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IF you have ever known fishing, real fishing, not the guide-book kind; where you “whip” streams for fancy fish that bite mainly in fancy -- there will come a day in late July when it will be necessary for you to go down stream. The excessive heat and humidity which has been killing you off by inches and other people by wholesale for weeks will suddenly vanish before a cool, dry northwester, a gladsome reminder to the New Englander that there is such a thing as winter after all; thank Heaven!
You know that the drought diminished waters still fizz out from under the dam and purl into the pool below the roadside where the sunfish congregate under the water weeds. Beyond this they prattle down the meadow under banks where the hardhack stands pink and prim, where the meadow-sweet loves the stream so much that it bends toward it and half caresses, and where the meadow grasses in complete abandonment whisper of it in every wind and bend down and surreptitiously kiss it as it dimples by. Farther down where the woodland maples troop up to meet it and the willows sit and bathe pink toes in the current is the big rock, under which the current has dug a sandy cave in which linger big yellow perch, ready to rush out and snatch the worm that comes floating down stream. Here you will hesitate but finally pass on, for there is a lure which you cannot withstand in the deep pool farther down.
Because you are wise with the remembered wisdom of boyhood, you have left at home the expensive rod and reel. Just back from the swamp edge is a birch jungle where young trees stand as thick as canes in a Cuban brake. Here you find your pole; as large as your thumb at the butt, tapering, straight, clean and strong, fifteen feet to the tip. Cut it and trim the limbs from it and bend to it your ten feet of stout line at the end of which is a hook whose curve is as big as that of your little finger nail. A cork that would fit a quart bottle will fit your line if you gash it with your pocket knife and slip the line in the gash. It will hold wherever you put it, yet you may slide it up and down at will. For the pool you should put it three feet from your hook, for you will wish to “sink” that deep. Wind a wee bit of lead about your line an inch above the hook, then pull out your bait box and select a fat angle-worm. Break him in two in the middle and string him on the hook so that the point is just inside the tip of his nose. Now you are ready for what adventure may lurk under the bubbly foam of the surface.
A willow and a maple lean together in loving embrace over the entrance to the deep pool. Above, their arms stretch toward one another and intertwine; below, their roots meet under water and sway down stream, forming a slippery steep down which the amber yellow water, singing a happy little song to itself, coasts into the amber black depths of the pool. Black alders stand cooling their feet all about the edge. Crowding them into the water are the great oaks and maples whose limbs yearn above the pool till they shut out the sun. Along one side the current has cut deep to the rough rocks and the water flows black and swift. On the other the back-wash circles leisurely and the bottom shallows to a bank of sand where the sunfish build their nests and the fresh-water clams burrow and put up suppliant mouths to the food-bearing current. Inshore it lifts to a sand bar, where you may stand and swing your pole without interference from the surrounding trees.
All day long the brook sings itself to sleep as it slips down the slide into the slumberous depths of the pool. All day long the vivid green dragon-flies flutter by with vivid black wings to bring luck to your fishing, and the red-eyed vireo pipes his sleepy note in the trees above. And all day long you shall catch fish if you will but bait your hook and drop it in. First you will thin out the sunfish, for they are the most alert and gamy of all. Talk about trout! You should try landing a half-pound sunfish on a gossamer tackle and a very slender pole. The sunfish is the Lepomis gibbosus of the ichthyologists and is a close relative of the rock bass, and just as game. He has been irreverently dubbed “pumpkin seed” in some places, from his shape, which is that of a pumpkin seed set up on edge. Here in eastern Massachusetts he is just plain “kiver,” which is the old-time uneducated New Englander's pronunciation of the word “cover,” given him, no doubt, because he is round and flat. He is as freckled as a street urchin and as lively. He has business with your bait the moment it drops near him, and the bobbing cork will show that it is he by the jaunty vigor of its bobs.
In fact, if you have learned the ways of the down-stream country you will know every fish that takes your bait long before you have brought him to the surface from the amber depths, just by the way in which he bobs that floating cork. The way of the “kiver” is this. There is a single, snappy, business-like bob, then another, then three in quick succession in which he drags the cork half under. If you strike just at the right time during the succession of three, when the line below is taut with the strain of the float against the pull of the fish, you shall have him. Otherwise your cork will lift from the water with a humorous snort and you will hear little trills of derisive laughter in the song of the stream cascading down the willow root chute. It will be safer not to try him on the three bobs, but wait till the cork begins to bore into the water and glide off across stream, showing that the sunfish has made up his mind that it is a worm, a good one, and one that he really wants.
The mother sunfish just at this time of year has her nest in the sand at the upper end of the bar, in shallow water. It is a circular depression which she has scooped out and from which she has carefully removed all pebbles and sticks. Here she has laid her eggs, and here, day and night, she stands guard over them. If any other fish comes along, even of her own kind, she will chase it away with a brustling courage which is like that of a mother hen defending her chicks. So, after you have caught the freelance sunfish of the pool, those which have no family cares, do not drop your bait near her nest, for if you do she will dart out and take it, and it is a pity to have the brook lose her. She has made her nest in the one shallow spot where the bright sunlight plays, and you may see every dapple of her lovely sides as the light glances on them. Her every fin quivers as she floats there, slowly turning from side to side, her bright eyes roving in search of enemies to her offspring. She is a whole torpedo boat of mother love and pent-up energy, and so let us leave her, for she makes the whole pool seem homelike and hospitable.
