The Supercilious Salmon
THE salmon came through the pool’s surface like a projectile hurled into a mirror, smashing bright tranquillity, bursting coherent reflections into fragments.
His shuddering body hung for a second’s fraction at the summit of his leap and fell as destructively as it had risen. Where, an instant before, had been placidity, were now clashing waters and dilating ripples and the sword slash of a stiff line. Where my heart had beaten with regularity and numerous internal human organs had gone unobtrusively about their appointed tasks, reigned anarchy.
I had no stomach. Someone had thrown out the clutch of my pulse and stepped on the accelerator. Chills assailed me, and yet the hand that fumbled at the reel was unreliable with sweat. There were, as I remember, also spots and flashes before the eyes, vertigo, and prolapsus of the lungs, so that the whoop I tried to give, half triumph, half appeal, emerged as only a quavering and inconsiderable wheeze.
The salmon leaped again and shook himself violently in mid-air. The things I babbled were not profanity. They were prayer, the most ardent and earnest of orisons; for he was my first salmon, and my friends who had fished that pool in vain had withdrawn disgruntled and had taken the net with them. Here, where dusty rafters of sunlight slanting serenely through fir branches mocked the turmoil in the stream and in me, I faced my travail alone, unguided, uncounseled, unequipped with any landing apparatus whatever.
The salmon bored across the pool, and my reel and nerves skirled together. He leaped again and my heart imitated his jump. Faintly glazed eyes observed the tremulous arc of the rod. Fingers that bungled and slipped reeled in six feet of line and lost twenty as he drove upstream; regained ten and were robbed of fifteen more as he wheeled and ran the other way. There was sweat in my eyes; there was ague in my limbs. A voice, shrill and strained, dinned: ‘Keep cool. Keep cool, you sap. Play him. Keep cool.” It was some time before I recognized it as my own.
I did not keep cool, though I shivered violently. I did not even keep my head. It was strength of tackle rather than of nerve that held the big fish fast. The leader had cost three dollars, but when he slapped it in mid-air with his tail and it still held firm it was worth fifteen. The rod that bent double and did not break redoubled its not inconsiderable original value. By the grace of whatever saint preserves the ’dub’ fisherman, I kept from tangling my line or tripping over my feet. The voice that yammered admonitions continued. ‘Watch yourself. Don’t take chances. Tire him out,’ it commanded, and by the break in its cadence I was aware dimly that its owner was on the verge of hysteria.
We tired together, but the salmon grew completely weary first. Thrice I towed him in to the sand bar and twice he exploded into fresh activity when he felt the rasp of gravel on his belly.
And then, when I grasped the leader which had become more precious than spun platinum and drew that incredible, gleaming torpedo up on the bar and he flopped mightily in protest and beat up foam with his tail, all that I had learned from schools and parents and the chain of ancestors who had borne my body up from the ooze fell away.
A plump, middle-aged person of sedentary tastes and occupation abandoned the heritage of a million years, hurled himself upon his prey, and, clamping the still thumping victim between his knees, gripped it by the throat and beat its head upon a rock. It was, as I have said, my first salmon.
The slaughter was over. I sat beside the slaughtered while breath and pulse regained sobriety. Sanity returned, and, with it, faint disquietude.
There I was and there was the salmon — consummation of long weeks’ planning, considerable cash outlay, a thousand-mile journey. There was the salmon, dream of two decades made flesh; the solid foundation for whatever structures of mendacity I might later care to build; the diploma of the highest degree the fly fisherman can attain.
The last ripple had faded from the pool. The reflection of a pagoda-like fir was embedded therein once more. A chickadee thrust the bright needle of his song through the dull sound of rapids. Here was the high, desired moment, and, like all realized exaltation, it disconcerted by its lack of height. I lit my pipe with hands that still shook a little. I had caught a salmon — I, myself. And what of it?
On the threshold of forty, I was tasting again a half-forgotten, abhorrent savor — the bitter ash of anticlimax so familiar to youth that still believes in ideals. All youngsters know the flavor — the gritty, disillusioning adulterant that turns the optimist into the insurgent. Forty encounters it rarely, and Forty’s seniors almost never. It vanishes when one stops pursuing and overtaking dreams.
