And now we come to that calm-water fishing for bass and others of the fish already named, to which the attention of the seasick has been specially invited.
It has just been said that the bass likes high food. So it does, when in the mood for carrion, and a decayed skate's liver is even more appealing than a scented pilchard. Yet the bass is chiefly to be regarded as a predatory fish, and to see it feeding at its best it should be watched from some high cliff, dashing among the frightened shoals of sand-eels, with its feathered allies shrieking just above the surface. What a time of it these small fish must have, to be sure! The tenor wishes at intervals that he were a bird, but not even Mr. Holbein has ever wished himself a fish, though he could hardly swim much better if he were. The bass, then, pursues these small and delicate fishes not only up and down the coast, but even into tidal rivers, and there it may be sought by anglers whose gorge would rise at the mere thought of embarking in a boat in the open. The distance to which bass thus engaged will penetrate into a country is not, I think, satisfactorily determined. Its case is not analogous to that of the salmon, which will ascend as far as possible in search of pure water for its precious ova. The bass could not, in all probability, flourish in the head waters, nor does its search for food take it as far. In the Arun, a river famous in the annals of Sussex anglers, the bass are taken above Arundel, where I have fished before now with Slaughter-who, however, hardly justified his name on those occasions-but not, I think, far above that historic town. In the Teign, a bass river with which I am very much better acquainted, the bass travel, it is said, three parts of the way up to Newton, though the larger fish at any rate have never, within the memory of man, been taken on the rod any distance above the long footbridge, which can hardly be more than half a mile from the bar. It is not always easy to find these estuary bass, for there are days on which they gather just off the mouth of the river, and days on which they make their way up to the bridge with all despatch and rarely look at a bait until above the yacht moorings-I refer here to the Teign estuary-or even up to the bridge itself. They show considerable variation in size, my own afore-mentioned fish of 11 lbs. 5 ozs. being from all accounts the largest taken on the rod for the past twenty years at any rate, if not indeed the record for rod-caught fish in that river. That the angler may always, however, expect something considerably heavier than this may be gathered from the fact of a bass of close on double the weight, or 22 lbs., having been netted during the summer of 1902 in the river Tamar. This still leaves the record with Devon, and indeed there are reasons why it should be one of the finest counties for bass in the kingdom, its many bar estuaries giving it a great advantage over the more unbroken coast of Cornwall. Some parts of Wales are also famous for bass, and Barmouth was, at any rate till quite recently, as good a goal as any for the angler specially bent on the capture of this fish. Although I like a turn at all manner of sea-fishing on occasion, even unto the taking of flat-fish and gurnards, the coarse fishing of the coast, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that there are only two sea-fish at home really worth the attention of the scientific angler, and these are the bass and grey mullet. Of the grey mullet, more later when we find ourselves on terra firma ; of the bass now, and that right speedily.
It has already been pointed out that these bass are predatory, and that they follow the shoals of brit and small sand-eels some distance up our south-coast rivers. The bass come along in shoals also, the large and the small keeping to themselves with an exclusiveness that betokens caution on the part of the small. They usually begin to enter the river on each tide just as the ebb slacks off, and they run up until just on high water. On calm, hot days they may be seen playing at the surface, and the angler then follows them in his boat and picks a fish or two out of each shoal, just as he might in other circumstances pick a right and left out of each covey. There are days, however, when the fish do not, for some reason or other, show at the surface, and then he has to be guided by the gulls in attendance. And there are a few, a very few, days on which there are neither fish nor birds to indicate where he should cast his bait on the secretive waters ; and on such days I have sometimes taken large fish.
