(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
I rarely know where the pickerel fishermen come from. They seem to be a race apart and their talk is not of towns or politics, of business or religion. Neither love nor war is their theme, but ice and fishing through it, and what happens to a man while so doing. If I suggest Randolph, or Framingham, Wellesley or Weymouth, they know them, perchance, as places where such and such ponds have a depth that is known to them and ice on which they have had adventures which they can detail. Those things for which the towns stand characterized in the minds of most men are nothing to them, but rather what bait may be found in their streams or what fish may be drawn through the ice in their territory. On days when I talk with them Boston centres about the Quincy Market, where bait is sold and pickerel are displayed, and the sporting goods stores, the merits of whose tackle are known to a nicety. Thus are worlds multiplied to infinity, each one of us having his own. But to step into that of the pickerel fishermen of a midwinter day adds zest to the excursion.
They are quite like the juncos, to me, these genial men of the frozen day. They suddenly appear from I know not where, share the joys of the day and place for a brief time, then walk off the ice again with their traps, going I know not whither. The next day in all probability, if it be a good one for fishing, others will come to fish in the same places and in the same way, but not usually the same men. Thus the winter wandering birds appear, take their toll of the day and the earth on which it shines, give the joy of their presence to all who seek it understandingly, then vanish. It would seem as if the pickerel fishermen were a distinct species, like the tree sparrows and the pine grosbeaks, winter visitors not to be looked for in warm weather, folk who pass from pond to pond, taking toll of all and thus learning their characteristics so definitely, though this seems hardly probable. Probably my pickerel fishermen of yesterday are artisans today, bookkeepers perhaps or salesmen, so differently dressed and occupied, their talk of such different things that I would not know them, for of all animals man alone is able to put on or take off an individuality at will, changing his countenance with his garment and his mind with his occupation. The Natty Bumpo of today may be the natty dry goods clerk of tomorrow, assuming the Bumpo with his fishing togs and making his talk of many ponds fit the clothes.
The fishermen add a touch of picturesque geniality, of excitement even to the pond, being as occasional in its daily life as the crossing of a deer or an otter or the circling of an osprey in summer. Any one of these causes a momentary stir, a local disturbance down in the depths among the regular occupants of the place, but after all it is but a momentary and local one, and the great business of the place goes on just the same near by the spots where the hand of the grim reaper is busy removing prominent citizens. For in my pond the pickerel are surely the prominent citizens, the aristocracy, for they are the largest and strongest and they live directly off their fellow fishes, which constitutes an aristocracy in any community. Minnows, perch, bream and mullet alike are busy assimilating vegetable matter, mussels, worms, insects and small crustacae, merely to form themselves either directly or in their children ultimately into titbits for the nourishing of pickerel. All the pond world knows that and its denizens tremble in the presence of these great-jawed, hook-toothed gobblers of small fry; and that constitutes a proletariat the world over.
In fishing time the loneliness of the empty levels of the ice is broken at dawn by the coming of the crows, especially if there have been fishermen the day before. Remnants of the fishermen's noon meal are quite likely to be scattered about the spot where they had their fire, and always the minnows which they took from the hooks at leaving are there, frozen upon the frozen surface. It seems a cold breakfast to us fire-worshipping mortals, but the crows take it eagerly. Often, too, before it is fairly swallowed fishermen appear, whereupon the crows flap silently but swiftly away. One knows by this action that the fishermen are just men, after all, and not a woodland variety of Peter Pan, though they merely bob up on the pond margin, or perhaps well out on the ice, loaded with their traps and tools. One never sees them coming through the wood or down the street, or getting off trolley cars or out of carryalls, these fishermen, they just bob up, which would seem to prove a mystic origin; though of course they are just folks and somebody knows them, as I have said.
Soon the air resounds with the xylophone music of their chopping, the solid surf ace vibrating beneath the blows of the axe and giving forth a clear tintinnabulation which is most delightful to the ear. It is not all xylophonic, but there is in it, too, the clink of musical glasses and also a certain weirdness, a goblin withal that seems to belong with the mystery surrounding the origin of pickerel fishermen. It is a sound to delight the ear and linger pleasantly in the memory like the sleigh-bell tinkling of ice crystals in a frozen wood. Stirred by this, or perhaps by the beat of the risen sun on its surface, the pond itself begins to caper a bit, musically, roaring in basso profundo a morning song of its own. The result is grotesque in the extreme. I once heard a big-chested man sing "Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep," while his accompanist jigged out an accompaniment on the highest octave to be found on the keyboard of the piano. The pond and the fishermen seem to be doing something like this.
