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Chapter VIII. - The Snipe Lochs.—Fish-Lore

It rained heavily nearly all night, and this morning the sky was still dull and lowering; but on consulting Archie after breakfast, he said we might go to the snipe lochs, as there was a tolerable foot-path most of the way; so it was settled to go, if only for the walk, and to see the place.

Dick and the boy took the pony, guns, &c., and left at once, it being arranged we should meet them at a shealing over the hill. Archie remained to show the way.

When we left, the wind had changed, and by-and-by the day looked better, for gleams of sunshine touched the hills here and there, and before we got far the sun shone out, the heavy clouds rolling away to the east, their dark shadows flying across the bright faces of the mountains; while the light breeze shook the rain-drops from the birches like showers of diamonds.

The Fox's Cairn

All the climb-up was made pleasant with variety of scene and the lively sight of game and wild birds. On reaching the first tops the view is quite beautiful. Eight down at our feet we could see the Lodge, flagstaff, and offices, looking like a child’s toys among the hills, and, away to the south, the great loch, and glimpses here and there. of the course of the river; while, just beside us, a narrow, rugged corrie runs up high on the rocky face of the steepest hill. Down this corrie the red, swollen waters came foaming and thundering* over the rocky shelves, and, a little above where we stood, formed a waterfall of some eighty feet.

High up this corrie Archie pointed outran inaccessible ledge, under which there is usually, every year, a litter of foxes. This spring he shot the dog fox, and had not since seen the other; but he said “They were so deevilish sly that he wouldna’ wonder if there micht be a vermin o’ them in the hole.” We could, with the glass, see the entrance distinctly; but it would need a staff of Mont Cenis navvies to break up that homestead.

When we got over the sky-line, Archie led on to the far slope of the hill, and we came to the shealing, and found all waiting.

Here we had some goat’s milk. Capital it is, and would be an improvement on London cream. After a short rest we moved again, and soon got to the lochs, which lie in an extensive hollow, surrounded with gloomy-looking hills, steep, stony, and desolate.

Archie now loosed an old pointer, and Ward and Fred went on to work. After watching their .sport for a little, Major Duncan and I went off to the heights, to examine this wilderness, and forage for plants.

For an hour or two we explored through bog-holes and rocky crevices, and the Major was enriched with some rare Alpine plants, and bagging a huge specimen of the dragon-fly; but he found the rocks of no particular interest to the geologist, being mostly common gneiss.

We continued the researches for some time, until the fewness of the shots heard from below told us that the snipe-grounds were about beat out, and we rejoined the sportsmen.

Ward told us that all about the swamp they had found lots of snipe, nicely scattered, and that if Fred and he had shot well they might have bagged twenty or thirty couple: as it was, they had thirteen couple, which I consider very good for this country, and not bad anywhere. They saw no teal, but came on a late covey of mallards, full-grown, but not yet able to fly, which were secured, as they were not likely to be found again.

There must be something peculiarly attractive to snipe in this desolate-looking hollow, as Archie says it is seldom without some, and the birds were in fine feather and condition; but nobody can clear up the mystery of snipe and woodcocks’ food, as many places which seem perfect lying and feeding grounds for longbills never hold one; while here there is nothing to remark, except the sheltered gloom of the place, and the vivid green^and reds of the mosses.

On the way to the shealing it was proposed to walk by the hill-tops, and get some blue hares. By this season it is not easy to distinguish the young; and Fred, by no means exigeant, fired at every hare he saw; but some leverets were shot.

Being yet early in the afternoon, Archie suggested that we should take a round north by the hill-tops, and get home by another route. So we left the guns, &c., to he taken back, and started.

The walking soon became rather queer—at one place steep and rocky, and at the next down slippery braes or treacherous bogs; but, on the wholfe, it was not unpleasant, as at every new peak we had a fresh breeze and change of view; besides, the heather is seldom tall in these high tops, and we could walk freely, and frequently came on parts as smooth as a cricket-field, if not as level.

We were now in the region of the blue hares, and saw a great many, not without resolve on a grand beat for them some day.

There are no ptarmigan on this side; they are found only on our higher ranges of mountain on the west.

When near the north march, I pointed out to Ward the black wood and my line of journey the other day. Still we did not now go so far, but turned down by some green knolls with rocky faces and great stones strewed about, and where we saw lots of rabbits. Archie says he gets his chief supplies from here, and that we might any day get some good shooting with the ferrets.

On coming down on the low moors, we saw a pair of hen-harriers hunting the ground in a most business-like manner. Archie was intensely disgusted, and declared they were strangers, and not bred on his ground; but there they were, and it is no child’s work to get at the old birds by trap or gun.

It shows the wonderful instinct of birds, to observe how differently grouse will act on seeing the hen harrier, from what they do on seeing the peregrine falcon. When the hen-harrier is observed by the grouse, they fly straight off the hill, as this hawk takes her prey on the ground; but on seeing the peregrine, who flies like the wind, and strikes the grouse on flying, they lie close in the heather, and will scarcely take flight.

A cloth-kite, meant to represent this falcon, is sometimes flown to make birds sit. I have not seen it answer. Possibly it might simulate the hen harrier more than the peregrine, as it appeared to have an opposite effect. But I have seen a real hawk do good service; for one day when shooting partridges, a great covey rose very wild, and were going clear away, when a large hawk made a dash at them, and they took refuge in a tumip-field; and then sat so close that I and a friend made a good bag out of that one field. The same thing happened with ducks at the loch the other day.

