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Reminiscences of the Lews
Chapter VIII - Soval Shooting and Artificial Spates


THERE were two rivers attached to the Soval shooting at the time I took it—the Laxay, distant about three miles and a half; the Blackwater, about ten from Soval, three miles and a half from Diensten bothy. And first we will speak of the most distant river. There are two branches of the Blackwater—one running from a loch that I called New Loch, another running from another loch, called by me Loch Dismal.

About these two lochs the fish ran up by other smaller burns and lochs, but we never thought of fishing beyond these lochs. The two arms of the river joined together between Diensten and Garrynahine, and then the river becomes the Blackwater. Prom the junction there are two or three miles of rough water before you come to the first legitimate salmon pool. I call it legitimate; for, though I have done such a thing as catch a fish in the rough water above this pool, yet, generally speaking, fish don’t stay in it, but run through for the two lochs. From this legitimate pool to the Major’s pool, about a mile, when there was plenty of water and you knew it well, the fishing, to my mind, was always charming; for the gentlemen were very merry, and dodged about in the little narrows and pools in a very artful way. I first discovered the charms of this part of the water, for even Burnaby had never killed a fish there till I found it out, and never used to think of beginning to fish till he reached the Major’s pool. From this pool to the big pool was about another mile and a half of charmingly varied water—pools, streams, and narrows; but it required fishing, though not long casting. It used to be “nuts ” to me, sniggling a fish out of a corner that no man “unacquaint,” as we say, with the water would dream of trying. The big pool, and the stream running into it, was the crack cast of the river; but I confess it was not my pet, for when in prime order it was necessary to cast a long line in the teeth of the wind, or rather across the wind, three-quarters against you, so that it was all but impossible to prevent your line bellying; and your fish rose on a curved, not a straight, line, which is not as it should be. I have often wondered one kept one’s eyes in those gusty days, when you not unfrequently got your fly back smart in your face. But what with the wind and the stream, when you hooked a fish there, he fought. Strange to stay, though the pool was alive with fish, and rising in all parts by the weeds, you seldom took one anywhere but in the stream and its entrance into the pool between the two high banks of sedges. If by chance you ever did rise a fish in other parts, he generally beat you, and got off.

I put a little boat on this big pool, and got very nearly drowned two or three times, but never did anything to repay me for the trouble. From the big pool there was about half a mile of still, deep water, with little or no stream, but full of fish. When the wind was right—anything east, north, or south-east was useless, as it was still water on all the good casts—there were plenty of fish to be got, and here generally lay the heaviest fish. From the end of this long still water there was about a mile or so of rough water, in which you occasionally got sea-trout, and I have caught grilse. You then came to the pools into which the tide ran up near the Garrynahine Inn and bridge. There occasionally, particularly in the latter end of the season, you got fish; and if you watched the turn of tide well, and caught the pools as the fish were coining in, and before the tide had made too much, you might get a good many sea-trout. I once got eighty-seven, but they were small. From this description it will be seen that the Blackwater was a very nice little ' river. It was no fine Highland or Irish stream, but it had plenty of fish; and it had one thing about it I never saw equalled—it was the best rising river I ever threw line on. If you treated it properly, and there was wind, you would always kill fish, for there was a good deal of deep water and pools; and when the streams and pools would not fish for want of water, the still, deep water always would when there was wind—and it is not often the Lews is without that. Many a happy hour have I passed on its banks, and many a fish have I laid on them ; and, to my mind, they took the charm of the Soval ground from it when they deprived it of the Blackwater, and the sooner they unite the two again the better. I and my comrade, T. D., had probably better sport there when we fished than any others are likely to have again. I do not say this as boasting of our prowess, for we were no better than our neighbours— certainly I was not. But I loved the dear Stream so well that I always treated her as I would my lady-love. I wooed lier gently and considerately, and never asked of her too much. I never frightened her with vulgar, glaring, overgrown buzzards or colours, or ruffled her fair surface with strong cables, or shook great glaring poles about her smiling face. Our rods were wands, our tackle the gossamer’s web, our flies scarce more than midges; and then, pleased and enchanted with our entertainment, left her to her soft repose, and never bored her with too much attention, or called too soon to inquire about her.

