Story type: Essay
Trout fishing in the Adirondacks would be a more attractive pastime than it is but for the popular notion of its danger. The trout is a retiring and harmless animal, except when he is aroused and forced into a combat; and then his agility, fierceness, and vindictiveness become apparent. No one who has studied the excellent pictures representing men in an open boat, exposed to the assaults of long, enraged trout flying at them through the open air with open mouth, ever ventures with his rod upon the lonely lakes of the forest without a certain terror, or ever reads of the exploits of daring fishermen without a feeling of admiration for their heroism. Most of their adventures are thrilling, and all of them are, in narration, more or less unjust to the trout: in fact, the object of them seems to be to exhibit, at the expense of the trout, the shrewdness, the skill, and the muscular power of the sportsman. My own simple story has few of these recommendations.
We had built our bark camp one summer and were staying on one of the popular lakes of the Saranac region. It would be a very pretty region if it were not so flat, if the margins of the lakes had not been flooded by dams at the outlets, which have killed the trees, and left a rim of ghastly deadwood like the swamps of the under-world pictured by Dore’s bizarre pencil,–and if the pianos at the hotels were in tune. It would be an excellent sporting region also (for there is water enough) if the fish commissioners would stock the waters, and if previous hunters had not pulled all the hair and skin off from the deers’ tails. Formerly sportsmen had a habit of catching the deer by the tails, and of being dragged in mere wantonness round and round the shores. It is well known that if you seize a deer by this “holt” the skin will slip off like the peel from a banana–This reprehensible practice was carried so far that the traveler is now hourly pained by the sight of peeled-tail deer mournfully sneaking about the wood.
We had been hearing, for weeks, of a small lake in the heart of the virgin forest, some ten miles from our camp, which was alive with trout, unsophisticated, hungry trout: the inlet to it was described as stiff with them. In my imagination I saw them lying there in ranks and rows, each a foot long, three tiers deep, a solid mass. The lake had never been visited except by stray sable hunters in the winter, and was known as the Unknown Pond. I determined to explore it, fully expecting, however, that it would prove to be a delusion, as such mysterious haunts of the trout usually are. Confiding my purpose to Luke, we secretly made our preparations, and stole away from the shanty one morning at daybreak. Each of us carried a boat, a pair of blankets, a sack of bread, pork, and maple-sugar; while I had my case of rods, creel, and book of flies, and Luke had an axe and the kitchen utensils. We think nothing of loads of this sort in the woods.
Five miles through a tamarack swamp brought us to the inlet of Unknown Pond, upon which we embarked our fleet, and paddled down its vagrant waters. They were at first sluggish, winding among triste fir-trees, but gradually developed a strong current. At the end of three miles a loud roar ahead warned us that we were approaching rapids, falls, and cascades. We paused. The danger was unknown. We had our choice of shouldering our loads and making a detour through the woods, or of “shooting the rapids.” Naturally we chose the more dangerous course. Shooting the rapids has often been described, and I will not repeat the description here. It is needless to say that I drove my frail bark through the boiling rapids, over the successive waterfalls, amid rocks and vicious eddies, and landed, half a mile below with whitened hair and a boat half full of water; and that the guide was upset, and boat, contents, and man were strewn along the shore.
After this common experience we went quickly on our journey, and, a couple of hours before sundown, reached the lake. If I live to my dying day, I never shall forget its appearance. The lake is almost an exact circle, about a quarter of a mile in diameter. The forest about it was untouched by axe, and unkilled by artificial flooding. The azure water had a perfect setting of evergreens, in which all the shades of the fir, the balsam, the pine, and the spruce were perfectly blended; and at intervals on the shore in the emerald rim blazed the ruby of the cardinal flower. It was at once evident that the unruffled waters had never been vexed by the keel of a boat. But what chiefly attracted my attention, and amused me, was the boiling of the water, the bubbling and breaking, as if the lake were a vast kettle, with a fire underneath. A tyro would have been astonished at this common phenomenon; but sportsmen will at once understand me when I say that the water boiled with the breaking trout. I studied the surface for some time to see upon what sort of flies they were feeding, in order to suit my cast to their appetites; but they seemed to be at play rather than feeding, leaping high in the air in graceful curves, and tumbling about each other as we see them in the Adirondack pictures.
It is well known that no person who regards his reputation will ever kill a trout with anything but a fly. It requires some training on the part of the trout to take to this method. The uncultivated, unsophisticated trout in unfrequented waters prefers the bait; and the rural people, whose sole object in going a-fishing appears to be to catch fish, indulge them in their primitive taste for the worm. No sportsman, however, will use anything but a fly, except he happens to be alone.
While Luke launched my boat and arranged his seat in the stern, I prepared my rod and line. The rod is a bamboo, weighing seven ounces, which has to be spliced with a winding of silk thread every time it is used. This is a tedious process; but, by fastening the joints in this way, a uniform spring is secured in the rod. No one devoted to high art would think of using a socket joint. My line was forty yards of untwisted silk upon a multiplying reel. The “leader” (I am very particular about my leaders) had been made to order from a domestic animal with which I had been acquainted. The fisherman requires as good a catgut as the violinist. The interior of the house cat, it is well known, is exceedingly sensitive; but it may not be so well known that the reason why some cats leave the room in distress when a piano-forte is played is because the two instruments are not in the same key, and the vibrations of the chords of the one are in discord with the catgut of the other. On six feet of this superior article I fixed three artificial flies,–a simple brown hackle, a gray body with scarlet wings, and one of my own invention, which I thought would be new to the most experienced fly-catcher. The trout-fly does not resemble any known species of insect. It is a “conventionalized” creation, as we say of ornamentation. The theory is that, fly-fishing being a high art, the fly must not be a tame imitation of nature, but an artistic suggestion of it. It requires an artist to construct one; and not every bungler can take a bit of red flannel, a peacock’s feather, a flash of tinsel thread, a cock’s plume, a section of a hen’s wing, and fabricate a tiny object that will not look like any fly, but still will suggest the universal conventional fly.
