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Nether Lochaber
Chapter IX


Long-Line Fishing—Scarcity of Fish—Their Fecundity—Large Specimen of the Raia Chagrinea—The Wolf-Fish—The Devil-Fish.

For several years past [March 1870] the spring fishing with "long lines" in our western lochs has been so unsuccessful as to he hardly Avorth the while engaging in it. At our very doors, where with the hand-line during the summer and autumn months, some ten or twelve years ago, we could almost always depend on a large basketful of the finest rock cod, gurnard, haddock, and flounder, as the result of a couple of hours fishing, more recently very few, and sometimes none at all, could be caught, with the cunningest exercise of all the patience and piscatorial skill at our command, while in winter and spring the long-line fishing of grey cod, skate, and ling, and eel has been equally disappointing. Why it should be so no one would venture to say; the utmost you could get out of the oldest fisherman on the coast was an admission of the fact, with a shake of the head and a shrug of the shoulders, that if so disposed you could very readily interpret into the line, albeit unknown to him, that—

"Twas true 'twas pity, pity 'twas 'twas true,"

a cautious reticence on the point that was altogether praiseworthy, for really and truly nobody did know or could say anything satisfactory in explanation of the mystery. Was it owing to the multiplication of the number of steamers, screw and paddle, constantly coming and going, and like Tennyson's "years" at their unamiable meeting, "roaring and blowing," keeping the waters in perpetual turmoil, and scaring the fish from their usual haunts'? Such an hypothesis could he seriously entertained for a moment only to be rejected. Could it be owing to any cyclical meteorological changes, or to anything anomalous in the order of the seasons? Admitting that something of this kind has been going -on for some time, and is still going on, it was readily seen, nevertheless, that it was all too inappreciable and remote to have had the result complained of—to cause that in the waters of "the great deep" which it had failed to effect in any noticeable way on the dry land. Or, was it that the fish themselves, by reason of their numberless enemies, afloat and ashore, were actually diminishing in numbers, and so necessarily becoming scarcer from year to year? No one, however, knowing anything of the economy of the fish in question, could for a moment entertain such an idea. The fecundity of these fish is something incredible. "We once had the roe of a female cod, that weighed (the fish) six lbs., first boiled hard, and then divided with tolerable exactness into so many ounces, and counting the number of eggs in one ounce, and multiplying by the number of ounces in the entire roe, we found, at a rough calculation, that in that single fish, of no great size, there were upwards of a million and a half of eggs—each egg destined to become a fish, and, barring accidents, to attain to the average age and size of its kind. But however we may try to account for the scarcity of these fish in our lochs for several years back, it is an agreeable duty to have to record that during the past winter and spring there has been a marked improvement alike in the quantity and quality of the fish caught all along $he western seaboard. Not only have the common fish of our own coasts been taken in considerable numbers, but several kinds of fish formerly known only as occasional visitors to our shores have this season been plentiful in all our lochs, and have well repaid the diligence of their captors. The long-nosed skate, for example, formerly a rare fish with us, has this season been common. It is known to ichthyologists as the Raia chagrined, and is not only excellent eating, but from its enormous liver supplies a large quantity of very fine oil, that burns with a clearer and steadier light than that of any other fish with which we are acquainted. "We are convinced, by the way, that, used medicinally, it would be found equally efficacious with cod liver oil in all cases where the latter is recommended, whilst its rather agreeable taste and flavour would render it a tolerably palatable dose in its purest and strongest state, which cod oil never becomes, manufacture, and decoct, and clarify it as you may. A very fine specimen of the Chagrinea was caught here about ten days ago. It was cut up and disembowelled before we saw it, but we should guess that its weight when taken off the hook could not have been less than 70 lbs. All the skates are ugly brutes, and the long-nosed Chagrinea is at once perhaps the ugliest and the best of its tribe. Some people don't eat skate, nor can we say that we are partial to it ourselves, though we once heard a noted gourmand declare that the "wing of a skate was equal to a shoulder of a salmon." We should, for our own part, rather have the salmon. "While in Oban about a month ago, an extremely fierce-looking and ugly fish, the name and character whereof not a little puzzled its captors, was brought for our inspection. Luckily for our credit as a naturalist, we had previously seen more than one specimen of the same fish with the St. Andrews fishermen, it being by no means a rare visitor to the eastern and north-eastern shores of Scotland. It was the wolf or cat-fish, closely related to the family of the Gobies (Gobioidce), the Anarrhicas lupus of ichthyologists. The head of this curious and most repulsive-looking fish has some peculiar markings, which, with the fierce glaring eyes and their position in the face, and the formidable array of long, sharp-pointed, recurved teeth, give it much of the expression of an enraged cat, and hence doubtless its common name. For the same reasons, and on account probably of its character as a fierce, relentless tyrant among more amiable and less powerful fish, it is known among the Channel Islands and along the coasts of England as the wolf-fish. The only fish at all approaching it in ugliness and repulsiveness of features is the better-known angler or fishing-frog (Lophius piscatorms), which also, by the way, is not so common of late years on our western coasts as it used to be.


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