Home Waters Call
Recording the adventures abroad of Bright Arrow, the trout, and his sensational homecoming
AT FIRST, Bright Arrow and the other cut-throat trout fingerlings had found abundant food at the creek mouth. But now the little mountain stream had dwindled under the August sun, and they must forage elsewhere along Upper Deer Lake shorelines. The stream from the arched cedars no longer brawled among the stones; it brought down food insufficient for their increasing needs. Only the swiftest young trout could capture the occasional ant or mosquito which swirled down the chute between the boulders.
From their resting place in the lee of the last boulders the fleetest of the school could flash out and up into the full sweep of the current. If the prize chanced to be too large to be taken in a single gulp, the winner was invariably pursued by the school, whose leaders snatched at a trailing leg or wing cover. When at last the morsel had been swallowed, the more aggressive youngsters went back to their boulder while the rest strung out behind them in the narrow eddy.
Day by day the size of the school lessened as its members deserted the creek mouth for the less exciting forage of the shallows. Still, Bright Arrow and a score of others remained, seemingly attracted to the place by the zest of competing for what the stream brought them. The sweep of the hard-driven water along their firm flanks, the exhilaration of the air-charged water, the forest tang it carried—these were things the lake’s richer feeding places could not give them. They might pursue a fluttering, elusive moth out across the dancing brightness of the shallows, but most of them sped back when the chase ended, reluctant to leave the pool below the boulders which they were fast outgrowing.
One afternoon Bright Arrow was rising to snatch a bedraggled mosquito when his sensitive sides caught the crunch of a heavy foot on the gravel of the bank. He shot for his hiding place under the overhang of the boulder. As he gained it, a bulky shadow was blocked out on the green and gray mosaic of the pebbled bottom.
From his shelter the young trout saw a wide brown thing come into the water until it hid the bottom. For ten minutes he and the other trout dared not move. They kept close, broadside to the menacing thing, their large eyes upon it, their fins fanning slowly. Still the shadow of the man’s head and shoulders did not stir, nor did the dip-net, crudely fashioned from gunny sacking and a forked branch, come closer to them.
One of the trout drifted over the shadow line. Its rashness betrayed the others. There was a quick thrust of the net and a second later Bright Arrow and many others were dancing head and tail on the dripping fabric of the lifted net.
Old Ned McGowan lowered it until a few inches of water came in. Bright Arrow circled frantically but found no way of escape through the sloping sides. Keeping the rim well above the pool’s surface, the old prospector, still on his knees, signalled to his partner at the cabin situated some two hundred yards or so along the shore.
“Hey, Larry! Fetch the bucket,” he shouted. “Gota fine bunch of th’ little fellers.”
When the bucket was brought, Bright Arrow and the other captives were lifted over the bank, their spread tails slapping a crisp tattoo against the wet sacking, their silver flanks gleaming in the sunlight. A few seconds and they were swimming round and round against the battered tin sides in company with many other trout fingerlings. A wet sack was draped over the pail to shield it from the sun, and immediately the two prospectors set off for Lower Deer Lake, more than a mile away.
“This’ll make couple hundred,” the grizzled McGowan remarked, as they hurried along the down trail through the deep woods.
‘■’Some good should come of it,” the other agreed.
THEY strode on, each thinking of their odd plan.
There was a homely idealism, a close affection for their valley in the plan of these two elderly pioneers beyond the fringe of British Columbia settlements. Like most of their roving, adventurous kind they would do anything to avoid being thought sentimental, and yet, like the rest, they had their sentimental side. In their quiet way, the pair loved this green-mantled valley which had been their home for years.
To them, both upper and lower lakes were beautiful and it seemed fitting that they should be the home of the superb race of cut-throat trout. To them it seemed unnatural and wrong that Lower Deer Lake should be populated only with coarse ungainly squawfish, bullheads and such underwater dwellers. So far as they could see, conditions in both lakes were identical, and yet the lower one remained barren of the flashing, lusty trout they both admired.
“They’re spry,” McGowan commented as they stopped beside the booming rapids linking the two lakes. With great care he ladled fresh water into the pail, covered it and started on.
His partner nodded. Yes, these flashing young trout should be able easily to elude the preying squawfish. But as they glimpsed the lower lake through the columned evergreen trunks, neither realized how hopeless their plan was. In spite of their long schooling in Nature’s ways, they did not know how overwhelming were the odds against the young migrants they were carrying.
Bright Arrow had been in Lower Deer Lake only a few minutes before he sensed that he was in foreign water. Of the many fingerlings huddling in the pail that McGowan had placed on its side among the tule stalks, Bright Arrow was the first to dart for freedom.
.He lay in the shade of a sunken log, his gill covers lifting spasmodically as he drew in the warmish water of the shallows. Unlike the sparkling upper lake, this one' carried the taint of decaying vegetation and of the dead branches strewed over the inshore shallows. It seemed lifeless after the well aerated water of his creek mouth. Before the others had ventured from the pail he shot forward in search of a more suitable place.