An easy walk of a mile or so brought us home ; and a bath and an hour’s rest was a real luxury after the rough hot ramble over so much ground.

When dinner was over, fish and fishing were talked of, to Fred’s satisfaction.

Ward and Major Duncan are great sticklers for nicety in shade and colour of flies; at which I demurred, as I have faith only in shape or size, constantly finding that, on the same day, fish go on taking the most dissimilar flies, and in my own practice I seldom find any good in changing my fly, except it be for another, larger or smaller.

Stoddart (who himself was always nice in his choice of flies) mentions a crack Tweed angler who always used white flies, in the belief that fish could not, from the position of the fly between them and the sky, observe colour; and Stoddart allows he killed as well as others who thought differently. Be that as it may, it is almost an axiom with practised fishers, that salmon and sea-trout do like tinsel and glitter in the lures, while yellow trout are better fished with plain flies, and these generally small ones.

I have often got yellow trout with sea-trout flies, but never many at a time.

Casting should be taught to a novice with rod and line without hooks at first; and, if it be done by a good angler, a few trials should bring tolerable freedom at this, the most essential requisite for an angler.

About playing a fish, I advocated firm measures on the whole. The Major agreed, and explained this to Ward by asking him to hold out a book at arm’s length. A minute or two sufficed, and his arm dropped. “Now,” he said, “give you a second or two of occasional rest, and you could easily keep your arm out for half a day. So with a salmon, give it no rest; for if you do so, only for a minute or two, your work is nearly all to do over again: give him no rest, and he is very soon pumped.”

“To-morrow,” said Ward, “I shall try the steady strain.”

“Do; but you may find a strong salmon in the river is different from those in the loch; the run of the fish, the current, or bad footing—any of them may be peculiar; and you must never force or built/ a fish—just bide your time for persuasive handling.”

“Yet, I have heard of salmon taking an angler miles off before he could get him out.”

“So it is said, even by skilful anglers; but I never happened to see a fish get many hundred yards off from where it was first hooked, and I have been at the death of scores, some of them heavy fish.” “Did you, Major, ever catch a very large salmon?” Fred asked.

“No, Fred, not more than twenty-eight pounds— that was my largest; but good anglers have told me that their big fish were not always the hardest to secure, as they seldom run well; but still the great strength and weight of a large salmon make a long and tedious struggle a certainty.”

I remarked that I had found a twenty-pound salmon and a seven-pound grilse about the sharpest practice; and the Major thought I was near the truth.

“What a pity,” said Ward, “that these same salmon, which give such sport, and are so nice fried in slices, do not get more increased! You, Abbott, have studied the matter; what is likely to be done?” “I can hardly say—plans and theories are numberless; but I think most large clean rivers might be made salmon streams, and in those which now hold fish the quantity be greatly increased.”

“What about their increased food? Ah! that is a puzzling point to some; but you have heard that salmon are never caught with any food in their stomach?”

“Yes,” the Major remarked; “and the common theory is that they disgorge on being hooked, or surrounded with a net.”

“Not my theory, Major. Doubtless they are always empty, and this was confirmed to me by an old fisherman employed for many years in cutting up and pickling salmon, before the ice plan of transit was discovered; but the disgorging theory seems untenable.”


“For two reasons—either of which one might think sufficient to disprove it; and reason number one is, that if, in great takes of salmon, sixty or a hundred fish were to disgorge, the bag of the net would be full of evidence.”

“Hem! some sense in that; and what is reason number two?”

“That after spawning, the kelts, as is well known, eat freely, and do not disgorge, as I have seen many kelts opened before the law was so stringent, and these were all more or less crammed with small trout and other rations; the salmon are then going down the river.”

“But how, then,” asked Ward, “do the fish going up the river keep up their condition?”

“Precisely what they do not do: they lose condition daily from entering the rivers, and the farther on they go, the worse they become; while kelts, again, eat freely, and improve in weight and appearance.”

“That is interesting; but how is it ascertained?” “In the most definite way, by the Duke of Athole and other gentlemen interested. They have a custom, when they get hold of kelts, of attaching minute rings to their dead fin; these rings or plates are marked, and note is kept of the day of capture, and weight of the fish on its being returned to the water. On any fish being recaptured with one of these peculiar rings, either before it gets to the sea or after its return from sea quarters, word is sent to the marker, along with the ring and present weight of. the fish, and this being compared with the note at the time of its first capture, of course it is easy to compute the change the fish has made in the time.”

“Then from all this you would imply that clean salmon after leaving the sea and entering rivers do not feed: pray what did they want with your flies and Major Duncan’s spinning-tackle?”

“To kill a moving object: habit and not hunger; just as a hawk or a ferret will do when it takes its fancy, hungry or not.”

“Reasonable, but puzzling.”

“No’doubt; but Nature arranges that as salmon crowding in the shallows, and occupied with spawning, could not get food, it is provided by Nature that then they do not need food, and are like hybemating animals : their work over, they eat with a vengeance. Clean salmon are ever capricious and uncertain, and while the rivers in autumn teem with fish, you mil often not get a rise: had they been like hungry kelts, that would never happen.”

“Queer business! Why, salmon culture and manhood suffrage might occupy parliament for a century. I suppose it is late? Ah, yes. No rubber to-night.” On going to the door we saw it was a lovely night, the bright stars and the new moon shining in quiet glory; but we had a day’s salmon-fishing before us, and did not remain long out.

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