The assumption that trout in much-fished waters have become wary is based upon the fact that many of them, having been hooked and lost, lived to fight on other days with more than their native discretion. The statement of fact may be conceded to the full, even to the extent of admitting that in certain streams every trout old enough to rise at flies has conceivably at some time or another been pricked by a hook; but the inference is exceedingly doubtful.
One is loath to tell stories which almost anyone of experience could cap; but it is just because an incident which I now recall could easily be matched from the recollections of many another angler that I set it down. The certainty that it will bring to memory similar incidents in the experience of others will go far towards rendering credible my conjecture that trout are not now more " sophisticated " than they ever were. That blithe sportsman by flood and field, Mr. T- J-B-, possesses a three-mile stretch of a stream rising on the borders of Surrey, Sussex, and Hampshire. Year by year it is his hospitable custom, when, in the pressure of business affairs, he remembers that it is time for fishing, to invite friends to go with him for a few days to L-. As the thoroughly ancient Royal-Hotel has accommodation enough for six guests besides himself, B-is rarely without half a dozen boon companions when he entrains at Waterloo. It does not matter at all that one or two of them may never have waved a rod before : at least, if this is taken into consideration, it does but lend additional gaiety to B-'s view of the outing. He rejoices in the joy of a friend over the exciting marvel of the first trout. In fact, the water is peculiarly adapted to B-'s versatile hospitality.
Besides the stream properly so called, there are two ponds, embanked large pools, fed by the stream itself, from out of which go the forces that drive the wheels of a quaint old mill by the wayside; and in these ponds are many trout of enormous size, some of them, which are seen now and then, believed to be twelve pounds each. The ponds are what may be called B-'s reserves against the possibility, not to be tolerated for a single convivial moment, that some one of his guests might have the hilarity of dinner blighted by the remembrance of an empty creel. If any of his party looks like being defeated on the stream, B- knows what to do.
Well, on our setting out after breakfast one morning, he told me that I was to keep an eye on Mr. T-. Mr. Tis well advanced in years. His high and esteemed position in the City of London is the result of such a busy life that he had never had any time to fish, and that was his first day with the rod. If he did not have a trout pretty early in the afternoon, I was to lead him to the ponds, and see that he got one there. "And, mind you," B- added, "it is to be a good fish—big enough to make Mr. T-want to have it set up, to be an heirloom in his family for ever".
In due time, according to these instructions, I led Mr. T-to the ponds ; and, arrived there, asked to see his flies. The end one had a peculiar dark wing and a body of claret colour : once seen, it could be easily recognised on occasion. The hooks were somewhat large for the purpose which B-had commanded me to see accomplished ; but they might as well, I thought, be given a trial. If they failed, a fresh set could be readily fitted up. On each of the three I put a worm ; then I cast well out towards the middle of the pond, handed the rod to Mr. T-, and pleaded with him to raise it smartly, but without violence, when I should say " Now !"
In less than a minute the word of anxious command had to be given ; and in less than another my new friend was pleading with me. " Take it—take it!" he exclaimed, trying to hand me the rod, which, in much perturbation, was bending and wriggling in all directions. I took it, and spoke soothing words; and when Mr. T- had recovered a little from the first shock, in duty bound to our host I cajoled him into risking another. " Keep up the point of the rod," I said as he began again, " and let the line run out when he pulls hard; and all will yet be well".
For a few minutes, though he was visibly trembling and only gasped when he wished to speak, Mr. T-managed all right; but then a pair of peasants came along the road bordering the ponds, and stopped to look on, and apparently caused Mr. T-to be forgetful. At any rate, when the fish bolted again, he allowed the rod to be pulled down till the point touched the water, and clung to his gear with might and main. The line suddenly slackened. The trout was off. So, I found on examining the cast, was the end fly.
The incident, however, was not yet closed.
I put another cast on Mr. T-'s line, and, after waiting for ten minutes in order that the many fish in the pool might recover from the disturbance, persuaded him to try again. The bait was seized soon after it fell upon the water; there ensued a dire struggle, which lasted nigh half an hour ; and in the end, all a-tremble and full of laughter, scarcely able to keep from gambolling in his glee, our friend was in proud possession of the heirloom which B-had desired for him.
In the mouth of the trout was the lost fly!
The fish Mr. T- had caught was the very trout he had been struggling with, and had lost, when the peasants came upon the scene. It weighed four pounds and a half. Surely, therefore, it was old enough to have learned wariness by experience if trout are capable of such learning at all.
There are, as I have said, strong reasons for suspecting that they do not have this capacity. Incidents carrying the same suggestion which comes irresistibly from Mr. T-'s performance are not uncommon. A trout often rises at the very fly which a few seconds before severely jagged him. Most of us know that he will sometimes go on rising and being jagged again and again, just as if he were determined to be caught. Not all the trout one meets behave in this way; but many of them do, and their conduct casts doubt upon the belief that the fish are taught by experience to shun artificial flies. Not only do they seem to learn nothing from their own mishaps : they seem to learn nothing from one another. Often when you are playing a trout, a second seizes another of your flies. As the trouble of the first fish may conceivably be not manifest to the other, or not interpretable by him, this counts for little ; but what are we to make of the otter ?