Believe me, there is no such mistake made in fishing, if you want a river to remain good, as working at it every day. It does not answer in a large river even, still less in a small one, where every fly you cast in the water is seen by every fish in it. I never fished the Blackwater two days running, except in very heavy water. It would be better to give it two days’ rest for one of work, and in low water, and when not fishing weather, to leave it alone altogether. You may catch a fish; but how many do you scare? Heaven defend me from one of your very keen fishermen, who rushes at a river in all weathers. I have as great a horror of him as ever old Noll* had of Sir Harry Vane. Why is it that a terra incognita in fishing at first produces such good sport? Simply because the fish, poor innocents, don’t know the difference between a natural and artificial fly, or what a fly is. But they soon learn it. Flogging a river for ever, because you may catch a fish, is like disturbing good shooting ground on a bad day, when you thrash yourself, your dogs, and your men, all to no purpose, make yourself exceedingly uncomfortable, spoil the beat, and, if you do get anything, it is scarce worth bringing home. There is a certain amount of folly in being over keen. If you must have exercise, go out and get yourself as wet as a shag; but why drag everyone else into discomfort?

I said that there were two branches of the Blackwater, one issuing out of the New Loch, the other out of Loch Dismal. The branch out of New Loch was far inferior, to all appearance, to that from Loch Dismal, yet it was possible to kill fish in the one, but not in the other. There was some long, deep, sludgy water that you could jump over, and one or two little pools, which in flood water held fish, and rising fish too. It was my great delight, when my comrades were on the river, to betake myself to these quaint little places, and many a fish I got out of them. In the narrows it was great fun. You hooked a springy little gentleman, who jumped on the opposite bank. If you were by yourself, and could not clear the river, you had nothing for it but to pull your fish back into the water, fight him there, and bring him out on your own side, if you could. Or, perhaps, when hooked, Salmo rushed up one of these narrows, and in following him you were brought up by a cross ditch, filled to the bank with the overflow, and you had to stand snubbing and turning him, which, with light tackle and small flies, is not always so easily done. In the other branch of the Blackwater I remember killing but one grilse, and that in a small pool, or rather hole, where we hunted him about, and caught him with a landing net. Both Loch Dismal and New Loch held fish, particularly towards the end of the season; but I never found the salmon there, or in any loch save the Gremsta Loch and. Loch Yaltos, rise well to a fly. I believe the country people kill a good many with a worm, and when the water is deep enough they will run at a minnow. But, though there can be no doubt that spinning a minnow as it should be spun, and fishing a worm well under water, as Tom Stoddard does at Kelso, are very high angling accomplishments, perhaps higher than throwing a fly, I don’t care for killing a fish—I mean a salmon —with aught but a fly.

Such is the Blackwater in its state of nature, which it was not when first I went to Soval, or rather the year after. The bag-nets—those charming engines, invented, I believe, for the destruction of rivers—had been taken off, only to be replaced after the angling was let, and in the very spot where they should not have been. I thought, by my lease, to have guarded against their being so placed; but a Scotch lease is a queer instrument, even of law, and the Ordnance map, which one would have supposed to have been conclusive evidence of locality, was not so considered. So there they ,were, and I had nothing to do but grin and bear it. Now, at even the mouths of great salmon rivers, bag-nets are bad enough, but when the rivers are not large, and very shallow, if the season is dry the fish cannot get up. They try, poor things, but in vain, and have nothing to do but with each retiring tide to drop back into the jaws of the ever-open bag-net. I had to go through this pleasant pass, till really the fishing got so worthless that I had serious thoughts of letting Clarke, the then lessee of the Gremsta angling, have it; for the fish could not get up, generally speaking, till late on in the season, and then I, for my part, don’t much care for killing them.

When Salmo has the smallest of heads buried in his shoulders, with the most delicate mouth, and, like a little fat’ pig, is as broad as he is long, and as white as silver—good. But reverse the picture, and let him have a long head, with a big, bony mouth, as tough as leather, and a red, ugly, shiny-looking body—a Dios, senor, he is not my fish. He is little sport to kill, and—I own to being a gourmet, not a gourmand, in fishing—not nice to eat. In this state, then, memory, not inspiration, came to my aid. I bethought me of the Costello, in Galway, by whose pleasant side I had, in former days, killed buckets-full of fish; and, in imitation of what I had there seen practised, I dammed up Loch Dismal. Across the mouth of this loch I erected a dam and sluice similar to the common mill-dams of the country, taking care, of course, not to shut the sluices so close as to run the branch of the river dry. I thus kept back water enough to create an artificial spate, which I let go exactly in time to meet the high spring tides that bring the fish up to the rivers’ mouths, which they take, wind and water permitting.

