The otter is a gear, now forbidden by the law, taking a line of gut from which depend two or three dozen flies, each about a foot apart from its neighbours, far out on a river or on a lake. As the poacher, with one end of the line in hand, moves along the shore, the otter-board, which is constructed on the principle of the kite, moves onward too, and outward; just as the kite follows the holiday-making schoolboy, and soars at the pressure of the wind. Soon the poacher feels a tugging at the line, and knows that one of the flies has been taken by a trout; but he does not reel up. On he moves, and soon there is a fresh tugging, and soon, he thinks, another ; but after that he is not sure how his adventure fares. There may be new tuggings; but they cannot be distinguished amid the old ones. He can tell nothing, either, by the weight of the line : besides keeping the line taut by a mechanical necessity, which only a salmon or a very large trout could undo, the otter-board is heavily weighted with lead on the sunken rim, just as the kite is weighted on the tail: by the sense of touch through his rod and line, the poacher would know no difference between three ordinary trout on the hooks and three dozen. All he can say to himself is that if he goes on a little longer each of the flies will in all probability be taken by a trout; and he is right. Soon he turns, and goes back upon his tracks ; and the otter-board comes in, just as the kite would fall if the schoolboy could cause the knot of the flying-string to slip down past the middle of the belly-band ; and lo ! as the poacher's line comes in a trout is dangling from every hook.
More than one moral for the instruction of the angler could be drawn. A thought that is instant and insistent is that the success of the otter is complete disproof of the theory that the dry fly is on waters which are much fished the best lure for trout, if, indeed, it be not the only one in which there is any hope. All the poacher's flies have been at least a foot below the surface; yet the trout have found them irresistible.
That, however, is not the thought which is at present relevant. I have described the working of the otter in order to show that the capture of its own kind bears no warning to the trout. All the two or three dozen fish have impaled themselves on the same line.
Those who have been in the habit of assuming that trout acquire wariness may endeavour to explain this away by saying that the trout did not know the things depending from the poacher's line to be artificial flies. That would be to yield the whole ground on which their assumption rests. It is only on the assumption that a trout often knows an artificial fly when he sees it that wariness in relation to artificial flies can be attributed to the fish If the fish lack this knowledge, as the success of the otter joins with the experience of the sportsman to suggest, it is clear that adversity does not teach them, and that the wariness with which they are credited is an illusion.
Beyond a doubt, it is. Reasoning will assure us so. Some streams yield less good baskets than they yielded in days gone by; but, if the subject is carefully looked into, it will be discovered that the falling-off may be explained as referable to a thinning-out in the stock of fish. Anglers increase in number year by year. It is not surprising that on waters which are said to have yielded three dozen trout in a day fifty years ago three or four brace in a day are now considered a fair basket. This is particularly applicable to Scotland, where there are many streams open to the public. The anglers now are at least ten times as many as they were in the days of their grandfathers; the " free waters" are never re-stocked, or hardly ever ; it is only in the nature of things that as the sportsmen have been gradually multiplying the head of fish has been gradually dwindling. Elsewhere the balance between the state of affairs in the olden time and that of to-day has been kept nearly as it was. It has been so on all the private lakes and streams in Scotland and in England. What, then, do we find there ?
The sport being private, statistics are not accessible; but the question does not lie in impenetrable darkness. Memory plays us false by certain illusions which are corrigible on calm reflection. From time immemorial we have been talking about a change in the climate. Winters, we feel, are much less severe than they were wont to be, and the summers much less fine. Official records show that since the Meteorological Offices were established there has been no change in the climate to justify that generalisation. The truth is that, especially if we rejoice, as is proper, in pastimes on the ice, "good old-fashioned winters" linger in our memories, while the mild ones which intervened fade away, and are forgotten ; and the past seems, in one half of it, a succession of winters when the sound of skates and curling-stones was continuous in the resonant air, while the heavily-laden postman was always knee-deep in Christmas snows, and, in the other half, a succession of summers so glorious that only the thought of partridges and pheasants and grouse and red-deer when the russet leaves should begin to fall, and of the fox hunt when the trees were bare, reconciled us to the passing of the sunshine. In these things memory knows no breach of continuity.
It plays us the same trick as regards sport on the streams and lakes. All the good days of ten years ago are vividly remembered, and all the poor ones are forgotten. In the present it is the poor days that are conspicuous : the good ones will not reach their ultimate grandeur until another ten years have elapsed, and then they will appear to us as a season of unbroken brilliance. Can any one honestly say of a well-preserved water which he has given fair trial, for not less than the customary number of holidays, that this season his sport has been less good than usual ? Then, if it has been as good as usual even on a single day, is that not clear proof that it may yet be as good as ever on many days ? Had the trout really become as wary as many of us suppose, they would not rise as freely as of yore even for a single day.