There was the salmon, broad of back and girth, and there was I who had caught him, alone, unaided by net or gaff. Internally I should have been chanting a vainglorious Te Deum, Actually I was inclined to add another and more mordant chapter to Ecclesiastes. Mine was not the distaste of age, but the revulsion of youth—credulous, trustful, overeager, overexhorted youth. I had done the thing I had dreamed for years and read about for years and talked of for years.
‘ Salmon ? I ’ ve caught ’em. The only real fishing.’
‘Vacation? Oh, I killed salmon in Gaspé.’
‘Trout are good little fish, but after all, salmon —’
These and kindred utterances now were my inalienable right. What was the matter with me, anyway? What did I want?
Too much. Salmon fishing was the best fun I ever had had, and yet, it fell short of expectation. Folk who had written books on salmon, people from my grandsire down who had told me about the joys of such fishing, had oversold me. In some ways I had achieved adulthood. As far as fishing was concerned, I still belonged to the younger generation. I was discovering once more what I had learned many times already: existence is too much pressagented.
Youth is most familiar with that truth — which is why youth so frequently becomes insurgent. Elders, instructing the young, deal with a large carelessness in superlatives of commendation or denunciation; and sooner or later the instructed, the believing, discover the world is not limned entirely in primary colors; that the wages of sin or virtue are neither certain nor bound to a union scale.
No wonder the younger generation so often embarks upon reprisal and treads with demoniac zest upon the pet corns of the self-appointed lawgivers. There is nothing more vindictive than betrayed credulity.
On a sand bar in the Malbaie River in Gaspé, I sat beside my first salmon and felt, uncomfortably, resentfully juvenile. The pangs were the more intense because I had not experienced them for years. Eager credence and fine idealism are not hall marks of the thirties. By the time one is through that decade, one should have learned to accept even fishing information with reservations. And yet, there was I, filling up with youth’s disgust at the specious words of age, disgusted with my own recent ingenuousness; disgusted, though to a lesser extent, even with my first salmon.
There was the red disfigurement of a half-healed wound on his side. His eyes popped; his mouth was open in an expression of inane surprise. A bluebottle fly crept along the dulling silver of his side, and a gnat, impervious to fly dope, bit me on the neck.
Was this what I had endured and spent much to attain ? Was this the pinnacle of all fishing experience over which authorities threw conscientious fits of ecstasy in articles and in books and in conversation?
Was n’t he a good fish? He was. By far the largest of any variety I ever had caught. Did n’t he fight, valiantly? He did; and most spectacularly, in the bargain. The wear and tear of his capture on my nervous and arterial systems probably had shortened my existence by several weeks. What, then, was the trouble? Why was n’t I carting my prize downstream to display him to my awed companions instead of sitting resentfully beside him? Well, because he had n’t fought as hard as all the people I had implicitly believed had said he would.
I ignored the fact that if he had fought even a little harder I never should have landed him. It was true I had teetered on the rim of collapse before I had got him safely ashore, but — and here was the trouble — my frenzy had been due less to his prowess than to what I, infatuatedly believing the words of Authority, expected he was going to do.
I had forgotten that nothing is ever quite as good as our elders say it is. Smarting with a sense of credulity betrayed, I was in the mood to take a youngster’s revenge upon his deceivers. I yearned to affront all salmon fishermen by discrediting and ‘debunking’ salmon.
Instead, I caught more salmon. My sole sober criticism of their fighting qualities is that they are n’t as good as enthusiasts say — a comment that applies to practically all the affairs of earth. Pound for pound, they probably equal brook trout, which is not the pinnacle of fish valor, yet is very good indeed.
It was not their strength and fire that led me to abandon reprisals upon elders in experience who had betrayed me once more with their too superlative recommendation. By the aquamarine waters of the Malbaie, I discovered an affinity between salmon and senescence. There is, I am sure, kinship between the great sea-roving, stream-running fish and our seniors. Catching salmon is something more than mere angling. It is a symbolic ceremony whereby the fisherman sublimates whatever insurgent grudge he may cherish against a stodgy, reactionary world. It is a more satisfactory revenge upon dictatorial, conventional authority than writing free verse or upholding free love — and much less painful for the innocent bystander.
