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Tweedside

The story of the following adventure, this deplorable confession, one may say, will not have been written in vain if it impresses on young minds the supreme necessity of carefulness about details. Let the “casual” and regardless who read it, the gatless, as they say in Suffolk, ponder the lesson which it teaches: a lesson which no amount of bitter experience has ever impressed on the unprincipled narrator. Never do anything carelessly whether in fishing or in golf, and carry this important maxim even into the most serious affairs of life. Many a battle has been lost, no doubt, by lack of ammunition, or by plenty of ammunition which did not happen to suit the guns; and many a salmon has been lost, ay, and many a trout, for want of carefulness, and through a culpable inattention to the soundness of your gut, and tackle generally. What fiend is it that prompts a man just to try a hopeless cast, in a low water, without testing his tackle? As sure as you do that, up comes the fish, and with his first dash breaks your casting line, and leaves you lamenting. This doctrine I preach, being my own “awful example.” “Bad and careless little boy,” my worthy master used to say at school; and he would have provoked a smile in other circumstances. But Mr. Trotter, of the Edinburgh Academy, had something about him (he usually carried it in the tail-pocket of his coat) which inspired respect and discouraged ribaldry. Would that I had listened to Mr. Trotter; would that I had corrected, in early life, the happy-go-lucky disposition to scatter my Greek accents, as it were, with a pepper-caster, to fish with worn tackle, and, generally, to make free with the responsibilities of life and literature. It is too late to amend, but others may learn wisdom from this spectacle of deserved misfortune and absolute discomfiture.

I am not myself a salmon-fisher, though willing to try that art again, and though this is a tale of salmon. To myself the difference between angling for trout and angling for salmon is like the difference between a drawing of Lionardo’s, in silver point, and a loaded landscape by MacGilp, R.A. Trout-fishing is all an idyll, all delicacy, that is, trout-fishing on the Test or on the Itchen. You wander by clear water, beneath gracious poplar-trees, unencumbered with anything but a slim rod of Messrs. Hardy’s make, and a light toy-box of delicate flies. You need seldom wade, and the water is shallow, the bottom is of silver gravel. You need not search all day at random, but you select a rising trout, and endeavour to lay the floating fly delicately over him. If you part with him, there is always another feeding merrily:

Invenies alium si te hic fastidit.

It is like an excursion into Corot’s country, it is rich in memories of Walton and Cotton: it is a dream of peace, and they bring you your tea by the riverside. In salmon-fishing, on the Tweed at least, all is different. The rod, at all events the rod which some one kindly lent me, is like a weaver’s beam. The high heavy wading trousers and boots are even as the armour of the giant of Gath. You have to plunge waist deep, or deeper, into roaring torrents, and if the water be at all “drumly” you have not an idea where your next step may fall. It may be on a hidden rock, or on a round slippery boulder, or it may be into a deep “pot” or hole. The inexperienced angler staggers like a drunken man, is occasionally drowned, and more frequently is ducked. You have to cast painfully, with steep precipitous banks behind you, all overgrown with trees, with bracken, with bramble. It is a boy’s work to disentangle the fly from the branches of ash and elm and pine. There is no delicacy, and there is a great deal of exertion in all this. You do not cast subtilely over a fish which you know is there, but you swish, swish, all across the current, with a strong reluctance to lift the line after each venture and try another. The small of the back aches, and it is literally in the sweat of your brow that you take your diversion. After all, there are many blank days, when the salmon will look at no fly, or when you encounter the Salmo irritans, who rises with every appearance of earnest good-will, but never touches the hook, or, if he does touch it, runs out a couple of yards of line, and vanishes for ever. What says the poet?

There’s an accommodating fish,
In pool or stream, by rock or pot,
Who rises frequent as you wish,
At “Popham,” “Parson,” or “Jock Scott,”
Or almost any fly you’ve got
In all the furred and feathered clans.
You strike, but ah, you strike him not
He is the Salmo irritans!

