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Sketches of the Wild Sports & Natural History of the Highlands
Chapter VI


Salmon-fishing — Salmon ascending Fords — Fishers — Cruives — Right of Fishing — Anecdote — Salmon-leaps — History of the Salmon — Lampreys — Spearing Salmon — River Poaching — Angling — Fly-making — Eels.

DURING the spring and summer it is an amusing sight to watch the salmon making their way up the river. Every high tide brings up a number of these fish, whose whole object seems to be to ascend the stream. At the shallow fords, where the river spreading over a wide surface has but a small depth of water, they are frequently obliged to swim, or rather wade (if such an expression can be used), for perhaps twenty yards in water of two inches in depth, which leaves more than half the fish exposed to view. On they go, however, scrambling up the fords, and making the water fly to the right and left, like ducks at play. When the fish are numerous, I sometimes see a dozen or more at once. They might be killed in these places by spears, or even a stick, and indeed many a salmon does come to his death in this way. The fishermen (when the river is low) save a great deal of useless fatigue, and of injury to their nets, by working in some pool immediately above a shallow place, where they station one of their number, who watches for the fish ascending, giving a signal to his companions whenever he sees one. They then immediately put out their nets, and are nearly sure to catch the salmon. In this way very few of the fish can escape as long as the water is low, but when a slight flood comes they can get up unperceived. It is as easy to see them in the night-time as in the day, the water glancing and shining as they struggle up. Indeed, on the darkest night the noise they make is easily heard, and distinguished by the accustomed ear of the fishermen.

There is something wild and interesting in listening during the night to the shout of the man stationed to watch, when he sees fish, and the sound of the oars and boat immediately afterwards, though the object of pursuit is but a fish after all. Sometimes a silent otter suddenly shows himself on the ford, having slipped quietly and unobserved through the deeper parts of the stream till he is obliged to wade, not having water enough to cover him. His appearance is the signal of a general outcry, and if he returns to the deep water where the net is, the fishermen occasionally manage to entangle him, and dragging him to shore, soon dispatch him. He is one of their worst enemies. More often, however, he slips noiselessly to the side of the river, and half ensconced behind some broken bank, remains quiet and concealed till the danger is past, and then glides away unperceived. There is no animal more difficult to get the advantage of than the otter, as long as he is on ground that he knows. The fish which escape the nets, and those which go up during floods and on Sundays, on which day they are allowed to have a free passage, seldom stop until they get to the deep quiet pools amongst the rocks some four or five miles up the water, where they rest till fresh water and opportunity enable them to continue their upward progress. Neither sea-trout nor salmon ever seem happy excepting when making their way up a stream. It is wonderful, too, against what difficulties, in the shape of falls and rapids, they will ascend a river. In the Findhorn, owing to the impetuosity of the stream, the frequent and sudden floods it is subject to, and the immense quantity of shingle and gravel which is always shifting its place and changing the course of the lower part of the water, there are no cruives made use of. They would probably be destroyed as fast as they were built. In the Spey, however, and many other rivers, large cruives are built, which quite prevent the ascent of the fish, excepting on Sundays and on floods. To describe a cruive minutely would be tedious. It is, however, merely a kind of darn built across the river, with openings here and there, allowing the water to pass through in a strong stream, and through which the fish ascend and get into a kind of wooden cage, out of which they cannot find their way again, the entrance being made after the fashion of a wire mouse-trap, affording an easier ingress than egress. Much do the anglers on the upper part of the Spey pray for a furious flood, or speat, as it is called, which may break down these barriers, and enable the salmon to ascend to the higher pools before the fishermen can repair the damage done.

The right of fishing in many of the Scotch rivers is vested in a very singular manner ; as, for instance, in the Findhorn, where the proprietor of many miles of land along the river banks has no right to throw a line in the water, but is obliged to pay a rent for fishing on his own ground. Indeed, this kind of alienation of the right of fishing from the person who would seem to be the natural proprietor of it is very common. I remember an anecdote told me by an old Highlander as to the cause of the fishing in a particular river in Sutherland being out of the hands of the proprietor of the land on its banks. The story is as follows:—

