Sport amongst the Mountains by "Sarcelle"

It is a gloriously bright, glowing autumn morning, a light breeze ruffles the clear, blue surface of the Atlantic, or rather of a little bay thereof, which lies in a pretty setting of hills and mountains just in front of the window whereat I am writing, beyond the hydrangeas and fuchsias of the garden and an intervening stretch of marshland, home of many a snipe and duck. As the day is bright, and the water in the river low, there is but little chance of hooking either salmon or trout before evening; therefore, instead of "dropping a line" to those finny aristocrats, I will endeavour to "improve the shining hour" by writing a few lines about them, and their "followers."

Truly a fitting room is this in which to write of matters piscatorial—ay, of sport in general. In a corner, just two feet to the left of me, are my two beloved rods, a trout fly-rod and a trolling-rod; by the opposite end of the fire-place repose a handsome salmon-rod, and a landing-net of portentous dimensions, so huge that it looks more suitable for Og, king of Bashan, or Goliath of Gath, than for any modern mortal: but it is not upon record that those large gentlemen ever studied the quaint pages of "The Contemplative Man's Recreation." Two chairs off me lies my old creel, which had eleven good sea-trout in it yesterday, but now contains only my precious fly-book, its cover shiny with hundreds of glittering scales of the beautiful fish, which I shall be at no pains to remove; for when I am far away from these charming scenes those scales shall remind me of the river and the lough, of the mountains and the heather, of the grouse and the snipe, and of the genial companions it has been my good luck to meet in old Ireland.

A little beyond my fishing-basket is a sideboard which is littered with central-fire cartridges, tins of powder, and bags of shot. It is also adorned by one or two short clay pipes, and by a "billy-cock" hat, which, like almost every other hat in this inn, is covered with the most approved "casts" of salmon and trout-flies. In the corner, by the sideboard, two more rods and another landing-net; on the floor, sundry and divers pairs of sturdy-looking shooting boots. Next we come to a big salmon-creel, three central-fire guns, and a muzzle-loader; more hats, adorned with bunches of heather and casts of flies; a big shrimp-net (by the way, I and a fellow-sportsman took about five quarts of beautiful prawns with that latter one afternoon); more pipes, more fishing-rods.

In one corner of the room is a stuffed badger, which was pulled out of a deep and narrow hole, after a struggle of nearly two hours, by a white bull-terrier with a brown patch over one eye, who is now lying at my feet. On the chimney-piece are a grouse and a peregrine falcon, the latter incurring grave penalties by "the wearing of the green," for some friendly hand has adorned it with a little Dolly Varden hat of that colour. Now to complete his notion of my immediate surroundings, the reader must picture another window at the other end of this room, looking out not upon the sea, but upon a high heathery mountain, the home of the grouse and the hare; and he must imagine frequent interruptions from the incursions of friendly dogs, pointers, setters, retrievers, greyhounds, and terriers. Yes, the whole atmosphere of this house is evidently of the sport, sporting; the "commercial" would be at a discount here; all are lovers of the rod or gun, many of both; and those of the fair sex who honour us with their presence—thank goodness we are not without their refining and humanising influence—take a keen interest in our sport, and are proud of the doings of their respective husbands, brothers, or sons—for there are several family-parties staying here.

Some of my readers with sporting proclivities are already beginning to ask, "Where is this 'happy hunting ground?'" Alas, I fear me that I must not proclaim it in the pages of so popular a periodical as this, for there were nine rods on the little river yesterday, and our worthy hostess has her house nearly full of people, and her hands quite full of work; and if it were only generally known in London how delightful a place is the White Trout Inn (that is the most appropriate sobriquet I can think of for the moment), we should be flooded with eager sportsmen, the rivers would be over-fished, the moors over-shot, and the place spoiled. Before I dilate further on the delights of the White Trout Inn and its surroundings, I must lay down my pen for a brief space, and devote myself to the consumption of a hearty breakfast, at which some of the fish, from which the inn takes its name, invariably figure, accompanied generally by eggs and bacon, grilled mutton, and other solid viands.

It is done, the inner man is refreshed; and though a stronger breeze has sprung up, bringing clouds with it, and rods are off to the river, and guns to the mountain, and a knowing old professional angler in long-tailed frieze coat, indescribable hat, knee breeches, and black stockings, opines that there is a good chance for both trout and salmon, I must forego the sport for the present, and finish my appointed task. The White Trout Inn is not situated in a town, nor even in a village, though there are a few scattered houses here and there, but the place has the inestimable advantage to the sportsman of being twenty miles distant from a railway. Within a comfortable hour's walk of mine inn is a lovely lake five miles in length, surrounded by mountains as grand as artist could desire. White villas nestle here and there on the wooded slopes that lead down to the clear blue water, dotted with sundry fishing-boats, from which anglers are throwing the fly for salmon or trout, both of which swarm in the lake.

