ANYONE who thinks that fishermen have things all their own way doesn’t know much about that ancient and honorable pastime. As a matter of fact, there are probably plenty of fish laughing up their gills at me right now.
Not just the ones that got away, but the thousands of other finny specimens who each year are treated to the sight of almost as many thousands of strange two-legged creatures threshing about in streams and splashing about on lakes, presenting bi-visibles to trout who never heard of a bi-visible, pursuing innocent muskies with spine-chilling relentlessness, and generally upsetting the serenity of their surroundings, if not of the fish.
The sucker will go down in history as an easy mark, but no sucker I’ve ever bumped into has a patch on the average fisherman. A sucker is usually a sucker just once, but a fisherman goes on being a sucker over and over again.
There are, in fact, more fishermen caught than fish. Take the case of Wilberforce McNeep.
“This year,” avows Wilberforce, looking over his tackle just before the opening of the bass season, “I’m not going to buy a single plug or rod of any description. I have everything I need. I’ll spend the money on a new suit instead.” (A statement, incidentally, which his partner in matrimony backs up with mingled relief and enthusiasm, for she too has several items in mind far rpore worthy of purchase to her way of thinking than the best fish-getting apparatus in the country.)
But what happens?’ Next day while he’s downtown and away from all wifely influence, Wilberforce’s footsteps consciously or unconsciously, direct themselves to the nearest tackle store. In the window is a display maliciously contrived to catch the eye of everyone who has ever threaded a worm on a hook or had his picture taken in the company of a seven-inch trout. Gorgeously colored plugs are there in profusion —little ones and big ones, chubby ones and skinny ones, plugs with red heads and white bodies and plugs with white heads and red bodies, plugs with perch finish and plugs with pike finish, plugs that look like frogs, plugs that look like mice, and others that look like nothing under the sun (but attractive for all that).
There are spoon lures, too, and rods and reels and nets and tackle boxes. And standing upright behind them are the display cards of thefishing tacklemanufacturers. depicting gargantuan specimens of the finny tribe being caught on the new Strikemrite rod with the triple-built feature and the sensational new jointed Wham-0 lure that looks and acts like a wounded salamander. “An Exact Imitation” says the Wham-0 card. “Hailed With Excitement By Anglers Everywhere.”
Although the competition is keen, the Strikemrite at length wins Wilberforce’s attention. He has heard of a double-built feature, but never before has he heard of a triple-built feature. Mentally he tests its flex and wonders if it has a step-down taper. That’s one thing his old Strikemrite lacks.
“It won’t hurt to go in and see,” he thinks. “Besides, now that I’m here I might as well get a few leaders. I can always use them.”
That is the point at which the resolution of Wilberforce McNeep becomes a lost cause, for twenty minutes later he emerges from the tackle shop not just with the leaders, but with one brand new triple-built Strikemrite, three Wham-0 lures (hailed with excitement by anglers everywhere) and a rainproof fishing jacket as well.
He has bitten, and bitten hard. And to make matters
worse, subsequent events reveal that the new Strikemrite hasn’t one whit better action than his old rod, that the Wham-0 is strictly a deep water lure (the lakes in Wilberforce’s district are mostly all shallow), and that the fishing jacket is too tight at the armpits.
The Joys of Discomfort
'T'HUS is proved the superiority of fish over man. A -L fish, after all, has reason to be gullible, for a fish has little or no education. But a fisherman, whose combination of brains and brawn should give him the edge over the most intelligent fish that ever swam, has no excuse whatsoever.
You may have noticed the ecstatic, albeit slightly absent-minded, look that most fishermen have in their eye just before the opening of the season. But have you ever looked a fisherman in the eye at the end of the season? From a distance he looks much the same. He walks in the same cloud he walked in five months before. He displays the same guileless effervescent qualities and is apparently as much of an inspiration to poets as ever.
When you come a bit closer, though, you notice that the dreaminess is superficial. There is about him the look of a tortured soul. A haunted look—a sort of delirium tremens brought about, not by excessive contact with spirituous liquors, but by excessive contact with black flies, mosquitoes, bad roads, portages, ground sheets, leaky tents, baked beans and all the other hardships an angler must face in pursuit of his sport.
