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BOBBING FOR EELS
IT is fortunate that the angleworm is born without a voice, else throughout the length and breadth of the land were now resounding a chorus of doleful shrieks, for great is the dismemberment of angleworms about this time. The same warmth of imminent summer which made the grass jump six inches in length over night, has brought him forth in great numbers, over night also, for the angleworm is a lover of darkness.
I know Darwin thought earthworm a more proper designation of him, but it is to be believed that Darwin was not a fisherman. Had he been he would have known that the chief end of worm is to become bait. There may be nicer things to have than these somewhat attenuated hermits of the mold, but if there are the fishes do not know it, and there are few anglers but on May fifteenth would give their weight in gold for them if such was the price. It is fortunate, therefore, that angleworms are inhabitants of the earth, so to speak, and not of any one neighborhood. It is, no doubt, possible to catch fish with other bait. There are grasshoppers, to be sure, though not at this time of year. There are various artificial flies and lures, spoon hooks and other wastrel inventions. Of these little is to be said; indeed, some of them are unspeakable.
On fortunate springs April showers linger into May, finally hastening northward lest summer catch them here and make a wet June of it. The seductive warmth of summer is in them now, and as they go spilling by of perfumed nights they work all kinds of wonder. Things that were beginning to grow up suddenly blow up. My cherry tree has exploded over night. Two days ago the grass, we noted with delight, was really quite green. This morning it waves in the wind, and I am confident that by to-morrow, at this rate, it will be full of bobolinks and mowing machines. Yesterday you could see far through the woodland. To-day it is clouded with its own green leaves, and along aisles that begin to be shady the truant ovenbirds are shouting "Teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher," in warning to one another every time they hear a human footfall in the path.
The first dragon flies have come, and in woodland places lovely little brown butterflies skip about like mad. No wonder the Hesperidae are commonly known as skippers. These that I saw to-day, most of them Thanaos brizo, the sleepy dusky-wing, defied any but the most alert eye to follow them as they dashed from invisibility on some dark fallen limb to vanishment on brown mud of the path. They seemed to skip in and out of existence at will. I call them brown, for you will see that they are that if you have a chance to see one sitting at rest. You may get near enough to see the beautiful blueish spots surrounded with dark rings on the fore wings, and the double row of yellow spots on the hind wings. For all that Thanaos brizo is as black as your hat to the eye when he is in flight. Perhaps that is why he vanishes so readily. You are looking for a black butterfly, and what you see is nothing but a brown bit of bark or leaf.
Darwin was convinced that the earth worm, as he called him, was of inestimable value to man, and he cites how he works over the mold and loosens it up, ploughing it, as it were, for future planters who should thus be able to enjoy the fruits of the earth, leveling it and working in various ways for the good of mankind. But Darwin never says a word of the inestimable value of earthworms as angleworms. Thus often do our greatest scientists fail to interpret things at their true value. Very likely Darwin never had an opportunity to bob for eels in a New England pond. If so he would have seen worms as they are, for no man can really know things till he has yearned for them. In the winter time the angleworm goes down well below the reach of frost which will kill him. Indeed, he is sensitive to the cold, and comes to the surface only when the sun has warmed the earth so that it is comfortable. Under the May moon he comes, sometimes clear out of his hole, and wanders far in search of friends or new countries. Often of a moist early morning you may find big ones caught out on the concrete sidewalk or marooned in the dry dust of the road, remaining to be an easy prey for early birds.
But these are the adventurous or unfortunate few. The many have remained all night stretched far from the mouths of their burrows, indeed, but with tails still hooked into the door jamb, and able to make a rapid backward scramble into safety. It is this habit of the worm of warm summer evenings that the wise angler utilizes for his capture. The robin knows it too, and he spices his rapture of matin song with trips across the lawn, where, between staccato hops, he eyes the grass sidewise and catches late roisterers before they can get under cover. These he takes by the scruff of the neck, as one might say, hauls them, stretching and resisting, forth from their homes and swallows them.
