Spring in the Highlands-Lakes near the Sea and Lakes Inland-Is " Feeling Cold " an Illusion ?-The Boatman's Craft and Subtlety-What the Salmon may not See-A Remarkable Incident-Do Salmon Dose ?-Whence they may See a Minnow - Colours of Minnows - Large Lakes-Possibilities of the Deeps-Wind and Waves - What Fish are Rising ? - Salmon take Flies Un-obtrusively-The Beds of Lakes-Submerged Rivers- A Lesson on Loch Nell.
To go salmon fishing in the Highlands before Easter calls for courage of a Spartan kind; yet, especially if it be on a loch you would seek your sport, that is when you had better go. Loch fishing, which on the earlier waters begins in the middle of January, the depth of winter, is practically all what is called "spring fishing." On lochs not far from the sea, of which Loch Shiel, in Argyllshire, is an example, there is autumn fishing also; but on the others, far inland, such as Loch Tay, the first quarter of the year is regarded as the only time. That, I imagine, is because the autumn fish in inland lochs, instead of resting there, are merely passing through to spawnbeds in the recesses of the watersheds. In August and September a loch a few miles from the sea is to the fish just as a pool in the river, a pleasant place to rest in and explore; but a loch in the heart of the country is quite another thing. The fish progress towards it by easy stages, resting for days in many a pool, moving on, indeed, only when a flood tempts them forth; and by the time they reach the loch they have but little leisure in which to tarry away from the breeding grounds. The fish that run from the sea in winter or early in the spring have other habits. Many of them go, without loitering, to the lochs, and stay there for a long time. That is why, if we would visit the inland lochs, we must do so early in the year.
Scotland stands high on the map, not very far, indeed, from the Arctic Circle. Just think of fishing there at a time when even the Home Counties are still liable to the nip of frost and to showers of sleet! The thought is disquieting; but it is needlessly so. Although the best of the salmon rivers and lakes are far north, the mean temperature of their neighbourhoods during the early months of the year is not much lower than that of England, where, in pursuit of jack and perch and roach, and other " coarse" fish, thousands of men are out upon the waters daily from the beginning of autumn until the dawn of spring. Perhaps the belief that winter must be very rigorous in Scotland comes from knowledge that sometimes it is very rigorous in London. If Middlesex is cold, what must Perthshire or Sutherland be? That is the line of reasoning. It is not justified by the facts. Does the reader remember the wonderful description of the coming of a snowstorm in Doone Valley? Mr. Blackmore, who describes weather more minutely and more vividly than any other novelist, tells that for days during the great frost there was a strange boom in the still air. Only twice have I myself heard this mysterious sound, sign of temperature approaching zero ; and one of the occasions was in London about eleven years ago, when there was bearing ice on the Serpentine for six weeks. Besides, while the inland parts of England are just as liable to sharp frosts as Scotland is, a low temperature in the South is usually more telling on the nerves than a similar temperature in the North. In the South it is often accompanied by fog, which is moisture; and that makes it much more penetrating. One hears that in Canada it is possible to be quite comfortable with the mercury at zero, or even below. That is because there, as at St. Moritz, the atmosphere is comparatively dry. The atmosphere of our own Highlands is not so little saturated with moisture as that of Canada or that of the South of Europe; but certainly it seems to be much less so than that of the Midlands and the South of England. At any rate, it is quite possible to fish on a Scotch river or loch in winter without being much inconvenienced by the frost. Perhaps the nature of the occupation partly explains this peculiarity. Civilised man is subject to some strange illusions. In darkness, for example, he thinks he is smoking long after the tobacco in his pipe has ceased to burn. Blindfolded, he is as likely as not to be unable to tell a glass of port from a glass of sherry. These facts show that the palate is partly dependent upon the eyes. Similarly, it is more than possible that in the open air the sense of being cold may be due less to a low temperature than to boredom or to knowledge that time is passing wastefully. When the mind is agreeably employed the nerves are astonishingly unconscious of chill airs.
Is this happy condition usual among the circumstances of salmon fishing early in the year? I think it is. Are the sportsmen on a loch as cosy as they would be at their own firesides what time the mountains close by are invisible in the blast of snow ? I think they are. Oft expectation fails where most it promises; but in angling, while the expectation is aglow the body is aglow as well. Sometimes, when the rains hold off unseasonably, one has not much hope even of a river in the autumn; but at the beginning of the year clean-run salmon are almost certain to be found in the lochs. It is, therefore, at the earliest part of the season that the angler is best equipped against the slings and arrows of our climate.
How, as regards the basket, is he like to fare ? This question is perhaps best answered by a record of experience. A friend fished on Loch Tay for a few days in February. On the 5th he caught eight salmon, 28, 23, 23, 21, 20, 19, 18, and 16 lbs.; on the 6th, six salmon, 32, 20, 20, 18, 19, and 17 lbs.; on the 7th, four salmon, 20, 19, 23, and 18 lbs.; and on the 9th, six salmon, 32, 17, 22, 19, 21, and 17 lbs. His basket for the four days was 24 salmon, weighing 502 lbs. It is not at all certain that one who goes fishing, on Loch Tay or elsewhere, will find such sport as that; but, equally of course, it is possible that he will. If he does, he will be kept in sufficient activity to prevent him suffering from the weather; even if he does not, he will find at the end of the short day that the hope of sport is not much less sustaining than sport itself.