Two years ago a fishing acquaintance of mine rang me up at one o’clock in the morning to tell me about a lost trout lake he had heard of.
“Only two or three people have ever fished it,” he said in the choked voice of a man under terrific emotional strain. “The trout practically leap over one another to get at a fly. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. How about this week-end?”
In my pyjamas, and with resistance at a low ebb, I had no chance to argue. “Okay.’Tsaid. “It’sadate.” We made up a party of four and set out on the Friday after work. By seven o’clock next morning we were on the trail, armed with fly rods, creels, haversacks and sundry other items, striving to keep up with the fleet-footed guide who loomed ever and anon in front of us, always going.
■ We did manage to get in
one rest period in the first three miles, but only by dint of bellowing our lungs out at the guide for at least one of those miles. It was the 24th of May week-end and it was hot and we were tired, and by that time we didn’t care who knew it. City ego, we had decided, was all right up to a point. It is natural for a city man (particularly a fisherman) to want to appear like a he-man in the bush. But there comes a time when pretense and discretion don’t mix.
By noon, after plunging through swamps, wading precariously through flooded creeks, clambering over countless rotten logs and breaking new trail through alder clumps, burr patches, willows and whatnot, we were still not within sight of the lake. At one o’clock the guide (a French Canadian, for this was Quebec) calmly announced, through the only interpreter in the party, that he was lost.
What followed was something like a council of war, with three of us ready to do all the warring. However, it ended peacefully and we sat down to eat lunch while the guide
slipped oil to scour the immediate vicinity on his own.
It seemed like an hour later, but was probably less, when we heard his yell.
Scrambling to our feet, we peered through the trees and just barely discerned him waving excitedly to us from the top of the nearest hill.
The lake was found.
It was a beautiful lake—the nearest thing to a fisherman’s heaven I have ever seen, and we mounted our rods in an ecstasy of anticipation. There being no boat, and shore fishing being out of the question because the trees came right down to the water’s edge, I essayed to wade out a few feet and make the first cast. Luckily, someone was near enough to grab my arm. As it was, I went up to my Icnees in ooze.
Undismayed by this finding, we decided to build a raft. To go back now', after having reached the very brink of our goal, was unthinkable. And so, for the next two hours we chopped and hauled and pulled and sweated, spurred on by thoughts of monster squaretails that shoved one another out of the way to get at a fly. How w'e managed to get the raft built I still don’t know, for our only implements were an axe and a few bits of rope. But we did, and it held three of us to perfection. The other member of the party, who had been eliminated by the toss of a coin, elected to return with the guide to a small stream we had passed just before lunch, for it was getting late and there was not time enough to give the lake more than one good try.
That one try proved a nightmare.
The first fish hit with the energy of a small submarine. “Got one!” I yelled, and played it to within ten feet of the raft before I saw what it was—a chub. A chub, fully eleven inches long, with horns that would do justice to Beelzebub.
Disgusted, I disengaged it from my pet polar bear streamer in time to cast to a beautiful rise sixty feet away. The fly landed dead centre and I was rewarded with an answering tug. At the same instant both my companions had strikes and we brought our fish in together—all chub.
By the time we had creeled our thirtieth horned nuisance the truth was obvious. The lake was boiling with chub, not trout. Chub, not trout, leaped over one another’s backs to get at our flies. Chub, not trout, had filled the creels of the benighted parties before us. We swallowed hard, and poled for the shore.
On the way home it rained. Or rather, I should say, fifteen square miles of blackened sky got together to see how much evaporated moisture could be unevaporated in our direction. At eleven o’clock we trudged forlornly into camp, no wetter for having waded a stream as a precaution against getting lost.
That is the whole story, save to mention that for three days afterward my locomotor nerves failed completely to function, and that even now I suffer fits of palsy whenever anyone talks about lost trout lakes.
EACH YEAR much the same thing happens to thousands of anglers. Each year they continue the game of hide and seek they played with their finny adversaries the year before. Each year they fool themselves into believing that they are participating on an equal footing.