To such quaint music the traps are set, bits of lath standing on the edge of the hole and bearing attached to the line a red flannel flag which the biting fish will strike and carry into the depths with him when he goes off to swallow the bait. The fishermen understand well the ways of the aristocrat pickerel when he swallows a proletariat minnow. No lordly capitalist ever took in a plebeian inventor with more grace -- and finality. Often the flag just drops from the support and lies on the surface of the water while the two get acquainted. The pickerel has the minnow, but his grip is not what he wants. He is particular about the way he swallows a little one, as if he feared some impending Sherman act. So, having got his fish, he waits to turn him so that the victim may head down and seem to go of his own volition into the interior department. Not until then does he run out the rest of the line. If the attorney general fisherman attempts to take him before that he simply lets go the bait and swims off, secure in his immunity bath. After he has started to really go away with his prize a steady pull is quite sure to result in his capture.
Two varieties of pickerel commonly inhabit our ponds. One, technically known as Esox reticulatus, is the Eastern pickerel, known sometimes as green pike or jack, but more often as pond pickerel. He is a big green fish, a golden lustre on his reticulated sides and in colonial times he was known as chain pickerel from this dark linking on his golden green surface. I do not hear the name now and I doubt if it is much, if any, used. The pond pickerel waxes fat on minnows and other small fry and in the course of a long life grows to be two feet or more in length and specimens have been caught weighing seven pounds, perhaps more. It is rather interesting to learn from the fishermen that certain ponds are apt to contain pickerel of a certain size, in the main, as if the conditions of food supply and the freshness of the water or the amount of sunshine were only sufficient to bring the most of them to a definite period of maturity, where they stopped. But this is, of course, only a general rule, with many exceptions. One of these is the big fish. Every pond contains him and every pickerel fisherman who aspires to dignity in his class has hooked this big fellow and lost, him and is able to tell you circumstantially at much length just haw. Most of them know the exact location in each pond where he lurks and are confident that this winter they will win in the encounter with him to which they confidently look forward. Usually the fisherman hauls this monster up to the hole in the ice but is unable to get him through because the hole is too small. Tales like this, heard now and then about the fire while we watch the traps, give assurance that the fishermen are really very human after all and not of the Peter Pan species.
The other variety of pickerel is Esox americanus, the banded pickerel, known hereabouts mainly as brook pickerel, because he loves grassy streams. But the brook pickerel frequents the ponds as well, loving best those of weedy bottoms and shores and slight depth. He is a slim, little green fellow, usually not over a foot long and his dark banded sides easily distinguish him from the smaller specimens of his reticulated neighbor. The brook pickerel is found only east of the Allegheny Mountains, from Massachusetts to Florida while the pond pickerel is found from middle Maine to Florida, and west to Louisiana and Arkansas. In spring the pond pickerel goes up into the ready margins as far even as the brook pickerel will and often I see him in water so shallow that his back fin sticks up, looking like the sail of a miniature Chinese junk. There he seeks the lovely little coppery swamp tree-frogs that are but an inch long and look like talismans carved from metal. These are his tidbits, but he will take most anything alive that is small enough for him to swallow, and when in winter he retires to the warmer layers of water next the pond bottom, his omnivorous appetite in a large measure goes with him. Hence the fishermen use many varieties of small fish for bait, all with some success.
In the spring nothing else is quite so good as this tiny, swamp tree-frog. In the winter in the majority of cases the little silvery minnow known as "shiner" is best of all. Yet, the fishermen will tell you, on some ponds the mummy-chogs which, I take it, is the still surviving Indian name for the killi-fish, are to be most esteemed as bait, and I have found fishermen fishing with young perch and dace and other hard-scaled fish, though I believe with indifferent success, nor did the fishermen themselves look to be the real thing. I fancy that people had seen these folk that fished with young perch come to the pond, perhaps even knew them by name and where they lived, and that the bait had been bought in a city market where they even keep young mud-fish for sale as bait to the unsuspecting, and will assure them that these are the young of dog-fish and are particularly alluring. But the fishermen, the real fishermen, know better.
The mud-fish, more properly the bowfin, is a small, dark-colored, ganoid fish which is so tough and will live under such discouraging circumstances that it would make ideal pickerel bait if the pickerel would have anything to do with it, but they will not. So in some ponds it is with the mummy-chogs which are admirably tough and live long and are lively when impaled. On the other hook the shiner is a little, silvery, soft-scaled fellow so gentle that he will come up to the pond side and eat cracker crumbs out of your hand. I have had shiners so tame from frequently feeding them in this way that I could handle them, though not to their own good, for the shiner is as tender as he is beautiful and just a few hard knocks, that a mummy-chog would pass with a flip of his tail, will wreck him. Yet for pickerel fishing through the ice the shiner is the king of bait and fortunate indeed are those fishermen who can obtain enough shiners to afford to use them lavishly. Properly hooked, just under the after back fin, they survive fairly well and their silver wrigglings are hard for a pickerel to resist.