Out across the patches of silt-laden sand he flashed, taking an erratic course among the tule clumps, until the green of deeper water loomed below and ahead. Then with pectoral fins spread he headed down, seeking coolness and clean mountain water.
But the deeper water was heavy, as lifeless as the shallows where weeds grew rankly. He flashed to the surface again, a small questing stranger alone in foreign water.
The spired tree shadows were reached out across the undulating surface. The school of fingerlings from the Upper Deer was scattered now.
Occasionally Bright Arrow saw one of his former comrades, but the underwater jungle of reed stalks always hid them again. Unlike some breeds of fish, the trout had the schooling habit only in infancy; and so, Bright Arrow went on alone, sometimes darting across an open place, sometimes resting where the cover was good.
But though he ranged well away from where McGowan had liberated him, Bright Arrow did not push ahead with the rashness which brought disaster to many of his comrades. His instinctive wariness served him in good stead during those first hours when he was exposed to the attacks of crafty foes.
He kept a safe distance above the litter of driftwood on the bottom. Once, two feet below him, a mottled body shifted stealthily. A wide, flat head and two stiff pectoral fins braced against the bottom like forelegs, were faintly outlined to show a lurking bullhead. The blunt tapering body, its head disproportionately large, seemed to crouch. Then the tail kicked up a little spurt of silt and the bullhead rose savagely.
Bright Arrow saw him just in time.
His striving tail flipped him aside and the bullhead’s snapping jaws came short.
Unequipped for quick manoeuvring, it floundered in pursuit, but Bright Arrow dodged back and forth, up and down, glinting past the dark snout by a scant inch as he sped away. Sulkily the bullhead sank to await easier prey.
Close below the dull ceiling which dusk was laying over the surface, Bright Arrow swam shoreward. Ahead he saw a small leech wavering like a blood red pennant as it swam sinuously toward a reed stalk. In one short rush he captured it, threw it aside as a terrier would a rat, then bolted it, his gill covers straining as the heavy morsel was forced down.
He circled the spot swiftly, alert for another tasty find. Then without warning, the tules swayed tempestuously and a vortex caught him broadside, turned him over and drew him toward the reeds. At the same time a gray-green head came at him from ambush, and the jaws of a fullgrown squawfish spread to crunch him between the toothlike bones set within its throat.
By that quick spreading of mouth and gill covers, the squawfish created a whirl of water which should suck the smaller fish inside the smooth membrane of its toothless jaws. Bright Arrow staggered, was rolled end for end in the vortex.
Then his spread tail smote unbroken water and he flipped to the surface, skittering to left and right in frantic leaps. The enemy churned after him, but the young trout’s tactics confused it. In and out among the stalks, the gray-green body tore ragged furrows in the surface, but Bright Arrow kept leaping desperately until the coarse fish, tired and bewildered, sank out of sight.
For the rest of the evening, Bright Arrow avoided the shallows. Shadows seeped from every fold of the timbered sidehills; night came down and he lay, deep water below him, resting with scarcely moving fins. For hunters and hunted the evening feeding time was over. At the far end of the lake an owl boomed its sinister curfew. Bickering teal disturbed the heavy silence of the reed beds. A mallard drake quaked complacently.
During the days and weeks that followed, Bright Arrow cruised over most of the western half of the lower lake. Many times the big squawfish rushed at him, many times the bullheads tried to ambush him. Yet every day he fed plentifully, only to leave certain forage and swim on and on, restlessly seeking to escape the strangeness of the place.
During those bright weeks he grew quickly. The warmish water of the Lower Deer, so insipid after the mountain water of the upper lake, was alive with food, and by the time the fall rains began, Bright Arrow had attained a length of seven inches, a size which cutthroat trout in the upper lake did not reach until their second summer.
Few of the coarse fish dare rush at him now. Thanks to his fleetness and unbroken feasting he had outgrown many of his enemies. And yet his first unrest grew until it became stronger even than his desire for food. Then one evening, in late October, his quest ended. He discovered where the exhilarating water from the upper lake came foaming down the rapids to be lost in the calm reaches of the Lower Deer.
All that day formless clouds had hidden the mountain tops. The surface of the lake lay motionless except where flocks of wild fowl, gathering for the southward migration, sent ripples from the reed beds. Rain began to fall.
Each solid drop raised a tiny glistening dome upon the surface, which snapped when a following drop struck it and in turn raised other bubbles. And as Bright Arrow’s gills caught the tang of the water which he had been seeking for many weeks, and as his flanks detected the slight current coming from somewhere ahead, he leaped with wild elation straight into the rain-streaked air. Again and again he shot upward, fell to smite the surface with his spread tail, then rose again in fierce abandon. The trail of spreading circles he left led straight to the foam-flecked eddies at the foot of the rapids.