The laird of the property higher up on the water was also the possessor of a small island in the river. He was a deep, long-headed fellow, and grudged his neighbour the profit he made out of the fishing just below him, the water on the upper part not being so good. He therefore commenced building a fort on the island, and falling in with his neighbour, asked him in an off-hand way to give him, merely, he said, for the convenience of his workmen, a right of fishing the whole river until his building was completed, salmon in those days being used as a means of feeding the numerous retainers and servants who lived upon and followed every laird and chieftain. Indeed, but a few years back it was often made a stipulation by servants on being hired by a Highland master that they should not be fed on salmon above a certain number of days in the week. But to continue my story. The permission was granted ; and, to save all dispute about the matter, even a legal written document was given over to the wily laird, granting him exclusive right of fishing and netting the river, "until his house was finished." The building was immediately stopped, and the right of fishing still belongs to the proprietor of the little islet, who will probably never finish his building, as doing so would put an end to his valuable rights on the river. So runs the tale, which does more credit to the acuteness than to the honesty of the inventor of the ruse. The jumping of the salmon up a fall is a curious and beautiful sight, and the height they leap, and the perseverance which they show in returning again and again to the charge, after making vain efforts to surmount the fall, are quite wonderful. Often on a summer evening, when the river is full of fish, all eager to make their way up, have I watched them for hours together, as they sprang in rapid succession, looking like pieces of silver as they dashed up the falls with rapid leaps. The fish appear to bend their head to their tail, and then to fling themselves forward and upwards, much as a bit of whalebone whose two ends are pinched together springs forward on being released. I have often watched them leaping, and this has always seemed the way in which they accomplish their extraordinary task. Both salmon and sea-trout, soon after they enter the fresh water, from the sea, make wonderful leaps into the air, shooting perpendicularly upwards, to the height of some feet, with a quivering motion, which is often quite audible. This is most likely to get rid of a kind of parasitical insect which adheres to them when they first leave the sea. The fishermen call this creature the sea-louse : it appears to cause a great deal of irritation to the fish. It is a sure sign that the salmon is in good condition, and fresh from the sea, when these insects are found adhering to him.

Though the natural history of the salmon is daily being searched into, and curious facts connected with it are constantly ascertained, I fancy that there is much still to be learnt on the subject, as some of the statements advanced seem so much at variance with my own frequent though unscientific observations, that I cannot give in to all that is asserted. But as I have not opportunities of proving many points, I will leave the whole subject in the abler hands of those who have already written on it, and whose accounts, though they may err here and there, are probably in the main correct. As long as the salmon are in the river water they seem to lose condition, and become lean and dark-coloured. By the time that they have ascended to within a dozen miles or so of the source of the river they are scarcely fit to eat. Nevertheless vast numbers are killed by poachers and shepherds in the autumn, even after the legal season is over. I once fell in with a band of Highlanders who were employed busily in the amusing but illegal pursuit of spearing salmon by torchlight. And a most exciting and interesting proceeding it was. The night was calm and dark. The steep and broken rocks were illuminated in the most brilliant manner by fifteen or sixteen torches, which were carried by as many active Highlanders, and glanced merrily on the water, throwing the most fantastic light and shade on all around as they moved about. Sometimes one of them would remain motionless for a few moments, as its bearer waited in the expectation that some fish which had been started by his companions would come within reach of his spear, as he stood with it ready poised, and his eager countenance lighted up by his torch as he bent over the water. Then would come loud shouts and a confused hurrying to and fro, as some great fish darted amongst the men, and loud and merry peals of laughter when some unlucky fellow darting at a fish in too deep water, missed his balance, and fell headlong into the pool. Every now and then a salmon would be seen hoisted into the air, and quivering on an uplifted spear. The fish, as soon as caught, was carried ashore, where it was knocked on the head and taken charge of by some man older than the rest, who was deputed to this office. Thirty-seven salmon were killed that night ; and I must say that I entered into the fun, unmindful of its not being quite in accordance with my ideas of right and wrong ; and I enjoyed it probably as much as any of the wild lads who were engaged in it. There was not much English talked amongst the party, as they found more expressive words in Gaelic to vent their eagerness and impatience. All was good humour, however ; and though they at first looked on me with some slight suspicion, yet when they saw that I enjoyed their torchlight fishing, and entered fully into the spirit of it, they soon treated me with all consideration and as one of themselves. I happened to know one or two of the men ; and after it was over, and we were drying our drenched clothes in a neighbouring bothy, it occurred to me to think of the river bailiffs and watchers, several of whom I knew were employed on that part of the stream, and I asked where they were, that they did not interfere with the somewhat irregular proceeding in which we had all been engaged. "'Deed ay, sir, there are no less than twelve bailies and offishers on the water here, but they are mostly douce-like lads, and don't interfere much with us, as we only come once or twice in the season. Besides which, they ken well that if they did they might get a wild ducking amongst us all, and they would na ken us again, as we all come from beyont the braes yonder. Not that we would wish to hurt the puir chiels," continued my informer, as he took off a glass of whisky, "as they would be but doing their duty. They would as lave, however, I am thinking, be taking a quiet dram at Sandy Roy's down yonder as getting a ducking in the river ; and they are wise enough not to run the risk of it." Not bad reasoning either,' thought I ; nor can I wonder that the poor water-bailiffs would prefer a quiet bowl of toddy to a row with a party of wild Badenoch poachers, who, though good-natured enough on the whole, were determined to have their night's fun out in spite of all opposition. There are worse poachers, too, than these said Highlanders, who only come down now and then more for the amusement than the profit of the thing ; and whom it is generally better policy to keep friends with than to make enemies of.

