My Fishpond

IT lies embowered in a little cup of the hills, my fishing pond. I made a last trip to it just as the season ended, when the autumn leaves of its great trees were turning color and rustling down to rest upon the still black water. So steep are the banks, so old and high the trees, that scarcely a puff of wind ever ruffles the surface of the pond. All around, it is as if the world were stilled into silence, and time blended into eternity.

I realized again as I looked at the pond what a beautiful, secluded spot it was, how natural its appeal to the heart of the angler. You turn off a country road, go sideways across a meadow and over a hill, and there it lies — a sheet of still water, with high, high banks, grown with great trees. Long years ago someone built a sawmill, all gone now, at the foot of the valley and threw back the water to make a pond, perhaps a quarter of a mile long. At the widest it must be nearly two hundred feet — the most skillful fisherman may make a full cast both ways. At the top end, where it runs narrow among stumps and rushes, there is no room to cast except with direction and great skill.

Let me say at once, so as to keep no mystery about it, that there are no fish in my pond. So far as I know there never have been. But I have never found that to make any difference. Certainly none to the men I bring there — my chance visitors from the outside world — for an afternoon of casting.

If there are no fish in the pond, at least they never know it. They never doubt it; they never ask, and I let it go at that.

It is well known hereabouts that I do not take anybody and everybody out to my fishpond. I only care to invite people who can really fish, who can cast a line — experts, and especially people from a distance to whom the whole neighborhood is new and attractive, the pond seen for the first time. If I took out ordinary men, especially men near home, they would very likely notice that they got no fish. The expert does n’t. He knows trout fishing too well. He knows that even in a really fine pond, such as he sees mine is, there are days when not a trout will rise. He’ll explain it to you himself; and, having explained it, he is all the better pleased if he turns out to be right and they don’t rise.

Trout, as everyone knows who is an angler, never rise after a rain, nor before one; it is impossible to get them to rise in the heat; and any chill in the air keeps them down. The absolutely right day is a still, cloudy day, but even then there are certain kinds of clouds that prevent a rising of the trout. Indeed, I have only to say to one of my expert friends, ‘Queer, they did n’t bite!’ and he’s off to a good start with an explanation. There is such a tremendous lot to know about trout fishing that men who are keen on it can discuss theories of fishing by the hour.

Such theories we generally talk over — my guest of the occasion and I — as we make our preparations at the pond. You see, I keep there all the apparatus that goes with fishing — a punt, with lockers in the sides of it, a neat little dock built out of cedar (cedar attracts the trout), and, best of all, a little shelter house, a quaint little place like a pagoda, close beside the water and yet under the trees. Inside is tackle, all sorts of tackle, hanging round the walls in a mixture of carelessness and order.

‘ Look, old man,’ I say, ‘ if you like to try a running paternoster, take this one,’ or, ‘Have you ever seen these Japanese leads? No, they’re not a gut; they’re a sort of floss.’

‘I doubt if I can land one with that,’ he says.

‘Perhaps not,’ I answer. In fact, I’m sure he could n’t: there is n’t any to land.

On pegs in the pagoda hangs a waterproof mackintosh or two, for you never know — you may be caught in a shower just when the trout are starting to rise. Then, of course, a sort of cellarette cupboard with decanters and bottles, and gingersnaps, and perhaps an odd pot of anchovy paste — no one wants to quit good fishing for mere hunger. Nor does any real angler care to begin fishing without taking just a drop (Just a touch—be careful! Whoa! Whoa!) of something to keep out the cold, or to wish good luck for the chances of the day.

I always find, when I bring out one of my friends, that these mere preparatives or preparations, these preliminaries of angling, are the best part of it. Often they take half an hour. There is so much to discuss — the question of weights of tackle, the color of the fly to use, and broad general questions of theory, such as whether it matters what kind of hat a man wears. It seems that trout will rise for some hats, and for others not. One of my best guests, who has written a whole book on fly fishing, is particularly strong on hats and color. ‘I don’t think I’d wear that hat, old man,’ he says; ‘much too dark for a day like this.’ ‘I wore it all last month,’ I said. ‘So you might, but that was August. I would n’t wear a dark hat in September; and that tie is too dark a blue, old man.’

So I knew that that made it all right. I kept the hat on. We had a grand afternoon; we got no fish.

I admit that the lack of fish in my pond requires sometimes a little tact in management. The guest gets a little restless. So I say to him, ‘You certainly have the knack of casting!’ — and he gets so absorbed in casting farther and farther that he forgets the fish. Or I take him toward the upper end and he gets his line caught on bulrush — that might be a bite. Or, if he still keeps restless, I say suddenly, ‘ Hush! Was that a fish jumped?’ That will silence any true angler instantly. ‘You stand in the bow,’ I whisper, ‘and I’ll paddle gently in that direction.’ It’s the whispering that does it. We are still a hundred yards away from any trout that could hear us even if a trout were there. But that makes no difference. Some of the men I take out begin to whisper a mile away from the pond and come home whispering.

You see, after all, what with frogs jumping, and catching the line in bulrushes, or pulling up a water-logged chip nearly to the top, they don’t really know — my guests don’t — whether they have hooked something or not. Indeed, after a little lapse of time, they think they did: they talk of the ‘big one they lost ’ — a thing over which any angler gets sentimental in retrospect. ‘Do you remember,’ they say to me months later at our club in the city, ‘that big trout I lost up on your fishpond last summer?’ ‘Indeed I do,’ I say. ‘Did you ever get him later on?’ ‘No, never,’ I answer. (Neither him nor any other.)

Yet the illusion holds good. And besides, you never can tell: there might be trout in the pond. Why not? After all, why should n’t there be a trout in the pond? You take a pond like that and there ought to be trout in it!

Whenever the sight of the pond bursts on the eyes of a new guest he stands entranced. ‘What a wonderful place for trout!’ he exclaims. ‘Isn’t it?’ I answer. ‘No wonder you’d get trout in a pond like that.’ ‘No wonder at all.’ ‘You don’t need to stock it at all, I suppose?’ ‘Stock it!’ I laugh at the idea. Stock a pond like that! Well, I guess not!

Perhaps one of the best and most alluring touches is fishing out of season “just a day or two after the season has closed. Any fisherman knows how keen is the regret at each expiring season — swallowed up and lost in the glory of the fading autumn. So if a guest turns up just then I say, ‘ I know it’s out of season, but I thought you might care to take a run out to the pond anyway and have a look at it.’ He can’t resist. By the time he’s in the pagoda and has a couple of small drinks (Careful, not too much! Whoa! Whoa!) he decides there can be no harm in making a cast or twro. ‘I suppose,’ he says, ‘you never have any trouble with the inspectors?’ ‘Oh, no,’ I answer; ‘they never think of troubling me.’ And with that we settle down to an afternoon of it. ‘I’m glad,’ says the guest at the end, ‘that they weren’t rising. After all, we had just the same fun as if they were.’

That’s it: illusion! How much of life is like that! It’s the idea of the thing that counts, not the reality. You don’t need fish for fishing, any more than you need partridge for partridge shooting, or gold for gold mining. Just the illusion or expectation.

So I am going back now^ to the city and to my club, where we shall fish all winter, hooking up big ones, but losing the ones bigger still, hooking two trout at one throw, —• three at a throw! — and for me, behind it all, the memory of my fishing pond darkening under the falling leaves. ... At least it has made my friends happy.