I found the experiment answer perfectly, and over and over again I ascertained to demonstration that the fish took the river with my artificial, just as they would with a natural, spate. By judiciously keeping up a supply of water, I freshened up my river as it grew low, and brought up, ever and anon, fresh fish. I also, by the same process, sent to sea early the foul fish, which I had previously known remain in the river till the middle of July; thus rendering a double' service—making the foul fish go to sea, and, consequently, return from it earlier, and preserving the fry from the wholesale slaughter made on them by their unnatural and voracious parents while waiting in the pools for water to get down. My belief is, that but for this plan the fish would have suffered much more than they did from the bag-nets, from whose maw I thus rescued not a few of my finny friends. This, however, I did not do without exciting the dire wrath of the bag-net men. To be sure, it was tantalizing to see the beautiful shoal they had calculated on daily diminishing with their abominable engine, on its return with each retreating tide from the fruitless attempt to take the river, whisked up at once by so singular a stream.

At first it was called an illegal act, an interference with vested rights; but that soon fell to the ground, as the river, from source to sea, lochs and all, belonged to me. The dam is six miles from the sea, and there is no trap or net of any sort to catch the fish, for may this hand wither if ever it assails the noble Salmo salar with a heavier weapon than an honest, well-dressed, light-cast fly ! And so they had but to grin and bear it. And so then they changed the burden of their song. They condoled with my ignorance ; they besought me, for my own sake, not to ruin my river, to spoil my own sport. Poor dear, considerate souls ! And they adduced a wonderful proof of the mischief I was doing myself; which, by the way, got into print. A particular spate they said I had sent down had stirred up all the black mud in the river, sent it right in the teeth of a shoal of fish taking the river, and driven the fastidious creatures back to sea, where 300 of them were taken in the nets that night; as if a natural spate never stirred up mud at all!

A charming story—pity it was not true; for, unfortunately, that year being the last of the bag-net lease, and not wishing any disputes, I had never put my sluices in operation. They were safely housed in my stable! But some very ingenious workmen employed to gas-tar a bridge over the river, just where the salt joins the^ fresh water, chose the period of the high spring tides to do so ; and, not content with botching their work, and dropping a good deal of tar into the river, to save themselves the trouble of removing the remains of the gas-tar cask, emptied it into the river, which, thus fouled, the fish would not take. I passed the bridge just after the performance of this notable exploit, and angry enough I was, though not the least astonished at the result. I thus saved my own angling; but did more good than this, for the Gremsta also profited. I am not one of those who imagine that so good a food as salmon is to be kept merely for anglers’ amusement; but I do say that small rivers and small estuaries cannot stand close fishing—that in remote districts like the Hebrides, where there is no nearer market than Glasgow, and where the communication then was not so good as it is now, the netting-rent was not very remunerative to either lessor or lessee, and to expect to continue both netting and angling-rent could only end in grief to both. When netting is carried on closely, the almost invariable consequence, too, is that the size of the fish diminishes much. Before I put my sluices in operation I hardly ever got anything but dabs of fish, and the average of w'eight was small; but after they had been working for some years, the average very much rose, and they increased not only in quantity but in weight. Just as the river became a good one, however, it was severed from the shooting—a great mistake, in my opinion, for it very much added to the charm of Soval; and I think that eventually the wisdom of reuniting the two will be seen.