I took my stand in the center of the tipsy boat; and Luke shoved off, and slowly paddled towards some lily-pads, while I began casting, unlimbering my tools, as it were. The fish had all disappeared. I got out, perhaps, fifty feet of line, with no response, and gradually increased it to one hundred. It is not difficult to learn to cast; but it is difficult to learn not to snap off the flies at every throw. Of this, however, we will not speak. I continued casting for some moments, until I became satisfied that there had been a miscalculation. Either the trout were too green to know what I was at, or they were dissatisfied with my offers. I reeled in, and changed the flies (that is, the fly that was not snapped off). After studying the color of the sky, of the water, and of the foliage, and the moderated light of the afternoon, I put on a series of beguilers, all of a subdued brilliancy, in harmony with the approach of evening. At the second cast, which was a short one, I saw a splash where the leader fell, and gave an excited jerk. The next instant I perceived the game, and did not need the unfeigned “dam” of Luke to convince me that I had snatched his felt hat from his head and deposited it among the lilies. Discouraged by this, we whirled about, and paddled over to the inlet, where a little ripple was visible in the tinted light. At the very first cast I saw that the hour had come. Three trout leaped into the air. The danger of this manoeuvre all fishermen understand. It is one of the commonest in the woods: three heavy trout taking hold at once, rushing in different directions, smash the tackle into flinders. I evaded this catch, and threw again. I recall the moment. A hermit thrush, on the tip of a balsam, uttered his long, liquid, evening note. Happening to look over my shoulder, I saw the peak of Marcy gleam rosy in the sky (I can’t help it that Marcy is fifty miles off, and cannot be seen from this region: these incidental touches are always used). The hundred feet of silk swished through the air, and the tail-fly fell as lightly on the water as a three-cent piece (which no slamming will give the weight of a ten) drops upon the contribution plate. Instantly there was a rush, a swirl. I struck, and “Got him, by—!” Never mind what Luke said I got him by. “Out on a fly!” continued that irreverent guide; but I told him to back water, and make for the center of the lake. The trout, as soon as he felt the prick of the hook, was off like a shot, and took out the whole of the line with a rapidity that made it smoke. “Give him the butt!” shouted Luke. It is the usual remark in such an emergency. I gave him the butt; and, recognizing the fact and my spirit, the trout at once sank to the bottom, and sulked. It is the most dangerous mood of a trout; for you cannot tell what he will do next. We reeled up a little, and waited five minutes for him to reflect. A tightening of the line enraged him, and he soon developed his tactics. Coming to the surface, he made straight for the boat faster than I could reel in, and evidently with hostile intentions. “Look out for him!” cried Luke as he came flying in the air. I evaded him by dropping flat in the bottom of the boat; and, when I picked my traps up, he was spinning across the lake as if he had a new idea: but the line was still fast. He did not run far. I gave him the butt again; a thing he seemed to hate, even as a gift. In a moment the evil-minded fish, lashing the water in his rage, was coming back again, making straight for the boat as before. Luke, who was used to these encounters, having read of them in the writings of travelers he had accompanied, raised his paddle in self-defense. The trout left the water about ten feet from the boat, and came directly at me with fiery eyes, his speckled sides flashing like a meteor. I dodged as he whisked by with a vicious slap of his bifurcated tail, and nearly upset the boat. The line was of course slack, and the danger was that he would entangle it about me, and carry away a leg. This was evidently his game; but I untangled it, and only lost a breast button or two by the swiftly-moving string. The trout plunged into the water with a hissing sound, and went away again with all the line on the reel. More butt; more indignation on the part of the captive. The contest had now been going on for half an hour, and I was getting exhausted. We had been back and forth across the lake, and round and round the lake. What I feared was that the trout would start up the inlet and wreck us in the bushes. But he had a new fancy, and began the execution of a manoeuvre which I had never read of. Instead of coming straight towards me, he took a large circle, swimming rapidly, and gradually contracting his orbit. I reeled in, and kept my eye on him. Round and round he went, narrowing his circle. I began to suspect the game; which was, to twist my head off.–When he had reduced the radius of his circle to about twenty-five feet, he struck a tremendous pace through the water. It would be false modesty in a sportsman to say that I was not equal to the occasion. Instead of turning round with him, as he expected, I stepped to the bow, braced myself, and let the boat swing. Round went the fish, and round we went like a top. I saw a line of Mount Marcys all round the horizon; the rosy tint in the west made a broad band of pink along the sky above the tree-tops; the evening star was a perfect circle of light, a hoop of gold in the heavens. We whirled and reeled, and reeled and whirled. I was willing to give the malicious beast butt and line, and all, if he would only go the other way for a change.
When I came to myself, Luke was gaffing the trout at the boat-side. After we had got him in and dressed him, he weighed three-quarters of a pound. Fish always lose by being “got in and dressed.” It is best to weigh them while they are in the water. The only really large one I ever caught got away with my leader when I first struck him. He weighed ten pounds.