It may be different in Norway or on the lower casts of the Tweed, as at Floors, or Makerstoun; but higher up the country, in Scott’s own country, at Yair or Ashiesteil, there is often a terrible amount of fruitless work to be done. And I doubt if, except in throwing a very long line, and knowing the waters by old experience, there is very much skill in salmon-fishing. It is all an affair of muscle and patience. The choice of flies is almost a pure accident. Every one believes in the fly with which he has been successful. These strange combinations of blues, reds, golds, of tinsel and worsted, of feathers and fur, are purely fantastic articles. They are like nothing in nature, and are multiplied for the fanciful amusement of anglers. Nobody knows why salmon rise at them; nobody knows why they will bite on one day and not on another, or rather, on many others. It is not even settled whether we should use a bright fly on a bright day, and a dark fly on a dark day, as Dr. Hamilton advises, or reverse the choice as others use. Muscles and patience, these, I repeat, are the only ingredients of ultimate success.

However, one does do at Rome as the Romans do, and fishes for salmon in Tweed when the nets are off in October, when the yellowing leaves begin to fall, and when that beautiful reach of wooded valley from Elibank to the meeting of Tweed and Ettrick is in the height of its autumnal charm. Why has Yarrow been so much more besung than Tweed, in spite of the greater stream’s far greater and more varied loveliness? The fatal duel in the Dowie Dens of Yarrow and the lamented drowning of Willie there have given the stream its ‘pastoral melancholy,’ and engaged Wordsworth in the renown of the water. For the poetry of Tweed we have chiefly, after Scott, to thank Mr. Stoddart, its loyal minstrel. “Dearer than all these to me,” he says about our other valleys, “is sylvan Tweed.”

Let ither anglers choose their ain,
And ither waters tak’ the lead
O’ Hieland streams we covet nane,
But gie to us the bonny Tweed;
And gie to us the cheerfu’ burn,
That steals into its valley fair,
The streamlets that, at ilka turn,
Sae saftly meet and mingle there.

He kept his promise, given in the following verse:

And I, when to breathe is a labour, and joy
Forgets me, and life is no longer the boy,
On the labouring staff, and the tremorous knee,
Will wander, bright river, to thee!

Life is always “the boy” when one is beside the Tweed. Times change, and we change, for the worse. But the river changes little. Still he courses through the keen and narrow rocks beneath the bridge of Yair.

From Yair, which hills so closely bind,
Scarce can the Tweed his passage find,
Though much he fret, and chafe, and toil,
Till all his eddying currents boil.

Still the water loiters by the long boat-pool of Yair, as though loath to leave the drooping boughs of the elms. Still it courses with a deep eddy through the Elm Wheel, and ripples under Fernilea, where the author of the “Flowers of the Forest” lived in that now mouldering and roofless hall, with the peaked turrets. Still Neidpath is fair, Neidpath of the unhappy maid, and still we mark the tiny burn at Ashiesteil, how in November,

Murmuring hoarse, and frequent seen,
Through bush and briar, no longer green,
An angry brook, it sweeps the glade,
Brawls over rock and wild cascade,
And foaming brown, with doubled speed,
Hurries its waters to the Tweed.

Still the old tower of Elibank is black and strong in ruin; Elibank, the home of that Muckle Mou’d Meg, who made Harden after all a better bride than he would have found in the hanging ash-tree of her father. These are unaltered, mainly, since Scott saw them last, and little altered is the homely house of Ashiesteil, where he had been so happy. And we, too, feel but little change among those scenes of long ago, those best-beloved haunts of boyhood, where we have had so many good days and bad, days of rising trout and success; days of failure, and even of half-drowning.

One cannot reproduce the charm of the strong river in pool and stream, of the steep rich bank that it rushes or lingers by, of the green and heathery hills beyond, or the bare slopes where the blue slate breaks through among the dark old thorn-trees, remnants of the forest. It is all homely and all haunted, and, if a Tweedside fisher might have his desire, he would sleep the long sleep in the little churchyard that lies lonely above the pool of Caddon-foot, and hard by Christopher North’s favourite quarters at Clovenfords.