The other river in the Soval shooting was the Laxay, or Lakassay. It was about three miles and a half from Soval Lodge, and ran a course of some five miles, from Loch Trialaval to Loch Yaltos. It was a shallow river, with not above three or four pools in it, and those very sheltered; and, except on odd days, the fish were sulky. Loch Yaltos was a nice loch, and very good for sea-trout. There was, then, a mile more river from Yaltos to the sea, or rather tideway, with two or three good casts for salmon; but they generally held sulky fish. At the time I first went to Soval salmon did not abound in the Laxay, and no wonder, for it was close fished with net and cable, and also foul-fished—a net being sunk across the mouth of the river, and kept there, so that it was all but impossible for fish to get up. It had also been well cruived. Fortunately, I caught them at their foul fishing, cut their net to pieces, and watched them so close, that they made a sort of compromise, and I got rid of the nets for a consideration, as the Highlanders pronounce the word. The river, however, was so shallow, that, though I caught a great many sea-trout, I got very few fish. At last, seeing the success of the patent floods at the Blackwater, I tried them on the Laxay, and, to a certain extent, succeeded very well, for I caught one day more fish in the Rock and Reedy pools—the two good pools between Trialaval and Yaltos—than I had ever caught in the whole river all the previous years of my tenancy. But it was up-hill work making sluices there. I tried in three or four different places, but not very successfully; for, though the river was very shallow, Loch Trialaval was a large body of water, and two or three times my sluice and embankment disappeared, and it required both care and expense to make them stand, and sometimes there were great floodings and overflows. Once I nearly drowned half the township of Laxay when out at their shealings; but they were quiet folk, and we were good friends, and I made them fords and put out stepping-stones, and, fortunately, there was no necessity for any coroner’s inquests. They did say I drowned one old woman, cart and all; but, fortunately for me, as I was able to prove that the poor creature came to her untimely end ten miles from my scene of action, on the high road to Stornoway, by her cart going off the road into a burn in a state of flood and falling on her, I escaped all suspicion, even of womans laughter, better than R. M. did the red horse misdemeanour. If I did not make the river what I wanted, I succeeded well with Loch Yaltos, for it held a great many fish; and when I first arrived they rose well, and we used to have some very good sport in it. But one thing I never could account for. As the salmon increased the sea-trout decreased, and from being a very good loch for them, it became most indifferent; they decreased both in quality and size. Can any of the wise account for this?

There were very large fish in the Laxay, and it was a very early river; but I never got a dozen spring fish in it during the years I held it. I believe the fish began running in December and stopped in March, or before, just as they used to do in Killarney; nor did I ever, except in one or two instances, get in it very large fish, though I have killed kelts in spring that must have been 25 lb. or 30 lb. weight, and a great many of them. But the Laxay fish were, I think, larger than the Blackwater fish, and they certainly were a great deal better.

Besides these two rivers, there were at the west side smaller rivers and lochs—the Car-lowy loch and river, and part of the Bhragair and Sharbost rivers, which no doubt held fish; for off Carlowy Head was a good netting station. They were not, however, worth much for angling ; at least, though I often tried, I never did much in them. I have caught a sea-trout and a salmon or two ; but they are not rising rivers. A non-rising river, of which I have seen many, is to my mind useless for angling purposes, and 'you had best consign it to the nets. There were also dotted all over the shooting fresh-water lochs innumerable, in which were good store of brownies. I never could get them to rise as they should to trout-flies, used in fair angling fashion, though they would rise to ottering; but one doesn’t lose one’s time on a good day at that, with salmon to kill. Moreover, they were the worst brownies to eat I ever tried.

Thus, I think I have shown that Soval as it was had within its boundaries great attraction for a wild, amphibious animal like myself, half otter, half colley, never happy but when dabbling about something, weather permitting—very fond of his dogs, and delighted in exploring lochs in little cobles, of which I had a fleet, and with no one to interfere with me. Let me now con-' elude this long yarn with a bit of practical advice to the large community of letters and renters of shootings and fishings.

There is a custom prevalent in some parts of Scotland better honoured in the breach than in the observance. I allude to the custom of some proprietors reserving in their lettings of rivers a right of sending—sometimes one day in the week, sometimes oftener — their own friends to fish on rivers so let. Now, I do not think a more unwise or, without the slightest wish to use hard terms, a more unfair thing can be done. You say it is one of the conditions of the letting; but, let me ask, when you let a shooting, do you retain a right to send your friends to shoot over the ground you let? or would any one in his senses take a moor or a forest on such terms? Why, then, am I to be expected to pay a high rate for a river, preserve it well, and, on the few salmon-fishing days the year brings round, run the risk of finding the proprietor’s friends fishing my pet

pool? It is asking too much of poor human nature to stand this. No one more enjoys walking by the side of any one fishing, if he can fish, showing him honestly the good casts and how to fish them, landing his fish, doing everything, in short, for him, except giving him, my own particular pet fly—than I do. I can do it for days together. But loafers, or the proprietor’s friends, coming as a matter of right—few or far between as may be—is another thing. There is pride and pleasure in the one, the devil and all his imps in the other. No proprietor should ever ask, no lessee ever consent to, such a condition. I go further still. No clean-brqd gentleman should ever take advantage of such a privilege, and fish another man’s water at that man’s expense. I would not, and our friend Fred, I know, would hot do it.

There is yet another point. This reservation contains within itself the fruitful germ of misunderstandings, heart-burnings, and all manner of strife and discord. I have known it work most unpleasantly, and become thefons et origo malorum that otherwise would never have arisen.


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