The ponderous lexicographer, who describes a fishing-rod as a stick with a fool at one end and a worm at the other, displays in this saying more wit than wisdom. Not that I quite go the whole length of my quaint and amiable old friend, Isaac Walton, who implies in every page of his paragon of a book, that the art of angling is the summum bonum of happiness, and that an angler must needs be the best of men. I do believe, however, that no determined angler can be naturally a bad or vicious man. No man who enters into the silent communings with Nature, whose beauties he must be constantly surrounded by, and familiar with during his ramblings as an angler, can fail to be improved in mind and disposition during his solitary wanderings amongst the most lovely and romantic works of the creation, in the wild Highland glens and mountains through which the best streams take their course. I do not include in my term angler the pond or punt fisher, however well versed he may be in the arts of spitting worms and impaling frogs, so learnedly discussed by Isaac—notwithstanding the kindliness and simplicitly of heart so conspicuous in every line he writes. Angling, in my sense of the word, implies wandering with rod and creel in the wild solitudes, and tempting (or endeavouring to do so) the fish from their clear water, with artificial fly or minnow. Nothing can be more unlike the "worm" described as forming one end of the thing called a fishing-rod, than the gay and gaudy collection of feathers and tinsel which form the attraction of a Findhorn fly. Let us look at the salmon-fly which I have just finished, and which now lies on the table before me, ready for trial in some clear pool of the river. To begin : I tie with well-waxed silk a portion of silkworms' intestines on a highly-tempered and finished Limerick-made hook. Here are three different substances brought into play already. I next begin at the tail of the fly : first come two turns of gold thread, then a tenth part of an inch of red floss-silk ; next comes the tail, consisting of a bright gold feather from the crest of the golden pheasant. The body is now to be made of, alternately, a stripe of green, a stripe of blue, and the remainder of orange-coloured floss-silk, with a double binding of gold thread and silver tinsel ; the legs are made of a black barn-door cock's hackle, taken from him, in winter, when the bird is in full plumage ; next to the wing comes a turn of grouse's feather, and two or three turns of the purple-black feather which is pendant on the breast of an old cock heron. Now for the wing, which is composed of a mixture of feathers from the mallard killed in this country ; from the teal drake, also a native ; from the turkey-cock ; the bustard, from India ; a stripe or two of green parrot ; a little of the tippet of the gold pheasant ; a thread or two from the peacock's tail ; a bit from the Argus pheasant, and from the tail of a common hen pheasant : all these mixed and blended together form an irresistible wing. Round the shoulder of the wing a turn of the blue and black feather off a jay's wing. For the head, a small portion of that substance called pig's wool, so mysterious to the uninitiated, pigs not being the usual animals from which wool is supposed to be derived ; then finished off with a few turns of black ostrich feather ; not forgetting that finish to the whole, two horns of red and blue macaw's feather. Now all this makes a fly either of the dragon or some other species, which no salmon who is in a taking mood (one can hardly suppose he swallows it out of hunger) can resist. See the gallant fish, as he rises suddenly up from the dark depths of the pool, poises himself for a moment, as the fly hovers before him, in the twirling eddy, then darts forward, seizes the gaudy bait, and retreats again, apparently well satisfied with his skill in fly-catching, till he suddenly finds himself pulled up, and held fast by the unexpected strength of the insect. I suspect that a salmon, after a quarter of an hour's struggle on a line, would scarcely call the fisherman at the other end " a fool," even if he took the fly to be some newly-discovered glittering worm. Skill in fly-fishing can only be acquired by practice, and no directions can make a good angler. And even when fairly hooked, a salmon is only to be held by a happy mixture of the suaviter in modo and fortiter in re, which keeps the line at a gentle but firm stretch, from which he cannot escape by dint of straightforward pulling—to which the skilful fisher must gradually yield, to prevent too much strain on his slight line. Nor, on the other hand, ought the fish to be allowed, by the angler slackening the line, to get a sudden jerk at it, by means of a fresh rush, as few lines or hooks can stand this. In fishing for sea-trout, I always kill the largest fish, and the greatest number, by using small flies, though certainly too small hooks are apt to lead to disappointment, by not taking sufficient hold of this tender-skinned fish. As all rivers require different flies for sea-trout, no general rule can be given, but I never find myself unable to catch trout, if there are any in the water, and I use either a small palmer, red, black, or white, and if these do not succeed, I try a small fly with black or blue body, a turn or two of silver twist, no hackle round the body, but a little black hackle immediately under the wings, which latter consist of lark's or hen blackbird's feather, or that of some other bird of a similar pale grey colour. I have often been amused by being told gravely by some fishing-tackle maker in a country-town, when showing him one of these simple flies, " Why, sir, that fly may do now and then, but it is not fit for this river, and I am afraid, sir, you will catch nothing with it "—his own stock of flies, which he wants to sell, being all of one kind probably, and which he has managed to convince himself and others are the only sort the fish in the neighbouring stream will rise at. I remember one day on the Findhorn when the fish would not rise at a fly, although they were leaping in all directions. I put on a small white fly and filled my basket, to the astonishment of two or three habitues of the river, who could catch nothing. Having watched me some time, and not being able to make out why I had such good sport, they begged to look at my fly. They scarcely believed their own eyes when I showed them my little white moth, which the sea-trout were rising at so greedily ; it being so unlike the flies which from habit and prejudice they had been always accustomed to use.

