked his spines against the sucker’s body, just behind the throat. The sucker wriggled heavily and rolled his tapering body, then turned and swam laboriously around the end of the big rock and out of sight.
The stickleback followed to the corner of the rock, moving in short rushes and pauses, as if undecided whether to carry his assault farther. Then he came about smartly and moved proudly toward the nest he had successfully defended.
AS he turned he saw the dark shadow of the char returning from her prowl. He resumed his position of assault.
Had the oncoming char been a softmouthed sucker or even an inoffensive uace no larger than himself, the stickleback could not have been more resolute. Defence of his nest was everything to him now. As the invader rushed for him he charged. The char swerved, keeled half over, then with body curved and mouth wide, caught her diminutive foe and clamped her jaws upon it. She spat it out and seized it head first so that the spines on back and fins could fold against the body and not rake her throat too deeply as she gulped it. Then she swam out past the big rock, leaving the nest without the defender who had worked so hard to build it, as shelter for the eggs his mate would lay.
THAT evening the char again lurked in the edge of the backwater at the end of the fir log. And that evening also, the little sockeye salmon, encouraged by the afternoon sunshine, commenced th. ir delayed migration from the lake. The char’s appetite was merely whetted by 1 ht water-vole and the stickleback. She was restless, as she waited for the first schools to come. Once at sunset, she left her hiding place and moved twenty yards upstream to the lee of a snag that reared itself in mid-channel and divided the water. Then, after a few minute’s waiting, she turned and swung into the backwash of the old lookout. She was overly eager and a sodden willow leaf, fluttering as the current swept it along, misled her. She started for it, saw her mistake and wheeled into position again.
The shadow of the westward hill crept up the range on the opposite side of the lake. When the water was all in shadow, cool air currents wandered across the lake, slightly ruffling the surface to show where they were passing. The shadows in the wooded draws and gullies below the westward hillcrests were deep purple. The light went up the eastern hills, marched over their tops and disappeared. Then all the purple shadows slowly merged with the brighter places and the whole valley was abrim with the unreal light of the afterglow. Low in the east., one star showed pale in the cloudless sky. Off the creek mouth a loon yodelled crazily once, then everything was very still.
Where the dark water slipped toward the creek, the surface was pricked now and then by the dorsal fins and backs of ‘salmon yearlings swimming in close formation across the current, eager to start downstream, yet wary of the un known. Occasionally a school would deploy, ruffling the surface in a flash as they scattered before some imagined danger from below. Then they closed in again and resumed their ceaseless cruise.
Gradually the first school dropped down until it was into the creek. It darted out again, alarmed by the solid sweep of water. But soon their eagerness overcame their timidity and they let the water guide them down. They swam with heads upstream, ready to rush back the way they had come. Nearer and nearer they let the current take them toward the fatal gap at the end of the log.
The big char saw the ruffled parch approaching but the school was still too far upstream and the light too poor, for her to pick her fish and she knew the futility of blind rushes at these fleet swimmers. Stealt hily she shifted position until she was into the current and out of the backwater. The solid flow gave her fins better purchase for the rush that would throw her into the school. From years of fishing at this very place, she knew the great advantage of surprise. She knew, also, that, if the first rush failed it was folly to try for a second fish or for the same fish a second time. They scattered, leaped and skittered over the surface so that she could not turn quickly enough to catch them. If she missed, she returned to her lookout and waited for the next of the hurrying schools. But she seldom missed.
The supreme moment was almost at hand. They were half-way along the log and being drawn toward the gap. She singled out a four-inch yearling at the tail of the school. She edged a few inches farther into the current. She seemed like a dull shadow lying there, crossed and overcast by the dim reflections of the flowing water and the vague branches overhead. Then through the dull light, she rushed.
The surface was shattered as if a small explosion had taken place just under it. Wildly the yearlings scattered. But already the char was back in her lair. Her victim’s silver side showed against the gloom of the bottom then was taken out of sight. She lay waiting for the next school. It was already abreast of the snag. She would feed well this evening. Before black night came, the moon would be above the eastern ridges and give light, long after she had eaten her fill.
ON THE shore end of the log, a low dark form stood with arched back and uplifted head. It had seen the splash of the char’s rush and now it slipped into the water on the downstream side of the log. As if the water had dissolved it, it dived, leaving only a brief ripple to show where it went down.
The next school was almost within striking distance and the spotted pirate was moving into the current again, when the mink hurtled down at her. Instinctively she floundered sideways. The mink’s fangs met through the tough skin of her side and were torn loose by the lurch. The char turned to flee into the depths of the long pool below.
But she was matched with a swimmer that, for ability to turn in close quarters, was her master. As a cougar rides the back of a deer it is dragging down, so the mink sprang through the water and with teeth and claws fastened itself to the fish whose length was equal to, whose weight greater than its own. One front paw reached into the gills and his sharp tusks sank into the back, just behind the head, where the spine was near the skin.
The char floundered to shake her enemy but its weight prevented her from swimming upright. She rolled to her side, her widespread tail found the bottom and threw her up in short uneven jumps. The fast current caught them and rolled them over and over into the backwash. There the dim water was clouded with the silt and mud their fighting forms stirred up as the silent struggle reached its climax.
The mink’s teeth went deeper. They closed over the vertebrae, threaded like little spoons upon the spinal cord. They crunched through. The stricken fish spun over and over on the bottom until its last spasmodic writhe threw them into the current again. Victor and vanquished were borne into the pool.
The mink came to the surface and swam with its prize to the log. It dragged the fish up and stood with its fore feet on the torn flank. It looked up and down stream, sniffed, then lowered its head and began its feast. Before it had finished the moon was reaching long fingers of silver light down into the valley, over the lake and through the bare willows of the creek banks by the log.
The uneven procession of young salmon continued the migration. Warily they darted through the gap and then were lost in the shadows of the evergreens whose branches met above the purling stream.