The yellow perch will come next to your hook, his tawny yellow sides marked by bands of dark green, his back a darker green yet, and his fins a rich red. He is the aristocrat of the pool, his family being one of the very oldest in the fish domesday book. He lies in deeper water than the sunfish, and his bite varies from a gentle nibble to a good strong succession of pulls which finally end in the cork going down out of sight altogether. Yet when he is at the bait you shall not mistake any motion of that bob for the ones made by the sunfish. The perch has a daintier, more gentlemanly touch. It is sure and strong, but it lacks the roistering vitality of the sunfish. It is an aristocratic bite, and you will recognize it as such without clearly knowing why, -- which is proof of his aristocracy. You will recognize it, too, from the elegance of his figure and chaste beauty of his attire. He gleams in the sunlight. His yellow and green markings are as vivid as those of the sunfish, yet arranged in exquisite taste, and he is dapper where the other is bourgeois.
Sink a little deeper now, for it is time you caught horn-pouts. The horn-pout is also “bull-head,” and, irreverently I fear, “minister,” because of the severity of his black attire, which is relieved only by a white vest. But horn-pout is the best name, for his horns stick out fierce and straight from either side of his gills like the waxed mustachios of a stage Frenchman. They are sharp as needles and set as firm as daggers in their sockets. When you outrage the dignity of a horn-pout by pulling him out of the water he waggles these fins of dagger-bone and makes a peculiar grumbling sound with them. It is as if he said, “What! what! What's all this? Who dares disturb my comfort?” Then when you reach to take him off the hook he flips that nimble black tail of his and jabs his dagger into your hand. It makes an ugly wound, and the boys claim that it conceals venom; a sort of poisoned dagger. The horn-pout bobs your floating cork usually twice or three times, a very different bob from either that of the sunfish or the yellow perch. It is a steady, solid down pull each time, taking the cork half under water. Then he takes hold in earnest, and the float goes steadily down and out, as if this were a matter of no child's play, but meaning something that is solid and substantial on the other end of the line. Often times this is true indeed, for the black-coated one may weigh a pound or two and double your birch rod into a good half-circle before he lets go his grip on the water.
When you get down to the horn-pouts you have fishing indeed, but all the time the climax of your day's career is lurking down in the cavernous depths where the stream has gullied far beneath the ledge, for there, as thick as your wrist and three feet long, weighing a pound to the foot of solid white flesh and muscle, is an eel.
The eel is the strange misanthrope of the brooks and fresh-water ponds. You may peer into the sunlit shallows and see the other fishes at their work or play. They are companionable. If you will live on the pond edge you may train the minnows, the sunfish, the yellow perch even, to come up and eat out of your hand. I have watched a big horn-pout lumbering about in the shady depths for an hour and seen him carefully inspect a hookless worm which I had dropped to him, before he ate it, noting with glee the gravity and self-importance with which he finally decided that it was all right and that he would confer a favor upon it by swallowing it whole. Yet never once have I seen or laid hands on an eel in fresh water. There he goes his own mysterious way among the rock crevices and along the mud of the ultimate depths. The other fishes of the brook travel in schools; he goes alone. They were spawned up stream; he was born on the sands of the fishing banks, a hundred miles off shore. He came upstream as a young eel squirming through dams that shut out other fishes. When the time comes for him to go back he will go back the same way, waxed fat indeed, but still unseen, devious, self-possessed, and uncannily shrewd.
That he may live to go back he inspects carefully the worms which may drop into the cool shadows where he lurks. When he is about to take your bait you need to be keen to know what is going on, for he suspects you, and your least untoward motion of rod or line will cause him to slip back like a shadow into his cavern, and there will be no bite from him on that hook after that. You will say that it cannot possibly be a bite; the bob simply stops and the hook has no doubt caught on a snag on bottom. If you are not wise enough to know better you will pull up here lest you lose your hook, and in so doing you to will lose your eel, for he is simply testing you. He has hold of the very bottom of that hook, below point and barb, and if you pull you pull it out of his mouth without hooking him. Then in cynical glee he'll wag himself deeper into his cavern beneath the stones, and that is the last of him. You may fish the pool for a week before he will forget his caution and try another angle-worm. If, however, nothing rouses his suspicions the bob will gradually sink lower till it is more than half submerged, hang there for a little, give another sag downward, and so by degrees be drawn cautiously under. Your eel is cannily carrying the hook down into his cavern, where he may finish his meal at leisure. Now is the crucial moment. He must not be allowed to get in among the stones, for even if your strike hooks him he will twist himself desperately around them and then twist the hook out. A steady quick pull and you feel him on. Then indeed you “give him the butt,” as the fly fishermen say gloryingly. Your lithe birch rod bends in your hands till the tip is near your wrist as you lean desperately back with all your strength. The hold of a three-foot eel on the water is tremendous. Until he tires a bit it is almost as good as yours on the birch pole, but steadily, inch by inch, you draw him away out into the pool, where the fight is a fair one. Now his head is above water and his great lithe body whirls like a propeller beneath. Again look out; for when he leaves the water it will be as if he shot out, and you are liable to go with him, backward into the bushes, where he will tie your line into ten thousand knots, break out the hook, and run for the brook as a snake might.
At the moment he leaves the surface you slow up. Up into the air he shoots and drops till his tail welts the ground at your feet. Here let him wriggle at the end of the taut line while you break a stout alder switch with one hand, and as you drop him to earth belabor him with it. This will stun him quicker than anything else, and you may then deal with him as you will, only be quick about it, for he is very tenacious of life.
Then, if you are a true fisherman, you will wind up what line is left you and go your way, for the pool has no more foemen worthy of your steel. There will be but one eel to a pool, and to go on catching sunfish would be insipid indeed.
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