However, while we are still on earth, Caddon-foot is more attractive for her long sweep of salmon-pool, the home of sea-trout too, than precisely for her kirk-yard. There will be time enough for that, and time it is to recur to the sad story of the big fish and the careless angler. It was about the first day of October, and we had enjoyed a “spate.” Salmon fishing is a mere child of the weather; with rain almost anybody may raise fish, without it all art is apt to be vain. We had been blessed with a spate. On Wednesday the Tweed had been roaring red from bank to bank. Salmon fishing was wholly out of the question, and it is to be feared that the innumerable trout-fishers, busy on every eddy, were baiting with salmon roe, an illegal lure. On Thursday the red tinge had died out of the water, but only a very strong wader would have ventured in; others had a good chance, if they tried it, of being picked up at Berwick. Friday was the luckless day of my own failure and broken heart. The water was still very heavy and turbid, a frantic wind was lashing the woods, heaps of dead leaves floated down, and several sheaves of corn were drifted on the current. The long boat-pool at Yair, however, is sheltered by wooded banks, and it was possible enough to cast, in spite of the wind’s fury. We had driven from a place about five miles distant, and we had not driven three hundred yards before I remembered that we had forgotten the landing-net. But, as I expected nothing, it did not seem worth while to go back for this indispensable implement. We reached the waterside, and found that the trout were feeding below the pendent branches of the trees and in the quiet, deep eddies of the long boat-pool. One cannot see rising trout without casting over them, in preference to labouring after salmon, so I put up a small rod and diverted myself from the bank. It was to little purpose. Tweed trout are now grown very shy and capricious; even a dry fly failed to do any execution worth mentioning. Conscience compelled me, as I had been sent out by kind hosts to fish for salmon, not to neglect my orders. The armour, the ponderous gear of the fisher, was put on with the enormous boots, and the gigantic rod was equipped. Then came the beginning of sorrows. We had left the books of salmon flies comfortably reposing at home. We had also forgotten the whiskey flask. Everything, in fact, except cigarettes, had been left behind. Unluckily, not quite everything: I had a trout fly-book, and therein lay just one large salmon fly, not a Tweed fly, but a lure that is used on the beautiful and hopeless waters of the distant Ken, in Galloway. It had brown wings, a dark body, and a piece of jungle-cock feather, and it was fastened to a sea-trout casting-line. Now, if I had possessed no salmon flies at all, I must either have sent back for some, or gone on innocently dallying with trout. But this one wretched fly lured me to my ruin. I saw that the casting-line had a link which seemed rather twisted. I tried it; but, in the spirit of Don Quixote with his helmet, I did not try it hard. I waded into the easiest-looking part of the pool, just above a huge tree that dropped its boughs to the water, and began casting, merely from a sense of duty. I had not cast a dozen times before there was a heavy, slow plunge in the stream, and a glimpse of purple and azure.

“That’s him,” cried a man who was trouting on the opposite bank. Doubtless it was “him,” but he had not touched the hook. I believe the correct thing would have been to wait for half an hour, and then try the fish with a smaller fly. But I had no smaller fly, no other fly at all. I stepped back a few paces, and fished down again. In Major Traherne’s work I have read that the heart leaps, or stands still, or otherwise betrays an uncomfortable interest, when one casts for the second time over a salmon which has risen. I cannot honestly say that I suffered from this tumultuous emotion. “He will not come again,” I said, when there was a long heavy drag at the line, followed by a shrieking of the reel, as in Mr. William Black’s novels. Let it be confessed that the first hooking of a salmon is an excitement unparalleled in trout-fishing. There have been anglers who, when the salmon was once on, handed him over to the gillie to play and land. One would like to act as gillie to those lordly amateurs. My own fish rushed down stream, where the big tree stands. I had no hope of landing him if he took that course, because one could neither pass the rod under the boughs, nor wade out beyond them. But he soon came back, while one took in line, and discussed his probable size with the trout-fisher opposite. His size, indeed! Nobody knows what it was, for when he had come up to the point whence he had started, he began a policy of violent short tugs, not “jiggering,” as it is called, but plunging with all his weight on the line. I had clean forgotten the slimness of the tackle, and, as he was clearly well hooked, held him perhaps too hard. Only a very raw beginner likes to take hours over landing a fish. Perhaps I held him too tight: at all events, after a furious plunge, back came the line; the casting line had snapped at the top link.

