Fox's Earth to Mountain Tarn
Haunt of the Water Vole
THE mill wheel has ceased to
beat for the day. Swifts are screaming overhead, and sweeping round in their
evening play, as though they were near home and had some interest in the
dusty rafters. Next to an old castle, the swifts form part of the summer
picture of a waterside meal mill. Swallows pass in and out of the door of a
low shed, in tireless waiting on an impatient brood under the red slates.
With a restless stillness,
midway between motion and quiet, the lade oozes on, confusing the eye that
looks too long, and making the head reel. It is not a flow the angler loves
: it lacks variety and play. Water-plants root in the muddy bottom, and
spread over the still surface. In serried ranks they stand out from either
bank. So near in some places is their approach, that scarce two yards of
clear flow are left. Detached islets float in the centre. The dull brown of
the pond weed is relieved by the green leaves, starred with the charming
white flowers of the water crowfoot.
Trout abound. They fatten on
the multitudinous crustaceans and molluscs, which crawl or dart through the
shades of the submarine forest. Well cared for beneath, they do not readily
take a lure. It is so in all weedy places. They hunt through the dim
waterways, feed, and grow lazy, and have no need for more. Slow to rise,
they are harder to get on shore. The breaking ring, and the disappearing
hook, which send a thrill along the arm and bring the heart to the mouth,
are often the beginning of calamity.
A little fish may be checked
; but, alas for the larger quarry, which must go to the bottom, and have
line, and be tired out; if need be, led down the stream and drowned. No room
is there for such play, for the delicate handling, which is the triumph of
the angler's art, and gives the advantage to the slender gut. In the
scurrying, the line is wound round the submerged stem. The end is not the
capture of a large trout, but the loss of a good cast. The baffled angler
has the satisfaction of knowing that the poacher-to whose methods the
straight banks and smooth flow lend themselves-also is baffled. Every stream
breeds such gentry in the adjoining villages. Some shoemaker of
pseudo-sporting tastes, or idler with more practical ends in view. I f the
fly is dropped with fear and trembling, in the half hope that the trout will
disregard it, the bagnets can in -nowise be risked. Were the weeds removed,
the poacher would hear of it next day, and appear next night. Clear of
weeds, the stream would soon be clear of trout. Better to bear the ills we
have, than fly to others which we know quite well.
From either side, half rings
broaden out, to merge in the middle. The bigger trout are rising along the
edge of the weeds. They are not all engaged down below. Crustacean and
mollusc are not enough. The winged insect has the olden attraction. That
grey-winged half-spinner rises a few feet in the air, and, as he dips again
to the surface, is engulfed. A fresh series of rings break out. If art could
only imitate that dip, and there be no lack in the skill of the maker of the
fly! The weeds are so far an advantage. They veil all of the line save that
which bears the end hook. Another turn of the reel, or a step back into the
pasture field, to get the exact length. Just a yard above where that last
fly went down, mine has gone down after it. Either the trout will come out,
or to hook it was worth the cast.
Sand martins are scouting up
and down, catching, on the rise, those spinners which trout secure on the
dip. Between the two is little chance of escape. Both are eager on a
grey-blue fly. The bird swerves, as though he meant something, but does not
take the hook. I have caught a swallow, a swift even. The martin is a
denizen of the stream and knows its ways. Over the trout it has the
advantage of seeing the fisher.
The habit is to feed against
the wind, and drifting swiftly back, to return on the beat. In the windless
air, the scouting is either way. When it shares the same bank with the
kingfisher - known on the stream, but not common - its bore is easily
distinguished, in that it is level at the bottom and not pointed for
Among the sedges, just under
the marguerites and the ragged robin, is a water-hen. It moves back a little
that the blades may drop together and form a screen. From its vantage, it
watches through a slit, betrayed by the sheen of its coral bill. No creature
can be so quiet and secretive as a water-hen. Its nest of rough bank grasses
is placed among the reeds, not much more than a foot above the surface. In
the ordinary stream channel that would be fatal : the first spate would
sweep it away. In the lade, any excessive rainfall flows over the wall of
the dam. Doubtless the margin is sufficient. The children of the lade seem
to know its moods. There is no stiffness in the reeds to support the weight,
apart from the buoyancy of the water. The danger is a dry season, when the
level sinks. The structure rises from the bottom, and seems to rest on the
bent and doubled stalks.