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The trouble is, fish are too good at hiding. And no one has ever known them to reverse the procedure and go looking for the angler.
Fish are ungrateful, too. I remember once bumping into an Englishman who explained to me at great length how to bait a stream. The idea was to select a spot (a river or lake would do as well), and each day for four days dump in two or three tins of worms, half a loaf of chopped bread, some oatmeal and some ground liver. The fish, hearing about the free meal from those isolated specimens who chanced upon it, would come a-swimming. The next day they would be back again, and the next and the next. The fifth day their free meal would come in dribs and drabs with a hook in every mouthful, and all you had to do was fill the truck you had arranged for beforehand.
It was a good idea and there was only one thing wrong with it. It didn’t work. For me, at least.
I followed directions faithfully, and dug worms until both I and the worms were sick of the whole business. I bought liver, and even added some salt for extra flavor. I broke up whole loaves of bread and mixed the chunks into a doughy paste so that the oatmeal would stick. And each day for four days I religiously baited the chosen spot.
On the fifth day, when all the laws, written or unwritten, should have guaranteed me a clean-up, I sat on the shore for eight hours without having a worm damaged save when I put on a fresh one.
Perhaps by that time the fish had indigestion. I don’t know. I only know that from that day to this I have never shown the slightest sympathy for a fish.
If you have any doubts about who comes off second best in the annual joust between fish and fisherman, think of the fellow who takes one week off in fifty-two to pursue his sport, drives 150 miles, hikes five, rows ten, and then spends five out of his seven days sitting in a boat in the rain.
Or think of the fellow who breaks his rod tip on the last portage, then remembers he took his spare tip out of the case the week before to rewind it, and forgot to put it back.
Those things happen.
’ Of course, the angler who indirectly receives a setback because of black flies and mosquitoes is legion. Which reminds me of a chap I went on a fishing trip with last June when the black flies were at their worst.
He had heard that the best way to keep pestiferous insects at a distance was to take quantities of sulphur internally, for two weeks before going into the bush. In warm weather, or as the result of any kind
of exertion, the sulphur would work to the pores and envelope its subject in a musty aroma none too inviting to the most hardened insect.
It kept the flies at a distance, all right. But it also kept the rest of us at a distance. We didn’t go near him the whole trip.
That’s a case of trying out a recipe before seeing someone else put it to a test. A neighbor of mine did that once with fish paste and saved me a lot of trouble.
We both read about the paste in the same magazine. It was supposed to be an old fisherman’s magic recipe—a never-fail lure for all kinds of game fish, known only to a few. To compound it, you mashed up half a pail of minnows that had been left to ripen in the sun for a few days, added a hundred or so chopped worms, an ounce of sperm oil, three ounces of oil of linseed and a trace of garlic, and then stirred the mixture well. After that you set it in a dark place without a cover for the better part of two weeks until the last stages of putrefaction had set in.
My neighbor tried it first, and got along splendidly up to the point where he set the stuff away in his shed for the two-week wait. Next evening, when I went out in the garden to try a few practice casts, I heard him swearing. I stuck my head over the fence but could hardly see him for flies. Around the shed door they were so thick it looked like a convention.
Even a month later, with the fish paste long since reduced to a state of fertilizer in his peony bed, you could catch a whiff of it. And even at this late date the flies seem to prefer his backyard to mine.
What figure in history is mostly to blame for visiting the tribulations of angling upon an unsuspecting world, is hard to say. Ever since the days of Theocritus, patron saint of fly fishermen, there have been plenty upon whom the finger of guilt could fall. Aelian of Macedonia, who discoursed at some length on the throwing of feathered snares to “fish with spotted skins,” had much to do with it. Walton and Cotton, who came later on, merely perpetuated the error.
I do, however, take definite exception to Dame Juliana Berners, famed author of the first recognized book on fishing. In her “Treatyse on the Arte of Fysshynge with an Angle” she says of this honored pastime: “Truly, to my best discretion, it seemeth a good sport and honest game, in which a man enjoyeth without any repentance after.”
Good sport and honest game, yes. But that repentance business is out.
I have been repenting for the last ten years, and will probably go on repenting for another twenty.
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