The pools of a salmon river are mirrors of human nature. The avatar of didactical Elder Wisdom is neither the dodo nor the fossil, but Salmo solar, the arbitrary, the supercilious, the pompous fish who, by the same tactics our mortal seniors employ, turns the angler, whatever his age, into a temporary member of the younger generation. Hooking a salmon has a thrill identical with the retributive zest youth feels in assailing the convictions and conventions and smug self-esteem of age.
Salmon are old gentlemen who, as penalty for the amount of inaccurate information they have crowded on their human juniors, have been set back innumerable rungs on the ladder of reincarnation. Salmon, when in another form they dwelt among us, wore round cuffs and high-crowned derbies. They voted a straight political ticket under all circumstances, and sat in the windows of their clubs, staring out with eyes that horridly foreshadowed their post-mortem fate. They believed that the ultimate word on morality was uttered from Sinai and that the world’s store of virtue and courage and righteousness had been exhausted when their own generation had been supplied therewith. They were offensive people. They are offensive fish.
The salmon has his own ideas. No perceptible logic or consistency governs them, but that makes no difference.
The mortal who thinks he understands the tenets of salmon conduct is ripe for humiliation. The best fishing weather we had in Gaspé — so termed by a grizzled salmon expert — yielded not one single fish. On a subsequent morning, when the sun was so bright and the air so still that we were told it was vanity to rig our rods, two of us caught six in a single hour. Salmon prejudice is as dogmatic and incomprehensible to man as the standards of Sixty are to Twenty-five.
Harder to bear than the fishes’ unpredictable tastes is their excoriating disdain. Of all the water creatures I have encountered, they possess least interest in or respect for the world of human beings.
Trout, when the slightest motion or glimpse betrays the fisherman’s presence, shoot away to cover, darting into crevices with all the symptoms of panic, sliding sidewise under flat rocks if no other refuge offers. Bass and even pike show a heartening fear of men. Salmon ignore us.
They will rest in a pool, dusky, cigarshaped creatures; immobile, arrogant, indifferent alike to the fly you cast, to the noise you make, and even to a fulllength view of you, swearing at them from the bank. No stir of fin, no tremor of body, betrays recognition of your presence. Hour after hour they will lie thus, occasionally yawning as you fish over them. All they require is a set of piscatorial overstaffed furniture and a submarine portrait of General Grant to resemble members of a Union League Club.
A dozen fish rested in the Upper Pool and regarded the flies I offered with a cold, nose-elevated apathy. I cast and sweated and fumed, and, as often happens, at the nadir of my despair one of the smaller salmon snapped peevishly at the Black Dose I dragged past his nose.
Deportment, for a split second, was forgotten. There was a wild screech from my reel as he headed upstream, He leaped and shook himself free. Chagrined, I surveyed the remaining members. They had not stirred from their places. Their associate’s brief frenzy had not moved them in the least. Rather, they seemed more utterly reputable and permanent. They wore the expressions of chronic club members whose fellow has belched loudly in the holy quiet of the reading room.
‘Affronting, begad, but after all, the rest of us are gentlemen, sir.’
Presently the largest of the assemblage swam slowly and purposefully away. I have no doubt he went to lodge complaint with the house committee.
Confronted by such frigid and oblivious piscine behavior, the most solidly conservative mortal relapses sometimes into reprehensible insurgency.
Izaak approaches his fishing as a priest prepares for Mass, with solemnity and an air of dedication. He rigs scrupulously and his casts have the smooth perfection of long-practised ritual. No one can fish with Izaak without resolving secretly to try to be a better angler. Most admirable is his calm in moments of stress when his rod is two thirds of a circle and his reel utters long excited screams. Izaak’s chief thrill in angling is derived from not displaying any.
He was fishing that wide dilation of the Malbaie which we had misnamed the Pigpen Pool in honor of a porker behind a near-by habitant’s cottage who profaned with obscene noises the august enterprise of casting salmon flies. The salmon, by some mysterious sense of obligation, had all deserted the quieter water to lie in a long procession, motionless and breath-taking, where the tail of the upper rapid troubled the quiet. Fifty big fish at least had ranked themselves thus, and, knee deep on a shoal, Izaak cast across the assemblage.