The hen keeps bobbing,
nodding its head, and twitching its white tail feathers; all the while
addressing me in a low impatient chuckle. When I approach, it runs along the
water weeds as a swifter way than swimming. Finally, it follows to see that
I am really going. I can see its red beak round the white willow. The cock
is invisible; but, from sounds, I know that he aids and abets.
The crisp bite across the
grass stem tells a water vole at his evening meal. From the bareness round
about, he has been busy for some time; now he attacks the pillar of a
nodding panicle, as a beaver might the bole of a tree.
The bank is tunnelled with
holes, in little groups, after some plan. The typical number is three. The
centre bore goes straight in. From it diverge two runs, one on either side,
which open on to the bank, and are of the nature of escape or bolt holes.
Beyond the forking is a blind end. The arrangement may be different, or the
number greater. A secret entrance opens under the water, when it might be
inconvenient to rise to the surface; a hole in the top of the bank gives
egress to the fields.
Further up, a second nibbles
the mimulus leaves, o’ercanopied by the great yellow blossoms, with the
spotted throats. Still another sits amid the white flowers of the pungent
watercress. Overhead is a wild rose. The whin-covered warren of the rabbit,
the remote form of the hare, the squirrel’s haunt in windy beech or elm, the
wood-mouse under the sorrel among the woodland shadows are picturesque; but
among rodents no environment is quite so fresh and charming as that of the
water vole on the stream bank. And this lade is specially charming for the
number and purity of its flowers.
So the diet is varied among
the plants that grow there. Delightful changes, pleasant or piquant flavours
are found by shifting just a little up or down. Only ignorance can charge
with any disturbance of the stream life. The shiest trout moves not from its
poise as the vole swims past. The true culprit, if mischief be done, we may
surprise by and by.
A fourth is on a moist raft
of water crowfoot, moored midway between bank and bank. With all the ease
and at-homeness of a mouse picking crumbs from the parlour floor, he moves
from place to place. His choice is dainty, his actions pleasant to watch,
charming are his crumbs. He plucks a flower and holds it for a moment
outside his mouth before drawing it in. Then he crosses to the next flower.
So he zigzags, culling flowers, and only flowers. And when at length he
dives from the edge, the platform he found starred is a mass of dull weeds.
Nor is this the whim of one alone. Wherever voles are on a raft it is the
water crowfoot, and all alike take only flowers. It may be that the little
lamps of purest ray catch their feeble sight, or some dim sense of the charm
draws them. The keeping down of the choking water-weeds is one of the
thankless services the vole renders.
All these are young. Like
children they keep near home, nibbling about the opening of their holes. In
the distance they look black, tending to russet toward the head. Not all
quite the same shade. I n furring, they may pass through certain
transitions, or the voles of a stream may vary. The small ears are quite
visible, also the minute eyes far down in the face. The bullet-shaped head
is not unlike that of a young otter, for which they are sometimes taken by
visitors from the remote city.
The feeding voles on the near
side are diving from the bank. The splash is clearly distinguishable from
the bell-like rise of a trout. Some keep out of sight, sending ripples in
half-circles beyond the floating grass. Now and then one crosses, forming a
long, more than half-immersed, moving cylinder. Unless alarmed, voles seldom
dive or swim under water. Eyes and ears are hidden by nature's coat. They
are much larger than the dark ones by the holes, and further from home. The
greyish-brown hue is protective, less easily made out in the grey evening
when they are mostly abroad. They are old voles. Crisp and harsh comes the
sound of one feeding among the sedges.
Grey adult and dark young are
together. The mother nibbles gravely, moving only far enough for fresh
blades. The young is more sportive. In its play it indulges in the squirting
motions of a guinea-pig. Habits of play, as well as of graver moods, run
through families. So it is with the rodents. It appears even in the rabbit
and the hare. They graze and play undisturbed by my near presence; from
which I gather that they neither hear nor see well. Only some sharp sound or
sudden movement alarms them.
Swimming under the far bank
is what might be mistaken for a vole. Many of his deeds are put down to the
innocent. The longer tail, pointed nose, beady eyes, and lighter coat mark
him out as a rat, and therefore rascal. Any doubt is set at rest when he
takes to the grass, and makes off over the field, with the characteristic
At the sluice, lade and
stream join. Beyond is a stretch of still water, held back by the dam. In
the sluggish iris-fringed deep, food multiplies. Here the trout fatten ;
hither the fisher comes more than over the rest of the stream. The
conditions of success are wind and night, mainly night.