The air-charged mountain water which surged among the rocks came from his home. It urged him to a joyous recklessness. Through the eddies and into the rapids he flashed. Above him, tossing spearheads of foam shone whitely in the evening rain. The throb and vibrant rumble of rushing water came to him. For weeks he had been an alien in placid reaches. Now, in ecstasy he found himself at the gates of home.
With that consummate skill which is the birthright of all his breed, he shot into the raceway, won through the first bottleneck of rock and found himself in a narrow pool where the water surged and its rushing overlay all other sounds.
Taking full advantage of every wisp of backwash, using the under roll of every surge, he tacked up the full length of the cramped pool. And when he found his way blocked by a solid chute of water he leaped straight and high at the obstacle. Home waters were calling him and with every ounce of strength in his firm young body he was striving to respond.
On the first leap, and the second, the falling water caught him before his whirring tail could clutch it to drive him over the lip and into the level above. His instinct told him that above this first ledge were others, but he would not turn back. To left and right he ranged at the base of the yard high wall, found the spot where the water was least broken and leaped again. His flashing body seemed to rebound as he struck the chute well up. For a second he hung on the brink, tail, fins and body working heroically. Then inch t>y inch, he gained. He nosedived, found a backwash close to the bottom and worked up it until he was free of the falls’ tremendous pull.
For the next fifty yards the water pounded above a boulder-strewn channel. Behind one of the larger stones Bright Arrow rested, regaining strength for the coming battle. Rain still fell and it was very dark. But better than sight could have done, his sensitive flanks told him where the most favorable currents ran. In the black water he darted, poised, rested, shot from the lee of scoured boulders and kept on to the head of the broken passage. Here a second falls blocked his way. It seemed to come in a ragged curtain, nowhere heavy enough to give purchase to his fins. He rested in one of the pot holes at its base, head always into the circling wash, hanging precariously until dawn began.
Ordinarily no trout, or even salmon, would have tried to go through such exposed water in daylight. But long weeks of banishment had intensified his desire to regain the upper lake and he was in no mood to remain in hiding until the evening. The rain had ceased, the sky was infinitely blue, and long before the sun’s first bold shafts penetrated the gorge, the young trout was fighting on.
Unexpectedly, a crumbled place at the right end of the ledge afforded him a means of ascent. Above that ledge were others, rising like a broad, gradual staircase to the upper lake level. And near the top the staircase split into two, over whose wide surfaces the water came so thinly that no fish could possibly get up.
■pOR an hour Bright Arrow had been leaping, twisting, threading his way upward before he reached this fork in the rapids. When he found the insurmountable barrier, he darted the full length of the shallow basin elbow the forks. But everywhere he searched he found the smooth, shelving rocks too thinly covered. Once the shadow of a swooping fish hawk sent him nosing to the very bottom of a fissure in the bare pool. But as soon as the menace vanished he was out again.
But the battling young game fish would not admit defeat by turning tail and sweeping with the rapids back into the lower lake. He became reckless, attempting impossible leaps, battering himself against the rock when he fell. Always the water hurled him into the basin again. Finally he rushed squarely at a shelving rock and splashed up it with back fully exposed until he gained the perilous level of the next step.
Here in a saucer-like depression he found water enough to cover all but his erect dorsal fin. A pair of ravens, warming themselves in the early sunlight, left their perches on the top of a dry cedar and circled down with raucous cries. Poised above the exposed trout with beating wings, they exulted in their find. Bright Arrow was helpless to hide himself but still he refused to yield what he had gained. He saw their shadows looming over him, but the call of home waters was greater than life itself and so he hung there, fighting with all his strength to advance just a little farther toward the lake that had been his birthplace.
One of the ravens flapped lower, alighted and ran along the dripping ledge with outthrust head. With a hoarse cry the other swooped and tried to clutch the glistening back in its talons. Bright
Arrow floundered clear but the other raven was almost upon him when a shout came from the trail above and McGowan, curious as to what they had found there, came down the rocks.
The ravens soared to their lookout with derisive croaks. The old prospector took no heed of them, for at a glance he understood the purpose of this sturdy trout.
“Look at the size of him,” he muttered. “Show’s they’s prime feeding in that lower lake. But he won’t stay there, no sir.”
For several moments the old-timer stood undecided. To fulfill the plan he and his partner had made for the Lower Deer, this resolute adventurer must go back. The man was positive of that.
“But, by the whiskered old Hughie . . . ” he said suddenly. Then, without finishing the remark, he filled his battered felt hat with water, scooped the trout into it and scrambled up the staircase ledges.
Five minutes later, Bright Arrow was swimming, a flashing triumphant thing, toward the creek mouth he had struggled so valiantly to reach.