There was no more to be said or done, except to hunt for another fly in the trout fly-book. Here there was no such thing, but a local spectator offered me a huge fly, more like a gaff, and equipped with a large iron eye for attaching the gut to. Withal I suspect this weapon was meant, not for fair fishing, but for “sniggling.” Now “sniggling” is a form of cold-blooded poaching. In the open water, on the Ettrick, you may see half a dozen snigglers busy. They all wear high wading trousers; they are all armed with stiff salmon-rods and huge flies. They push the line and the top joints of the rod deep into the water, drag it along, and then bring the hook out with a jerk. Often it sticks in the side of a salmon, and in this most unfair and unsportsmanlike way the free sport of honest people is ruined, and fish are diminished in number. Now, the big fly may have been an honest character, but he was sadly like a rake-hook in disguise. He did not look as if an fish could fancy him. I, therefore, sent a messenger across the river to beg, buy, or borrow a fly at “The Nest.” But this pretty cottage is no longer the home of the famous angling club, which has gone a mile or two up the water and builded for itself a new dwelling. My messenger came back with one small fatigued-looking fly, a Popham, I think, which had been lent by some one at a farmhouse. The water was so heavy that the small fly seemed useless; however, we fastened it on as a dropper, using the sniggler as the trail fly; so exhausted were our resources, that I had to cut a piece of gut off a minnow tackle and attach the small fly to that. The tiny gut loop of the fly was dreadfully frayed, and with a heavy heart I began fishing again. My friend on the opposite side called out that big fish were rising in the bend of the stream, so thither I went, stumbling over rocks, and casting with much difficulty, as the high overgrown banks permit no backward sweep of the line. You are obliged to cast by a kind of forward thrust of the arms, a knack not to be acquired in a moment. I splashed away awkwardly, but at last managed to make a straight, clean cast. There was a slight pull, such as a trout gives in mid-stream under water. I raised the point, and again the reel sang aloud and gleefully as the salmon rushed down the stream farther and faster than the first. It is a very pleasant thing to hook a salmon when you are all alone, as I was then, alone with yourself and the Goddess of Fishing. This salmon, just like the other, now came back, and instantly began the old tactics of heavy plunging tugs. But I knew the gut was sound this time, and as I fancied he had risen to the sniggler, I had no anxiety about the tackle holding. One more plunge, and back came the line as before. He was off. One could have sat down and gnawed the reel. What had gone wrong? Why, the brute had taken the old fly from the farmhouse and had snapped the loop that attaches the gut. The little loop was still on the fragment of minnow tackle which fastened it to the cast.