There is no wind, not so much
as would lift the down of a moulting chick, or the winged seed of a
dandelion. But night is coming on - a midsummer night. All along the way the
sun had a cloudless course. Just after the setting is a shade of dullness;
then comes the afterglow. The water reflects the sky with a radiance almost
Little trout are rising
freely, it is their habit after sunset: a passing sportsman has got half a
dozen. They are taking the blue dun. They will take the small fly till ten
o'clock. It is a few minutes past nine. I have put on the large moth for
night fishing, and am not disposed to change. I have never quite entered
into the spirit of those who sum up a night's fishing as catching trout ;
though I like well enough when the rise is on. So I watch the voles as they
cross the water, bisecting the rings of the rising trout by the way, or flop
down from the grass, sending half-circles from under the bank.
The characteristic croak
comes down from a heron flapping home to the heronry. The notes of a thrush
singing midsummer eve vesper in some distant wood die down. The
sedge-warbler chatters on. The grey voles are hard to make out. Small trout
no longer rise. Yet the gleam refuses to die out of the sky, or from the
surface of the water.
Moths, indistinguishable from
that on my cast, are flitting about, undisturbed, in the still air, and
startlingly visible in the light that blots out all other life. Attracted by
the pale radiance, as of a low burning taper, they hit the face with a
The shadow of the far bank
broadens and deepens. Along the edge of the shadow, silent rings break and
spread over the water, lit with the fading yet fadeless afterglow. In humpy
pasture, the land rises into a broken crest. A belt of saffron sky lies
along the purple ridge.
Under this tree will do. No
gleam is between it and the far bank. The moth is cast. It vanishes in the
uncertain light. No mark tells where it falls ; only the taut line will
carry it to the edge of the shadow. Still the rings break in circles half
eclipsed, and ere the last die down, new rings ripple into being. The trout
Again the moth is sent to
where the ripples are thickest. Night-feeding trout are not scared by the
false fly. Only they have a habit of leaving it alone, as they do now. The
moth travels between tree and shadow. Meantime, the blue dun, scarce bigger
than the midge dancing in the sunlight, is having an offer among the rest.
More frequent is the impact
against the pale lamp of the face. Broader and deeper grows the shadow under
the bank. At length comes the sullen plunge of a big trout, half caused by
the discovery that he has made a mistake. He may have risen out of the water
to come down on the lure, and been uncertain against the dull back ground.
Trout which simply push their noses out are noiseless. The strike touches,
but fails to hold him. From some distant steeple ten o'clock rings.
"Will you let me see your
fly?" The dweller in the lonely mill house among the trees has come out for
the air. There is a fascination in these encounters, in a dimness which
blurs the outline and leaves the details to the imagination. He is not very
sure of the moth. He prefers grouse and claret, an excellent combination in
other things than flies. It is fitting that grouse should be the body, and
claret the wings. Every angler has his favourite, and is a dogmatist, whom
it is well to humour.
"And now I shall show you how
to use it." I meekly hand him the rod. He lets the fly sink as though it
were bait, and drift down the slow stream to the full stretch of the line.
He jerks it sharply. Then, or not at all, the trout take. "At least it is so
in this water, and I know it as well as a man can do, who keeps his rod up,
and his cast on for whenever he is in the mood. " When the wheel was slowed
and the race ceased to plash, little was there to do save fish. A life,
vaguely charming, against a dim monotonous background must it be, with no
road to one's fellows save the angler-worn pathway by the stream. Very like
a vole's life, and his house on the bank might well have been named Vole's
"Besides you are too early. I
never come out till eleven. Last night, I had a dozen trout between that and
twelve." An hour ahead, and no promise of dark even then. The sun would
never get into the shadow on this midsummer eve. Day would waken in the
east. The dawn would kiss the setting.
A light is on the stream as I
pass down, or so much of it as is not under the shadow of the far bank. The
restless lapwing screams as he dips from his flight into the dimness of the
meadow. If the action is meant to lead away from the nest, he must be stupid
indeed to keep it up in the dark. It is hard to tell when he goes to bed and
leaves the corncrake in possession, or which of the night calls is the less
musical. A dimmer saffron tops the darker purple of the ridge, and passes to
the zenith in a pink, flushed, pearl grey. Eleven o'clock rings from the
distant steeple. My friend will be bringing out his rod, with the grouse and
claret fly, for the night fishing.
The faintest vibration of
sound, as from low water bells, tells of the trout rising in the narrow
channel. On the crowfoot, lit up with its silver lamps, something moves and
puts out light after light. The splash of the older voles comes at
intervals, and the dark form crosses the breaking rings to reach the further
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