His was the activity of a beautifully balanced machine. Rhythm, grace, and economy of effort were here. No salmon in the Malbaie ever had been more deftly wooed, or with more versatility. In two hours Izaak employed every entry in his imposing library of feathers. Softly as the fall of mist his flies kissed the water, darted or drifted, ran upstream, downstream, across stream, a fashion show of lures such as even the biggest fish in that long dusky line never before had witnessed — and no single salmon among them stirred.
Scornful, inert save for an occasional flicker of fins or a vast, white-lipped yawn, they hung in the current, voicing by their utter self-satisfaction and disdain the quintessence of affront. Minute by minute the contest in self-control went on as Izaak offered flies with continuous artistry and the salmon kept immobilely aloof. Then the man’s reserve was exhausted by the inviolable indifference of the fish.
Izaak sloshed ashore. He laid down the rod from which magic apparently had flown. Face contorted, body jerking with wrath, he picked up a boulder which in his more sober moments he would have had difficulty in raising and, like the embattled Ajax, hurled it in upon that arrogant school of fish. Through the mighty splash sounded the voice of the hitherto impeccable angler.
‘Damn you, move!’ it squalled.
As he clumped toward me, he wore the wan yet joyful expression of one who has obtained relief from insupportable stress.
‘Well,’ he grinned, ‘I got them to notice me, anyway.’
Izaak, an admirably consistent conservative, was not aware that he had epitomized the conduct of all young insurgents whose manners and morals and methods he himself affects to scorn. Even the most unassuming mortal likes to have some attention paid him and his efforts. You can’t blame youth, which rarely underestimates itself, for throwing rocks into the ranks of its smugly oblivious elders.
This same hunger of the ego makes the actual catching of a salmon so stirring an enterprise. Plus the excitement of fighting a powerful antagonist, plus the beauty and drama of battle, are other satisfactions — resentment at last satiated, snubs finally repaid, nosetilting haughtiness at length shattered. Salmon fishing is kin to communism, Dadaism, impressionism, and most of the isms with which modernity is afflicted. These defiances of convention are the lures whereby exhibitionist youth hooks reactionary age and forces it to pay vehement attention.
Age and salmon, once aroused, are vehement in the extreme, the only difference between their reactions being that the protests of the former are verbal, or else embodied in letters to the Times, and the latter expresses his sense of affront by going around the pool first on one end and then on the other.
The angler’s thought when the barb strikes home is a violent but, I am afraid, low glee: ’I’ve got him, I’ve got him, and for all his pose and poise and augustness and austerity, he’s just a fish, after all!’
The salmon dives away like a torpedo; he goes skyward and falls back with a crash of white water; he flops and dodges and heaves and twists; he rolls over on a line and slaps it with his tail. He behaves with the utmost scandal and indecency. All the arrogant superciliousness has vanished. He is no longer a creature of superior emotions and impeccable conduct. He is just a fish, deporting himself like other members of his tribe in like circumstances, and part of the zest in catching him, in turning dignity into a frenzied combination of submarine and skyrocket, is the reprehensible yet wholly human joy at seeing a fine, smug, reactionary old gentleman sit down on a tack.
That, I believe, is the true reason why folk who can’t really afford it go thousands of miles to kill salmon. You can buy toothsome fish infinitely more cheaply. Sport is only a minor motive. Pound for pound, the salmon is no better than the squaretail, and a little lower than the rainbow and smallmouth bass.
You take salmon — or anyway, I take salmon — because of an entirely pagan delight in smashing the reserve of proud and pompous and immensely self-approving creatures. It is the same retributive zest that has kept the generations from mutual understanding since the disparaged Cain called attention to himself.
More of the elderly should fish for salmon. It is a sport manifestly designed for the heavy in years and in purse. Beside a salmon river they can learn much of themselves and their relations with their juniors, and why these are, as they always have been, strained and difficult.
Gentlemen of age and solidified opinion and self-satisfaction will find their behavior duplicated in Salmo salar, and, observing this community of demeanor and deportment, they may deal more kindly with their juniors and restore to the stream the majority of the great shining fish they manage to land.