Thus with the unrighteous, but even the upright, or rather the downright, who are that, snugly ensconced as they intended to be, he is apt to see and seize, for the robin's eye is good and his bill is long enough. Angleworms, after the joys or labors of the night are over, withdraw into their holes, but often not very far. They like to lie with the head drawn back just out of sight, near enough to the surface to bask in the warmth of the sun.
Some line the outer ends of their burrows with leaves to keep them from the damp of the earth, thus further to enjoy themselves. Some, too, on retiring, draw leaves and sticks in, thus going into their holes and pulling the holes in after them, as the saying goes. Some merely pile small stones in a sort of an ant heap about the mouth. In the gravel walk these little mounds are often taken for those piled by the industrious ants. The robin gets many of these as he hops, and it is no wonder that his chestnut-red front looms as round as a pumpkin and almost as big.
There are many ways of getting angleworms and many ways of using them after you get them; but he who wants them in bulk will do well to imitate the robin, -- only do it in the night instead of the day. Of course you may go out with a spade and assault likely spots in the garden. That is often satisfactory, though crude. It is likely to result in small numbers and not well assorted sizes.
I knew a man once who used to jab for angleworms with a crowbar, and it was a rather astonishing thing to watch him and see the results. The angleworm's hearing is crude in the extreme. Indeed, hearing in the ordinary sense of the word he has none. Mary Garden might sing at the mouth of his burrow and he would never know it. Sousa's finest march on fifty instruments -- count'em fifty -- might be played on the bandstand just over his head and he would never. feel one thrill. The only sound he gets is a crunching and grubbing in the earth near him. This he feels, for he is the chief food of the grubbing mole, and that sound means but one thing to him, -- that he is being dug for. So when he heard that crowbar wriggling and crunching in the gravel beneath he used to flee to the surface in numbers.
This man always whistled an eerie little tune while he wriggled the bar. He said he was calling them, and it was quite like magic the way in which they hustled to the surface and crawled about his feet. Most people fail in this method. It takes a peculiar motion to the bar and a good eye in choosing the spot where the worms are. And then, few people know the tune.
Nightfall and the robin's method are best. Wait till the full darkness of a moist night. Hang a lantern about your neck and get down on your marrow bones by a grassy roadside. Worms do not see, and are not sensitive to light. You have but to crawl quietly forward and pick them up with a quick snatch, for the worm can feel, and he gets back into his burrow with an agility which is surprising.
On the right kind of a May night I have seen the roadside of a Massachusetts village the scene of more than one such spectacle. A stranger from the big world, seeing a very fat man crawling by the roadside with a lantern hung about his neck, making frantic dabs here and there, and hauling forth great worms that resisted and hung on valiantly and stretched like red rubber, might well have said that here was voodoo worship or a Dickey initiate gone mad. But it was nothing of the sort, -- merely the crack local fisherman getting his bait.
I have looked in vain in Izaak Walton for a paean on angleworms or a description of a proper method for making a bob for eels, and I thereby find the "Compleat Angler" incomplete. However, Izaak was an admirable fisherman in the rather patient and conservative way of the England of his time. He advises to bait for eels "with a little, a very little, lamphrey, which some call a pride, and may in the hot months be found many of them in the river Thames, and in many mud-heaps in other rivers; yea, almost as usually as one finds worms in a dung-hill."
He should have seen a Yankee catch eels with a pole and line with a big wad of worms tied on the end of the line and no hook at all, for such is a "bob," as we know it in Norfolk County. The making of a bob is not a pleasant affair for the angleworms, which seem born for destruction, so many are the creatures that prey on them, and I am glad of Darwin's assurance that, in spite of the fact that they wriggle when rent, they have little fineness of perception and feeling and do not suffer -- much.
This crack fisherman who was so stout and who used to get his bait by lantern light at night, to whom my memory runs, always made a bob of shoemaker's thread, because it was fine and of great strength. He had a long wire needle like an upholsterer's needle, and with this he would deftly string great angleworms from head to tail, sliding them one by one down upon his shoemaker's thread till he had a rope of them twelve feet long or so. Then tying the ends together he looped this up till it hung in a wad of loops as big as his two fists. This, hung upon the end of his line, was all he needed for a night's fishing.