I was much interested one day in May, in watching the thou sands of small eels which were making their way up the river. It was some distance from the mouth, and where the stream, confined by a narrow rocky channel, ran with great strength. Nevertheless these little eels, which were about six inches long, and as large round as a quill, persevered in swimming against the stream. When they came to a fall, where they could not possibly ascend, they wriggled out of the water, and gliding along the rock close to the edge, where the stone was constantly wet from the splashing and spray of the fall, they made their way up till they got above the difficulty, and then again slipping into the water, they continued their course. For several hours there was a continued succession of these little fish going up in the same way ; and for more than a week the same thing was to be seen every day. The perseverance they displayed was very great, for frequently, although washed back several times, an eel would always continue its efforts till it managed to ascend. Towards winter they are said to descend the river again, in equal numbers. Trout and many birds feed constantly on these small eels, catching them with great ease in the shallows.

One summer day I was amused by watching the singular proceedings of two lampreys in a small ditch of clear running water near my house. They were about six inches in length, and as large round as a pencil. The two little creatures were most busily and anxiously employed in making little triangular heaps of stones, using for the purpose irregularly shaped bits of gravel about the size of a large pea. When they wished to move a larger stone, they helped each other in endeavouring to roll it into the desired situation : occasionally they both left off their labours and appeared to rest for a short time, and then to return to the work with fresh vigour. The object of their building I am not sufficiently learned in the natural history of the lamprey to divine ; but I conclude that their work had something to do with the placing of their spawn. I had, however, a good opportunity of watching them, as the water was quite clear and shallow, and they were so intent upon what they were at, that they took no notice whatever of me. I had intended to examine the little heaps of stones which they had made, but going from home the next day put it out of my recollection, and I lost the opportunity. It seems, however, so singular a manoeuvre on the part of fish to build up regular little pyramids of gravel, bringing some of the stones from the distance of two feet against the current and rolling them to the place with evident difficulty, that the lampreys must have some good reason which induces them to take this trouble. It is a great pity that the habits of fish and animals living in water are so difficult to observe with any degree of exactness.


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