England and Scotland—The Scotsman's Better Fortune and Less Keen Interest—Scorn for " Fancy Flies"—Midges Everywhere—Mr. J. Gilbert's Wonderful Basket—His Large Flies—"No Rise," Yet Good Sport — Trout have Unmistakable Preferences—The Fish are Not Capricious—Do they Become Wary ?—T-J- B- and his Chalk-stream—The Adventure of Mr. T- — The Forbidden but Instructive Otter — "Wariness" Apparently an Illusion—Suggestions towards Accurate Knowledge—A Memorable Morning.
Flies are better understood in England than they are in Scotland. That, perhaps, is mainly because opportunities to use them are much more frequent in Scotland than in England. Even as many thousands of Londoners are unfamiliar with historical buildings in the Capital, dwellers in regions where fishing is to be had for the taking or the asking, or at small charge, have but a casual interest in the sport.
In England trout-streams are rare, and trout lakes rarer; and the waters are in most cases private. In England a day's fishing is either a costly luxury or a great privilege. In the South it is no uncommon thing for a club of twenty-five men to pay £1250 yearly for the right of fishing in two or three miles of stream. Considerations of that kind stimulate the imagination, and English anglers set themselves to become as proficient as possible in the craft of the sport. They may still be far short of the complete science or the perfect art; but they try to be expert in both. In Scotland quite a different attitude is the rule. Almost any one there can have a day's fishing, or a week's, if he wishes to, and has time to spare; but he does not make the best possible use of his privilege. He seems to regard angling as an amusement in which to pass the time pleasantly, rather than as a craft to be closely studied.
Indeed, there is some cause for suspecting that the people of Scotland do not really believe that there is, or can be, a science of the sport at all. They are disposed to smile when any poor Southerner appears among them equipped with all the tackle which a first-rate shop in London can supply. Nearly all of it is superfluous, they think; and the rest is probably shoddy stuff. All that's wanted, they will add when frank in their friendliness, is to be had at the local ironmonger's. In fact, excepting in Edinburgh, Perth, Stirling, Glasgow, and one or two other towns, the ironmonger is the recognised authority. Often, as he spreads out his cases, he will show you a really wide variety of flies; but of most of them he has a poor opinion. In spirit, as now and then in act when there is nothing to do, he is a sportsman ; and he does not conceal his opinion out of consideration for his trade. His opinion echoes the voice of the people who go to his shop for flies, and "bait hooks" when there is a spate, and new lines when the old ones are wearing a little rotten ; and usually it is remarkable for simplicity and emphasis. "Nae use ava'," he will often say, in cheerful condemnation of a whole boxful of what he calls " fancy flees " : " here are the flees that tak' a the year roond," opening a case which contains blae-wings and woodcocks, some with red hackles, others with black, others with buskings of hare's-ear, and a few flies of hackle only.
If your visit to the good man is before the end of April, he will commend to you pretty large flies; but after that midges only have his approval. Morning, or noon, or night, it is only midges, he assures you, that are any use. "Even doon the burn, where the tide comes up frae the sea, the water," he explains, " is sair hard-fished nooadays, and the troot are awfu' cunnin', and wi'na' look at ony-thing but midges." Here and there you may find a trader in tackle who says something else; but all the tales are variants of the same rather pessimistic unbelief in the "fancy notions of tourists frae Lunnon." Blae-wing, woodcock, and the hackles, small for streams, larger for lochs, and for lochs supplemented by teals and perhaps a few heckham-peckhams, will serve all over Scotland.
So the local authorities say, and the local anglers achieve wonderful results with the limited equipment. Living constantly within easy reach of streams and lakes, Scotsmen are nearly all of them anglers more or less, and those who fish frequently fish well; but they do not realise that the craft has great possibilities of refining and development. Indeed, in sports and pastimes generally they seem to be constitutionally content with mediocrity. In football they are, I think, supreme; but there is no other game of skill, no other sport, in which they are equal to the English or to the Irish. This is notable in regard to cricket, in which the best team raised from the whole of Scotland would probably be no match for a second-class English county; and still more strangely notable in regard to golf, the very implements of which remained rather rude and ill-adapted to their purposes until, after centuries of perfect contentment with them among the Northmen, the game suddenly spread into England.
Angling is not exactly analagous. Although there is less scope for it in the South than in the North, angling is in England a sport as ancient as it is in Scotland. Nevertheless, we see as regards angling the difference between Scotland and England that marks their standings in other recreative pursuits. The Englishmen are keen and progressive. The Scots are indifferent and stationary. Nay: it may be said that they are retrograde. Signs are not wanting that two or three generations ago the contents of their tackle - books, or at least the flies they actually used, were more reasonable than those of to-day.
One fine afternoon in mid-summer I came upon an old gentleman preparing to fish in a broad rough pool under a waterfall on the Fife Eden. He had not, he told me, been on the river for very many years; but the weather had been pleasant that morning, and he had thought of coming out to cast a fly. Wishing him good luck, I passed on ; and, having fished diligently for two hours not far off, I wandered back towards home, and came upon the old gentleman where I had left him. My own basket held a brace of trout, each fish about half a pound. I wondered, Had even so much as this modest fortune come the way of the ancient sportsman ?