Though I have said that I never see the fishermen off the pond I do see them sometimes fishing for bait. They cut a big hole in the ice for this, one big enough to let that monster pickerel that is never caught come through, and through this they drop to the bottom a big hoop net. This they bait with cracker crumbs and now and then pull it eagerly to the surface, often with many shiners in it. There are small ponds that are famous for being rich in bait alone and from these the wiser fishermen draw their supply. Though the fisherman about his fire up under the lee of the pines on shore loves to tell tales of the fish of other days and other ponds he is far from garrulous when on the ice and hard at it. And usually he is too busy to talk. If the fish are biting well he tears from one end to the other of his long rows of traps, playing a fish here, hauling one out there, setting a trap that has been sprung by the wind or the too eager wriggling of the bait, and on most fishing days, whether the fish bite well or ill, he has to constantly make the rounds of his holes, inspecting his hooks to see if the bait has escaped or been stolen, handling new ones in the icy water and skimming the young ice from the holes across his fishing. Miles a day he runs in the keen air with his bait pail and skimmer and however many fish he catches I am quite sure he eats them all at the next meal.
And not all his catch are sure to be pickerel. Down below there in the twilight of the warmest water next the bottom are perch and dace, bass and eel, and all these are likely to hunger for shiner. The largest eel I ever saw caught came up through the ice in this way and I have even known the clumsy and stupid sucker to come out of the hole on the hook, making the fisherman think for a moment that he had hold of the one big pickerel of that particular pond. I cannot conceive of a sucker actually attempting to eat a shiner, even when impaled, impeded and wriggling, so such must have come by the hook in some other way, probably accidentally caught as they came by.
As for that monster fish, there are times, even when the fishermen are not telling me about him, that I believe he exists. Besides the two varieties of Esox mentioned there is another which is common to all suitable waters of North America, Europe and Asia. That is Esox Lucius, as Linnaeus named him, the common pike. This fish is very like the pond pickerel in appearance and he sometimes grows to weigh forty pounds or more and to a length of four feet. Such a one might well be too large to come up through the hole which the fishermen have cut for his little cousins, the brook pickerel. It is quite possible that one of these Jonah-swallowing leviathans rules the pickerel in each pond kingdom; like a Morgan among millionaires. Of the pike, which he loved well, Isaac Walton has much to say and I cannot refrain from quoting a few of his most loving phrases, which are those which tell how he should be cooked.
"Keep his liver," he says, "which you are to shred very small with thyme, sweet marjoram and a little winter savory; to these put some pickled oysters and some anchovies, two or three; both these last whole, for the anchovies will melt, and the oysters should not; to these you must add also a pound of sweet butter which you are to mix with the herbs that are shred, and let them all be well salted. If the pike be more than a yard long then you may put into these herbs more than a pound, or if he be less, then less butter will suffice. These being thus mixed, with a blade or two of mace, must be put into the pike's belly, and then his belly sewed up so as to keep all the butter in his belly if it be possible; if not, then as much of it as you possibly can; but do not take off the scales. Then you are to thrust the spit through his mouth and out at his tail; and then take four or five or six split sticks or very thin laths and convenient quantity of tape or filleting; these laths are to be tied around the pike's body from his head to his tail, and the tape tied somewhat thick to prevent his breaking or falling from the spit. Let him be roasted very leisurely and often basted with claret wine and anchovies and butter mixed together, and also with what moisture falls from him into the pan. When you have roasted him sufficiently you are to hold under him, when you unwind or cut the tape that ties him, such a dish as you purpose to eat him out of, and let him fall into it with the sauce that is roasted in his belly; and by this means the pike will be kept unbroken and complete. Then to the sauce which was within and also that sauce in the pan you are to add a fit quantity of the best butter and to squeeze the juice of three or four oranges; lastly you may either put into the pike with the oysters two cloves of garlic and take it whole out when the pike is cut off the spit; or to give the sauce a haut-gout, let the dish into which you let fall the pike be rubbed with it. The using or not of this garlic is left to your discretion."
Surely the pike is the king of fishes when he is cooked in that fashion, and I doubt not a pond pickerel thus served becomes at least a prince. "This dish of meat," says Walton, "is too good for any but anglers or very honest men." I am sure it is none too good for pickerel fishermen, and when I think of it I do not wonder that they are fat.