The way of its use is this. First catch your night, one of those nights when there is a promise of soft rain in the sky and the wind that is to bring it just sighs gently over the trees from the southward. Too much wind is bad, for it so ruffles the surface that the fish cannot find you. A very gentle ripple, on the contrary, is helpful, for it makes a dancing path of light from your fire, up which the eels may trail you to the very spot where hangs the bob.
The stout fisherman used to take along at least two boys who would be useful in gathering wood for the fire and in other matters. Then, picking the exactly most favorable spot on the dam where the deep, dark water shoulders the bank, he built his fire after the full darkness had come. In common with many others I regret the passing of the old-time cedar rail fence. Wire abominations may be cheaper, but who ever heard of building a fishing fire out of tariff-nurtured, wire-trust, fencing material? Fishing fire material of the proper sort is rare nowadays, and I can but feel that the youth of the present generation are born to barren years.
With the fire well alight and the deep half-bushel basket placed handy by, the fisherman would make his line fast to the tip of that long, light, supple but strong birch pole and cast the big bob far from him with a generous splash into the water, letting it sink till within a foot or two of bottom. How far under the dark water the eels might see that flickering fire and be drawn to it as moths circle about a light at night I cannot say, but I think it was very far, for on favorable nights it seemed as if all the eels in the pond must have been drawn thither. I know that fishing without a fire you may catch one eel or perhaps two, but you will never get such numbers as come to a proper blaze made of the driest of good old cedar rails.
In South American waters there is an electric eel which can give a stout shock to such as touch him; but I think all eels must be electric, else why the shock that one in the deep water off the pond bank can send through a dozen feet of line and as much more of birch pole to your hand the moment he pokes his nose against a bob? It tingles in your palms, and is as good as prescribed electric treatment from a battery, for it thrills you with a quickening of life and nerve and a magical alertness.
The eel is not nearly so cautious with a bob as with a hook. He nibbles, which is the first shock; he bites, which is the second and stronger; then he takes hold. I can see the stout fisherman now with the fire gleam on his rugged face, his feet planted wide apart and his weight well on the hinder one his hands wide apart on the pole and his whole attitude that of a lion couchant for a back somersault.
At the nibble his face twitches, at the bite his knee bends, and then the end of the pole sags quickly downward with the line as taut as a violin string. The eel has taken hold, his throat-pointing teeth are tangled in the thread of the bob, and the stout fisherman's weight has gone far back of his point of support. If the line should break so would the fisherman's neck..
They prate much to me about the stance and the swing, the addressing and the following through in driving a ball at golf. The words are used glibly, but I doubt if many know their real significance. Whatever that is it all applies, and more, to the proper bobbing of an eel. It is the summoning of all the forces of a man's vigor and personality in one supreme stroke.
Holding on, quite literally by the skin of his teeth, the eel circles a section of the pond with his tail and seems to lift it with him. The line sings and the birch pole bends nearly double. It is for a second a question which will win, but the shoemaker's thread is very strong, and so is the stout fisherman.
Suddenly the eel gives up. Still hung to the bob he shoots into the air the full length of the line; describes a circle in high heaven, of which the fisherman's feet are the center, and drops in the grass, while the fisherman, in marvelous defiance of all laws of gravity, brings his two hundred and fifty pounds back to an upright position without losing his footing. Golf may be all very well, but it does not equal this. Small blame to the fisherman if he poises a moment like Ajax defying the lightning.
Now, the boys have their innings. Somewhere in classic literature the Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold. So the boys upon the eel that flops mightily and wriggles in vain in the tall grass. He is dumped in the deep basket; and hardly is he there before the fisherman has swung another in that mighty circle. An eel is very canny, and often escapes a hook even when well on. I never knew one to get away from a bob. Sometimes the half-bushel basket would go back home nearly full of them. And as for their size, I do not wish to say, except that no small ones seem to bite at a bob. In that I will quote from Izaak Walton, who, after giving excellent directions for dressing and cooking an eel, says:
"When I go to dress an Eel thus I wish he were as long and as big as that which was caught in Peterborough River in the year 1667, which was a yard and three-quarters long." To which I can but add that I defy old England to produce any bigger eels than we have in New England.
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