We remember the very moment when it came sleet-strewn from the north. It died down while we were seated at luncheon under that old oak on the meadow near the farmhouse. Then the light clouds slowly thickened until the whole sky was slaty-gray; and about seven o'clock, just when the evening rise should have come on, the sun flared out angrily among storm - clouds scarlet and green and yellow. All the time scarcely a trout would rise. Now, not one principle of angling, but a whole series of principles, naturally springs from the observations of an unfortunate day such as that. The series is, That trout do not rise when the wind is shifty; that the northerly breeze, especially with sleet on its wings, is bad; that a languid afternoon following a fresh morning is worse; and that sport is altogether out of the question when the heavens at sundown are on fire. The consequence is that when one falls upon such a day again one either puts the rod into its case or uses it in the perfunctory manner of the hopeless. One does not expect sport, and does not offer the fish a fair chance to give it.
Such is the genesis of almost all our principles of angling, which, it will be observed, are principles of taboo. It is much easier for any of us to say what weather will not do than it is to say what will; but are we generally right in our taboos ? I doubt it; and, as I have made careful experiments, there is cause for the cheerful misgiving. One May afternoon I fished carefully over three miles of well-stocked water, and returned with an empty creel. There was a little wind from the west, sufficient to make an attractive ripple here and there; but how languid the gray clouds were, and the air how lifeless ! Suddenly, and without premeditation, I said, "Is it really so? Would the sky and the air seem languorous and dull if I had filled my basket to the brim, as a few days ago I filled it on this very stretch ?" Truthfully I could answer that they would not. The grayness and the languor were just as much subjective as objective. They may have been on the sky and in the air; but they were also, and I think primarily, within, affecting the outlook. Certain it is that my recollections of that day's weather, which, after all, was normal for the time of the year, would, though general, have been wholly favourable had sport been good. Often the gloomy aspect of the weather is only an emotional illusion.
If, then, we would be really skilled in the craft of angling, it is necessary that we should be much more careful in our deductions and our inductions than most of us habitually are. These processes of reasoning are apt to become entangled to our confusion. It has been admitted that there may be some truth in the beliefs that much sport is not to be expected when the water is flagrant in the sunshine ; but this admission is not by any means absolute. The beliefs call for explanatory interpretation, which may best be given by stating them in a new way. It is not the " lane of light" in itself, not in itself the glare on the water, that keeps the trout down, when it does have that effect: it is some atmospherical condition of which the " lane of light" or the glare is a symptom or a casual incident. That conclusion is forced upon us by considerations which no observant angler can call in question. Apart from times when the whole sky is overcast with a heavy and unbroken cloud, there is not a single day in the year when, if we looked upon the water in the direction of the sun, we should find to be missing all the objectionable phenomena of light. One of them, or some of them, or all of them, would be before our astonished eyes. It follows that if the phenomena were really as objectionable as they are supposed to be there could never be a good day's sport at all. As there is many a good day in the season, it is clear that the taboos are unwarranted.
It may be that the lane of light or the glare has been witnessed on a day, or on days, of disappointment in the pursuit of fish; indeed, having regard to the general belief that the streak and the glare are unfavourable, one easily perceives that it must have been; but what does this prove ? It does not prove very much. Those who have a day on the water only at rare intervals take it for granted that a good one is just as likely as a bad one to fall to their luck; but that is a mistake. After a rather dull outing on Lochleven, I remarked to Old John, the boatman, that, although I had fished there two or three times a season for five years, I had never yet chanced upon a really good day. " I can believe that," answered the venerable man. "I mysel' ha'e been fishin' this loch for sixty years, an' I've seen only one really good day." That was a startling account of a water which is famous among sportsmen all over the world 5 but, howsoever exacting Old John's estimate of a good day may have been, there was more than a grain of truth in it. A good day is not the rule.
It is the exception. This will be found out by any one who fishes every day for a month. As I write these words I am in the midst of an even ampler experience. On most days during the latter half of March and the beginning of April sport was good ; after that, for nearly a month, it was on most days poor; since then, on a few days, there have been signs of a revival. Is not the moral manifest ? The chances are that if I had been on the water only one day, instead of for many days consecutively, it would have been a day of poor results ; and probably that would have been attributed, conscientiously but without much thought, to the aspect of the weather, in which, as a rule, the quality of the light is the most noticeable phenomenon.
If the other conditions of the atmosphere were taken into account, it would soon be surmised that the light is not as a rule the cause of either good sport or bad sport. It may be a symptom of the cause; but in itself it is only incidental.
Light being of many varieties in intensity and in colour, a whole volume would be required for a discussion of it that would even approach completeness; but there are two indisputable facts touching our present theme. One of them is as yet a complete perplexity. The other, I think, will be acknowledged as evidence that most of the taboos we have been considering are superstitious.
The first fact was pointed out to me by a gillie in the Highlands. " They'll be dour thi' day, I doobt," he said, as we launched the boat one morning in the spring. " I never knew them takin' when thae misty clouds are sittin' on the hills." Sure enough, that day the trout were dour indeed. Only one, and that small, was the reward of a long and assiduous effort. This was remarkable. The soft wind was pleasant, the light was all that any angler sensitive on that point could wish, the mercury in the weather-glass stood at " Fair "; yet the trout would not rise until the clouds floated upwards from the hills, or were dissolved. In spring and the beginning of summer, mornings such as that are frequent in the Highlands ; and, observing carefully, I have never known the gillie's rule to fail. In England, too, I have often had testimony to its truth. There the symptom of the peculiar weather is not so easily discoverable ; but usually, even in Hampshire, which is comparatively flat, there is not far away from the water some ground that rises high enough to show it; and in England, as in Scotland, the trout keep down when the misty clouds hang low. The explanation is beyond me; but most anglers, I think, will agree that it cannot lie in the quality of the light.
The second of our indisputable facts is much more pleasant to contemplate. Who does not recall many a morning on which the fish, in lake or stream, rose well while the blue water, under the south-west breeze, twinkled in the unclouded sunshine ? Usually on such days I myself, at least, expect good sport; and nearly always on such days I find it. The light is as brilliant as it can be; yet the fish are not made shy. Surely, then, the belief that a strong light keeps them down must be abandoned. A belief that it brings them up, which impetuous reasoning might suggest, would be equally untenable. On a day such as we have been considering sport is good simply because the conditions of the weather, of which the light is only a single symptom, are all of them favourable.
What these conditions exactly are it would be rash to say ; but I have noticed that they are always present during the period between the passing of a cyclonic storm-centre and the complete establishment of a high-pressure system of varying light breezes or dead calm. Sometimes the trout feed while the storm is rising, and sometimes even when it is altogether past; but sometimes they do not. The only time when I feel absolutely certain of good sport is when the barometer is rising in the recovery of the atmosphere from an outbreak of lightning and the wind. When the recovery is complete the sport becomes inconstant. Then, howsoever agreeable the weather may be to society at large, to the angler it is a speculative risk. The trout may rise freely; but that they may not is just as probable. Indeed, it is more probable. There are a few half-public waters the sport on which is regularly reported in the newspapers throughout the season. If one watches the tidings, it will be found that for every really good day there are at least twelve indifferent or bad days. This unheeded fact, which will be considered in another chapter, and there shown to be auspicious, means, among other things, that the climate of the British Islands is much stabler than it is commonly reputed. There are many small changes in the weather; but great changes, storms, are infrequent.