There was no more chance, for there were now no more flies, except a small “cobbery,” a sea-trout fly from the Sound of Mull. It was time for us to go, with a heavy heart and a basket empty, except for two or three miserable trout. The loss of those two salmon, whether big or little fish, was not the whole misfortune. All the chances of the day were gone, and seldom have salmon risen so freely. I had not been casting long enough to smoke half a cigarette, when I hooked each of those fish. They rose at flies which were the exact opposites of each other in size, character, and colour. They were ready to rise at anything but the sniggler. And I had nothing to offer them, absolutely nothing bigger than a small red-spinner from the Test. On that day a fisher, not far off, hooked nine salmon and landed four of them, in one pool, I never had such a chance before; the heavy flood and high wind had made the salmon as “silly” as perch. One might have caught half a dozen of the great sturdy fellows, who make all trout, even sea-trout, seem despicable minnows. Next day I fished again in the same water, with a friend. I rose a fish, but did not hook it, and he landed a small one, five minutes after we started, and we only had one other rise all the rest of the day. Probably it was not dark and windy enough, but who can explain the caprices of salmon? The only certain thing is, that carelessness always brings misfortune; that if your tackle is weak fish will hook themselves on days, and in parts of the water, where you expected nothing, and then will go away with your fly and your casting-lines. Fortune never forgives. He who is lazy, and takes no trouble because he expects no fish, will always be meeting heart-breaking adventures. One should never make a hopeless or careless cast; bad luck lies in wait for that kind of performance. These are the experiences that embitter a man, as they embittered Dean Swift, who, old and ill, neglected and in Irish exile, still felt the pang of losing a great trout when he was a boy. What pleasure is there in landscape and tradition when such accidents befall you?

The sun upon the Weirdlaw hill,
In Ettrick’s vale is sinking sweet.

There is a fire of autumn colour in the tufted woods that embosom Fernilea. “Bother the setting sun,” we say, and the Maid of Neidpath, and the “Flowers of the Forest,” and the memories of Scott at Ashiesteil, and of Muckle Mou’d Meg, at Elibank. These are filmy, shadowy pleasures of the fancy, these cannot minister to the mind of him who has been “broken” twice, who cannot resume the contest for want of ammunition, and who has not even brought the creature-comfort of a flask. Since that woful day I have lain on the bank and watched excellent anglers skilfully flogging the best of water, and that water full of fish, without hooking one. Salmon-fishing, then, is a matter of chance, or of plodding patience. They will rise on one day at almost any fly (but the sniggler), however ill-presented to them. On a dozen other days no fly and no skill will avail to tempt them. The salmon is a brainless brute and the grapes are sour!

If only the gut had held, this sketch would have ended with sentiment, and a sunset, and the music of Ettrick, the melody of Tweed. In the gloaming we’d be roaming homeward, telling, perhaps, the story of the ghost seen by Sir Walter Scott near Ashiesteil, or discussing the Roman treasure still buried near Oakwood Tower, under an inscribed stone which men saw fifty years ago. Or was it a treasure of Michael Scott’s, who lived at Oakwood, says tradition? Let Harden dig for Harden’s gear, it is not for me to give hints as to its whereabouts. After all that ill-luck, to be brief, one is not in the vein for legendary lore, nor memories of boyhood, nor poetry, nor sunsets. I do not believe that one ever thinks of the landscape or of anything else, while there is a chance for a fish, and no abundance of local romance can atone for an empty creel. Poetical fishers try to make people believe these fallacies; perhaps they impose on themselves; but if one would really enjoy landscape, one should leave, not only the fly-book and the landing-net, but the rod and reel at home. And so farewell to the dearest and fairest of all rivers that go on earth, fairer than Eurotas or Sicilian Anapus with its sea-trout; farewell, for who knows how long? to the red-fringed Gleddis-wheel, the rock of the Righ-wheel, the rushing foam of the Gullets, the woodland banks of Caddon-foot.

The valleys of England are wide,
Her rivers rejoice every one,
In grace and in beauty they glide,
And water-flowers float at their side,
As they gleam in the rays of the sun.

But where are the speed and the spray
The dark lakes that welter them forth,
Tree and heath nodding over their way
The rock and the precipice grey,
That bind the wild streams of the North?

Well, both, are good, the streams of north and south, but he who has given his heart to the Tweed, as did Tyro, in Homer, to the Enipeus will never change his love.

P.S. That Galloway fly, “The Butcher and Lang” has been avenged. A copy of him, on the line of a friend, has proved deadly on the Tweed, killing, among other victims, a sea-trout of thirteen pounds.



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