Many centuries ago, before even what is occasionally termed the ' dim and misty past,' some such scene as this took place : A barbaric personage, carelessly wrapped in bear or deer skin, might have been seen standing on a ledge of rocks, casting out a line made of strips of untanned leather and weighted with a stone. For hooks he had carved pieces of hard wood with the points well sharpened, or perhaps fishbones, or the more primitive but still not disused thorn or straight piece of wood which was plunged into the bait and, when the line tightened, came athwart the throat of the unfortunate fish.
The ledge on which the man stood sloped gently into the sea and was covered with mussels and seaweed. Each time that he hauled in his line some projecting rocky edge or sharp-shelled mussel would catch it. Three times were his thongs of deer-skin cut. With each succeeding accident his face flushed with anger and became red as the unkempt, straggling, knotty beard which reached almost to his waist.
Then an inspiration seized him. Quickly ascending the cliff, he entered the forest, tore down a sapling ash, stripped it of leaves and small branches, and to the lissom end of it affixed his line. And now did the wild man cease to appeal to strange gods, asking what sin he had committed that his lines should be broken by the sharp-shelled mussels. For, regaining his position, he cast his thong into the heaving sea, and, when the untutored fish of those days swallowed the bait, he lifted them out by means of that ash sapling and no longer fouled the rocks.
Great was the pride of this barbaric personage, for he had made one step towards civilisation. He had become an Inventor. And the men of his tribe flattered him by making similar rods, for there were no patent laws in those days. Soon, wherever the rockiness of the coast was such that the line could not be cast out or recovered without entanglement or injury, there might men be seen with poles, some of them huge, almost as weaver's beams ; for in those days there were giants in the land.
For the origin of rod fishing in the sea we must, then, go back to the first man who found he could not work a hand line on a rough rocky coast. I would venture almost to assert that he was the first angler as we now understand the word, for the old meaning—one who fished with the angle or hook— has long since fallen into disuse. The angler of to-day is a knight of the rod and none other. We do know with certainty that for many years rods have been used for sea fishing on the rock-bound coasts of Scotland and Ireland. The people in the remote parts of the Outer Hebrides are at least two centuries behind the rest of the world. As I found them using rods for fishing from the rocks, it is a fair conclusion that rods were used in sea fishing on other portions of the globe at least two centuries ago.
From boats we undoubtedly can fish without using a rod, and, moreover, fill our baskets ; but from the shore, unless it be a sandy or muddy one, there is often no possibility of fishing on the bottom with weighted gear unless a rod is used. I have already shown in the previous chapter how, under certain conditions, the fly fisher—using the term as a salmon angler understands it—may have really good sport in salt water.
Now I propose to deal with the slightly lower branch of fishing near or on the bottom of the sea, as it may be carried on from rocks and piers, from flat sandy shores, and in harbours and estuaries. Generally speaking, fishing of this kind is most successful during spring tides. I have never been able to make up my mind whether the reason is that the increased current acts like a spate coming down a freshwater river, stirring up the food and setting all the fish a-feeding, besides reinvigorating them by the freshness of the water, as we are brisked up by a good blow from a north-east wind ; or whether the powerful stream outside simply forces the fish to seek that shelter which they find in the slacker water close along the coast. Perhaps both reasons may be correct ; but, whatever the cause, the fact remains that in many places the fishing is extremely indifferent from the shore except at the periods when the moon is either at its full or new.
It is a great fallacy to suppose that wherever there is a pier, or wherever there are projecting rocks, fish are to be caught. On many parts of our coast sea fish are exceedingly scarce, and there are not a few pierheads where half a dozen whiting pout, two baby flat fish, and a six-ounce eel would be considered a remarkable bag, though the whole weigh one and a half or a couple of pounds. Those who have never had better sport, among whom may sometimes be included the boys home for the holidays, are well pleased with such meagre results of their endeavours. Possibly, if they follow some of the instructions given in this chapter, especially with regard to the use of ground bait, they may even succeed in doubling the not very enormous catch which I have suggested. On the other hand, there are some piers, or the sea beneath, which in the autumn months yield enormous cod. Down on the South-west coast where the pilchard fishery is carried on, the pilchard refuse attracts into the harbours a considerable number of fish which yield sport to bare-legged fisher lads and skilful angler alike.
In the autumn our good friend the bass comes into many an estuary and harbour, giving the shore fisher a chance, and during summer months may be seen playing round the piers. I will not venture, as was done in a recent work on sea fishing, to recommend any of the piers jutting out from the watering-places near London as affording first-class bass fishing. But the fact remains that a few bass do occasionally show themselves beneath these iron structures, and are still more occasionally caught. Even Brighton and Hastings piers, and less often the groins (particularly early in the morning, when the water is thick after rough weather), at times yield a bass or two, and the event is sufficiently startling to be deemed worthy of a prominent paragraph in the local newspapers. And I must say that these said paragraphs recur with greater frequency than of yore, doubtless because an ever-increasing number of anglers are giving their attention to bass fishing.