Lying beside him on the grassy bank where he was seated were the finest five trout I had ever known to be taken from that stream or any other ! Each of them seemed to be well over two pounds.
As I was gazing upon them, almost doubting the evidence of my eyes, the old gentleman said, " Hullo ! They're really on the feed to-day"; and, looking up, I saw, from the bend of his rod, that he had hooked another. He played it, and landed it; and it matched the five fish well, fat and firm and shapely, white of belly, and with bright yellow sides spangled by clear-red and dark-blue spots, a trout in prime condition.
How did he do it? Was this nonagenarian a wizard ? or, by birth an Irishman, bearing the honoured name of Gilbert, had he the secret of those strange essences with which his volatile countrymen in remote parts, where water-horses were still not unknown, while gnomes and sprites that haunt the nights were common, smeared their lures, to the complete undoing of the fish ?
Apparently, it turned out, there had been no black art in the old gentleman's triumph. In response to my awe-struck questionings, he showed me his flies. In obedience to the ironmonger, I myself had been using midges. The old gentleman's flies were three or four sizes larger: indeed, they seemed just the flies that one would cast upon Lochleven in a breeze1.
" They were in me ould book," he said, quite simply, though very happy. "I had them when I came to these parts with Mr. Erskine Wemyss, contesting the county at the time of the Reform Bill. I thought they might be a bit weak by this time; but they're none so bad, after all".
This was suggestive ; and a very little thought led to one's seeing things which, although they had been daily before the very eyes of all frequenters of the stream, had been completely unnoticed. It was not only midges that were about. All over the water large flies of many hues, with here and there a buzzing column of alders, were fluttering. The old gentleman's day on the river was full of marvellous sport simply because, using large flies, he had followed an old tradition suggested by Nature, instead of following the precepts of the ironmonger.
It may have chanced that, besides being of the right size, his flies were of the right colours and the right shapes. As the old gentleman had been so successful that he could hardly have been more so, it may be said that obviously they must have been right in all respects. This raises a delicate problem.
Should our flies invariably be imitations of those which are on the water at the time of fishing ?
English fishermen, especially those who frequent the southern chalk-streams, where angling is a high art, think so, and I myself, in a general manner, share their opinion ; but there are great dubieties to be resolved before absolute rules can be formulated. Early in the season one frequently catches trout after trout, quite quickly, when neither a natural fly nor a "natural rise" is to be seen. How is that? How can it be said that our lures are correct imitations when there are no flies to imitate ? The absence of natural flies is not quite exceptional. It is frequent. On what principle, then, do we accept certain lures as appropriate to times when the creatures they imitate are dead or still unborn ?
As suggested in an earlier chapter, we accept them on the understanding that, although the real flies are not to be seen on the day of our fishing, they would be visible if the weather were more propitious. Resembling a famous golfer, Spring never plays up to her average; but there really is an average if only we take into account a sufficiency of years. For example, among the flies for the opening month of the season are the March Brown, the Woodcock and Hare's-Ear, the February Red, and the Black and Blae. It may be that some fisherman of long ago found on the water flies which those lures resembled, and thereupon established a tradition which has come down from age to age.
An alternative theory is that at the beginning of spring, when flies are very scarce, the trout, being hungry, rise at anything that seems to be a fly at all, without curiosity as to which of the possible insects it may be. This thought would find general approval in Scotland, where even good fishermen say that if the trout are really on the feed they will rise at anything, and in Yorkshire, where fishermen, when out on the becks, have only a few flies, all hackles, which are deemed sufficient at any time of the season ; but it will not commend itself to any one who has been closely observant in angling from day to day.
Even on a little-frequented mountain-burn or moorland-stream, on which artificial lures are thrown only once or twice a year, the trout invariably show a marked preference for some particular fly. I have never known an exception to this rule. It is true that the trout in burns and becks rise freely, and that you are almost certain to catch some with whatever lures, if they be not of unreasonable size, are on the cast; but this only makes their preference the more remarkable. Sometimes it is a fly with a red body that attracts them, sometimes a fly with a brown body, sometimes a fly with a black body, and sometimes a fly without wings. You may have to try a good many lures before you hit upon the right one ; but when you do there is no room for doubt. For every fish that takes either of the other flies two or three take the right one. Often, too, the trout change their preference from day to day.
What happens on unfrequented waters, to which I have referred because there the trout are most obviously in a state of nature, happens on streams and lakes that are whipped the whole season through.
When the natural flies by which we could interpret the preferences are, as often happens, not to be seen, all this is very puzzling ; but it cannot be attributed to caprice. Far from being capricious, trout, I seriously think, are not even capable of acquiring wariness. Often we hear that the fish in such-and-such a river are very cunning. " It is so much fished," we are assured, "that it takes the very highest skill to catch them. Not like the good old days." There can be no doubt that in saying this one's friend has a definite thought which he states in all sincerity ; but if we reflect a little we shall find cause for suspecting that he is in every case mistaken.