The tackle and baits which I use for this bass fishing have incidentally been described. A 10-foot trout-rod, a bronze winch holding about sixty yards of fine dressed silk line, ten or twelve feet of strongest single salmon gut, and a hook of the size figured1 (Fig. 22, p. 252) are the chief items. Sometimes no lead whatever is used, and at others a piece of lead-foil weighing an ounce or less improves matters. The single hook is attached to the end of the gut collar, the gut collar to the line, and the lead is pinched on the latter just above the join of the gut. The one and only bait is a living, nay a lively, sand-eel caught from the adjacent sand-bar; and mark well that it must be a brown sand-eel and not a green launce. The launce and sand-eels keep company in the wet-sand flats at the entrance to the river, and there they are netted daily throughout the summer, unless an extra run on salmon or mackerel gives the men more profitable occupation elsewhere. Sixpence invested in lively sand-eels is sufficient for a morning bait for two rods, and they must be at once transferred in a bucket of sea water to a floating bait-box or a courge. The courge is a torpedo-shaped basket of wicker, which is convenient for towing astern of the boat. It was introduced from the Channel Islands, I believe, by the late J. C. Wilcocks, and is now in general use in the southwest. The floating bait-box, which, at any rate for river work where there is no rough water, I prefer, is triangular or wedge-shaped, perforated with numerous holes, and having a small opening which is covered by a lid working on leather hinges. A good plan is to keep the bulk of the bait in a box , of this kind, which is towed, not astern but alongside, and to have a bucketful of water in the boat, into which a dozen baits are transferred from time to time as wanted. These are more easily got at when the fish are biting well, and it is consequently necessary to have a fresh bait every minute or two, as getting the box out of the water and into the boat is a somewhat long business, it being desirable to let all the water drain out of it before bringing it over the side. The method of putting the sand-eel on the hook has already been described. The hook is passed through the lower lip, care being taken to injure the delicate fish as little as possible, and the point is then caught in the skin of the throat. This is found to be the best way of keeping the bait lively for the longest possible time, for, properly put on the hook, it can swim and breathe without hindrance, neither the fins nor gills being disturbed by the hook. All being ready, the boat is rowed quietly and without fuss to a point below where the fish are known, or thought, to be feeding, and, if the tide is at more than one-third flood, the stern is brought round so as to point upstream, and the boat is allowed to drift in this fashion over the fish. The bait is lowered quietly into the water, and line is paid out foot by foot off the reel until the bait may be working forty or fifty yards from the boat, the latter being prevented from overtaking the hook by gentle paddling. I hope this is quite clear. The angler and the boatman both face upstream, the former sitting in the Stern-thwart with his back to the boatman in the bow. During spring tides there is generally a deal of green weed in the river, mostly out of the salmon nets, and at such times it may be necessary to examine the bait every few moments, as the least particle of weed on it is sufficient to prevent the fish from biting. It does not add to the pleasure of fishing to reel in thirty or more yards of line at intervals of two or three minutes to see whether the bait is free of weed, especially when, as sometimes happens, the precaution is repeatedly found to have been unnecessary. It does not add to the pleasure of fishing; but it pays in the long run, for there could be nothing more aggravating than to reel in after a drift over the entire ground, a matter of five or ten minutes, only to find that there is weed on the bait, and to think that it might perhaps have been there ever since starting that drift. If the bass are large, there will be no mistake about the bite, and no difficulty about striking and hooking the fish, for the simple reason that it hooks itself. There is a sudden curve of the top joint, a scream of the reel, and the fun has commenced. Unless the angler knows his work, it is as likely as not to end very soon as far as he is concerned, for the first rush of a heavy bass is easily bungled by the fisherman, and a lost cast will be the result of any carelessness. The fish must be allowed to run, always with the least possible check of the finger on the rim of the reel, and the moment the fish stops the line must be very gingerly wound' in. If the tackle is strong, as bass tackle must be, then the rule is to keep a tight line on the fish from first to last. If the gut is frayed, or the angler has any other cause to distrust his tools, then a certain licence must be allowed, though this is at best but a risky game, and the bass is more likely than not to get away. A good bass of 5 lbs. or over will sometimes run out yards and yards of line half-adozen times over without giving up the struggle, and even when apparently exhausted such a fish will break away from the very point of the gaff or ring of the landing-net and start away again upstream. The increasing strength of the tide, and, in this particular river, the swift rush of the waters between the piles of the bridge are immeasurably in its favour, and it is not slow to avail itself of such natural aids, of which it shows an accurate knowledge, that can only be explained on the basis of its having been in that river many times before. Care should be taken, when the fish is safely in the boat, not to cut the hands against its spinous fins, for these inflict extremely nasty wounds. The smaller bass bite at times much more ravenously than the heavy fish, and they are also considerably more difficult to hook, for they want quick striking at the moment of the bite. The bite itself is moreover so niggling that the angler is apt to mistake weed for fish. Once hooked, these little bass, which may run two, three, or five to the pound, give absolutely no sport, though for their size they fight gamely.