My Best Hour of Fishing

EVENING is the best time to cast for trout in the small stream which runs down the valley, a few yards away from my cottage door. For, as the low sun lengthens the shadows of the oaks in the deer park, the spinners appear over the trout stream.

A spinner is a water fly rising and falling regularly in flight as it prepares to lay its eggs on the water. It is a beautiful, delicate, ethereal creature, subsisting only on air and sunlight during its brief wingèd life since hatching from the river bed in the morning. These ephemeral flies live, usually, only a few hours; and at evening you see them rising and falling over the water, dropping their eggs until, exhausted, they sink down and, with wings spread flat, drift away with the current, and so out of life — their cycle or racial purpose completed.

I was standing still by the bend of the river, a rod in my hand, and watching the fast run of water slowing up into deeper water below. I was about to make my first cast into the run. The river running through the deer park is only a few miles from its source on Exmoor, and in summer the water is usually low, and generally clear, except when cattle in the morning and afternoon heats have been cooling themselves under the shade of alders. Toward evening any slight cloudiness has settled, however, and the river runs clear, so that in the glides one can see every stone and speck of gravel, every tiny red-spotted samlet of that spring’s hatching. During January and the early part of February the water had been high, and salmon coming in from the Atlantic had been able to run much farther up the river than usual at the beginning of the year. As the river became smaller in April, they sought the deepest water they could find. And as the river shrank during May and June they were forced to spend most of the daylight under the muddy roots of the waterside alders, waiting for twilight and cooler water and safety from the glare of day.

There was a solitary salmon lodged under a clump of roots a few yards below where I was standing at the bend. The water was about two feet deep only — and that salmon was trapped.

I had been watching that fish for more than two months. Its life was one of solitary confinement. When it had first appeared, it had been a bluish silver, and very lively; now it was a pinkish brown, and obviously dejected. I could usually see its tail sticking out of the roots about eleven o’clock in the morning, before the shadow of a branch hid it. And if I went to the bridge again about noon I was likely to see the salmon sidle out of the roots, turn slowly into the shallow current, idle there like a great trout for a few moments, its back fin out of water, and then gather way while it prepared for a leap — a great splash, and it had fallen back, and the narrow river rocked and rippled with the impact. After remaining in midstream for a minute or so, the fish would drift back toward its hiding place, in obvious dejection, and push itself under the roots again.

Now on this particular evening I was standing beside the run, a small seven-foot rod of split cane in my hand. I was about to drop lightly an imitation of a red spinner, tied to a cast of single horsehair, into the run. To a trout this lure of steel and silk and twisted gamecock hackle gave the effect of a live fly; and by this trick I hoped to get my breakfast. But for nearly twenty minutes I had been standing motionless at the bend of the river, hardly daring to move. For when I was about to make my first cast, standing still in water about ten inches deep, the salmon had swum slowly up the run, and paused within a few inches of my feet.

Very slowly I turned my head to watch it. After a while it turned on its side, and sinuated on the gravel, as though trying to scrape away the itch in its gills — from minute fresh-water maggots which were beginning to cluster there. It actually pushed itself against my left boot. Then it idled awhile, before beginning a series of gentle rolling movements, porpoiselike. Then it swam up the run, pushing waves from bank to bank; and, making a slashing turn in water shallower than its own depth, it hurtled down the run again, making a throbbing or thruddling noise as it passed. Entering deeper water again, it leapt, and smacked down on its side. Then up it came once more, lifting half of itself out of water, and idled in the run, maintaining its place with the slightest of slow sinuating movements, scarcely perceptible. I saw a bit of crowfoot weed drifting down. As it passed the fish, it was seized, held in its mouth, then blown out suddenly.

Then the salmon turned round violently to seize it again. It was playing with the weed. I stood there more than an hour, the finest fishing hour of my life, watching that lonely salmon playing by itself— a fish a yard long, imprisoned in a few square yards of space, threatened by asphyxiation in warm water, by gaff of poacher, by beak of heron, by eels which would eat it alive, by disease, by otters, by many other dangers. I watched until dusk, when it moved down into deeper water below.

If it survives, if rain comes to widen and deepen the river, that salmon will wait there, or in a like place, until October, when with others it will spawn, — which means it will spend itself for the future of its race, — and then, in all probability, being a male fish, it will die. Meanwhile it lies there stagnantly throughout the long hot summer days, waiting until the going down of the sun, and twilight, and darkness — full of glowing life, and stars, and cold running water which is its very life.