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I took the road at five next morning, to be in time for the Inverary steam-boat, which left at seven; but, even at that early hour, poor Sandy, with his fragment of a hat in his hand, was waiting at the “ brae-fit” to wish me a
gude journey." Having shaken him heartily by the hand, I turned my back, for a time, upon these cherished scenes of beauty, grandeur, and romance.
I SHALL hope to be pardoned if I claim for fishing the appellation of a science. I have never considered it, like shooting, a mere art. At all events, it has certainly not yet been brought to perfection; and the more able the angler, the more willingly will he admit, that not a season passes without his acquiring fresh secrets which he is not over-solicitous to tell. If a man fancies he can jump into proficiency after a season or two's practice, he is vastly mistaken ; it is not a few fishing excursions, now and then, that form the adept, but the heedful experience of years. Take an instance; and suppose a man to be expert in the knack of throwing a line ;—he is angling down a fine salmon stream, followed by a finished master of the fly, and has just completed his last throw of a promising pool. Upon looking over his shoulder, his companion has hold of a good fish, at the very part of the cast on which he had bestowed the most care and pains: he immediately suspects that his comrade has been more knowing in the choice of a fly. But, when the salmon is landed, he discovers, to his amazement, that it was attracted by a facsimile of the identical fly which a moment before he had so dexterously tendered to its acceptance! Every really first-rate flyfisher will meet with such occurrences, when angling in the wake of a less gifted craftsman. And although to the looker-on it appears as if he had charmed the fish, yet it is only by a more scientific knowledge of the exact spots where the salmon are likely to come up, and lingering over these with the motion of a glancing insect. This mastery of the gentle craft can only be attained by long practice and the most perfect command of the rod.
Angling for salmon may be called the deer-stalking of the streams. As in the first sight of the herd there is more excitement, and more satisfaction when you bring down the stag than any other game, so in salmon-fishing, compared with all other kinds, the interest is greater when you rise a fish, and the satisfaction double when you lay him on the shingly bank. Like deer-stalking, however, it has its disadvantages; not the least of which is, the greater stock of patience required, and the greater uncertainty of the sport; unless, indeed, in preserved waters, where there is much less opportunity of displaying the superiority of an accomplished fisher over the ordinary performer. In unprotected water, for instance, should the weather be unpropitious, the best rod may flog the river for hours without stirring a fin; while a couple of fish is always reckoned a good day's work. Under the same untoward circumstances, the trout-fisher may often, by skill and perseverance, make out a very tolerable bagful.
I have heard it said by some pseudo salmon-anglers, that the only pleasure was the hooking of the fish; and some have even declared they would not mind breaking every salmon directly after fastening him. Such men, to be consistent, should drop the salmon and stick to the trout: they will of course have more rises, and fix more fish, but the idea is absurd. If they have arrived at such a pinnacle of perfection, why not reduce their tackle to a single horsehair? And if even this should be too strong for their exquisite skill, let them carefully cull the softest hair from the softest lock of their own softer heads.
However one may admire the dexterity of a master of the rod, as he casts his line between every opening among the trees, in a difficult river, yet I would rather see him manage his fish after hooking it; the cool nerve and delicate touch is the very perfection of art; and I should never pronounce a man a true salmon-fisher until I had seen him working one in a difficult situation. To throw a very long line, and to search the casts properly with the fly, are no doubt indispensable requisites; but a river fly angler, (for I don't here speak of either bait or loch fishing,) who can work his hooked fish scientifically, will seldom be deficient in all the prerequisites of fixing him; while the rising man who has only fished preserved waters, where all is clear and open, should he hook a salmon in a difficult place, will most likely find that he has got hold of too strong a customer. And here we may ask what was the magic in angling that captivated the intellect of such men as Chantrey and Davy? Sir Humphrey, I suspect, would have looked rather queer if an officious friend had told him that all the sport was over when the forty-pound fish he landed above Yair Bridge was first hooked. And the great sculptor would have been equally astonished if the struggles of a sixteen-pound Thames trout had been treated with the like contempt! Whatever may be the reason, all true anglers know that the doubtful contest with a monster-fish forms no inconsiderable part of the enjoyment; and his being laid upon the shelving bank, the crowning point of all. No doubt the philosophy or the poetry of angling was one reason of its being the pastime of so many great minds; but when even contemplative Wotton had fairly landed a gorgeous fish, I will venture to say that the triumph of success swallowed up every other pleasure.
But, without analyzing their feelings, we know not how much we owe to this recreation of departed genius. Might not the safety lamp have been lit amid the limpid waters of the Tweed, and some of the most beautiful creations of Chantrey's fancy been first conceived on the green banks of Father Thames ? Great men, however, can sometimes be great boys at the water-side. I have witnessed, with some amusement, the late Sir Charles Bell's comical vexation, when an unlooked-for rod bore down upon him. His testy frown, when interfered with, was quite irresistible-proof enough of his eagerness in the sport. But perhaps this unbending of the bow may have given it double power when strung again. Sir Charles was only a second-rate fisher, and it often seemed curious to me that he, and several men of the brightest intellect whom I have watched at the river-side, seemed more ignorant of their favourite amusement than of any other thing. I should not have wondered at any want of practical skill, so much as their ignorance of the habits of fish; in which department they seemed scarcely to excel the herd-laddie, who stared at them with vacant gaze.
Every newly arrived salmon-fisher should secure the services of the ablest native practitioner who may proffer them, and will thus be shown all the best casts of the river. It is absurd vanity to suppose oneself capable of discovering them without a great waste of time. No doubt a good salmon angler will at once perceive the places where fish are most likely to harbour, but the misfortune is, that those casts which appear the most