From the lake down to the sea a beautiful river runs a picturesque course of about four miles, in a valley with mountains on the one side and well-cultivated hills and slopes on the other; and in every part of the river are to be found the noble salmon, the brilliant white or sea-trout, and their humble relative, the brown trout—in England a prize coveted by most anglers, and esteemed by most gourmands, but here looked upon with contempt alike by fishermen and epicures, being far exceeded both in strength and gamesomeness, and in delicacy of flavour, by its migratory brother from the sea. The fishing in both river and lake is free to visitors at this inn, who have, moreover, the privilege of shooting over some of the neighbouring mountains, where may be found grouse, hares, woodcock, and snipe. There is grand duck-shooting here in the season, and the lovely bay affords an immense abundance and variety of sea fish to those who like a good breeze and a bit of heavy hand-pulling, as an occasional change after many days' fly-fishing. We have a glorious sandy beach, where sea-bathing may be enjoyed untrammelled by conventionalities of machines or costumes. We have always some of "the best of all good company" here; in fact, one gentleman, as true a sportsman as ever crossed country, drew trigger, or threw salmon-fly, has taken up his abode here en permanence, and finds sport of some kind for nearly every day in the year.

I must not omit to mention that, for those who like to take rifle or shot-gun out to sea with them, we have seals pretty frequently, and a great abundance of large wild-fowl. Our larder, I need hardly say, is kept constantly supplied with the best of fish and game, and the "cellar's as good as the cook," the whisky especially being undeniable and insinuating, and "divil a headache in a hogshead of it."

But I am to say something about salmon-fishing. Faith, it's difficult to say anything new about it, inspiring and exciting theme though it be. The rationale of it I utterly renounce. We know pretty well why a trout takes an artificial fly. It is a tolerably correct imitation of a natural insect, which is the natural food of our spotted friend; and the different flies which are used on different waters, and during the various months, are constantly changed to correspond with the proper insects frequenting each locality at each period. Of course, this is reasonable enough. A trout is lying on the look-out for flies, and something comes floating down the stream towards him, which so closely resembles his natural food, that he sees no earthly (or watery) reason to suppose it to be unwholesome, and he takes it, and—it disagrees with him. But why on earth a salmon should ever make such a fool of himself as to jump at a huge, gaudy arrangement of feathers, fur, silk, &c., which is not an imitation of anything "in the heavens above or the earth below, or the waters under the earth," the nearest approach to a faithful simile for which would seem to be an imaginary cross between a humming-bird and a butterfly, altogether passes my comprehension. Still more astonishing is it that these extraordinary objects must be varied in size, colours, and sundry other particulars, according to locality and time of year.

But let not the reader, who is yet unlearned in the craft, imagine that every salmon is such a fool as to leap at the gaudy lure. From my little experience of the number of these princely fish which run up certain rivers, and the small proportion of them which fall victims to the rod, I would rather be inclined to come to the conclusion that these unhappy individuals must either be lunatics or morbid misanthropical (misopiscical?) specimens of the genus, that a fish who takes the fly is either entirely bereft of his senses, or has firmly made up his mind, wearied with subaqueous trials, to hang himself—upon a hook—and that his vigorous struggles after he is hooked are to be accounted for by that instinct of self-preservation which is the first law of nature, and which often leads a would-be suicide, after he has jumped into the water, to exert himself might and main to get out of it again.

Not the least charm of salmon-fishing is the wild grandeur of the scenery in which the best of it is found, heather-clad mountains, ravines, and gorges, rapid, rushing streams, splashing waterfalls, deep smooth pools, and huge rocks here and there in the river, adding picturesqueness to the scene and increased danger to the line.

Who has not read vivid descriptions of the killing of a salmon?

First comes the "rise," no little circling splash like that of a trout, but a rushing boil in the water, hailed with a joyous shout by the angler and his attendant; then there is a momentary check; then the merry music of the clicking reel as the fish rushes off, perchance quite slowly at first, not apparently quite alive to the danger of his position; but when the fact dawns upon him that the little sting in the tail of the fly he snapped at is attached to something that is seriously menacing his liberty, his struggles become exciting in the extreme. Now comes a swift rush, taking out some fifty yards of line without a check. Now he is seen for a moment—of extreme danger to the tackle—throwing himself high out of water, a huge bar of brightest silver, falling back into it again with a splash. Instantaneous guesses are made at his weight; then comes a long run, fatiguing for both fish and fisherman, up and down stream; then the salmon, getting rather fagged, half turns on his side near the opposite bank, but he is of no use over there. A little later on he comes over to our side, and Sandy or Patsy, as the case may be, "makes an offer" at him with the gaff, but it is too soon; the fish, roused to fresh life by the sight of the horrid biped, exerts all his remaining strength—we have two or three last frantic rushes, moments of intense excitement, during which we have not one single thought for anything in the wide world but that salmon and that gaff. At last the gallant fellow is near the bank, thoroughly tired this time—the gaff is in his quivering flesh; Patsy struggles up the bank with our glittering prize; the fish is knocked on the head, the fly carefully cut out, the hackles blown and cleared of blood or dirt—for some salmon-flies are worth from fifteen shillings to two pounds each—and then we and Patsy, or Sandy, can sit down on the bank and enjoy our well-earned rest.

First we must have a "tot" of whisky to "wet that fish"; then Patsy says, "Sure now, yer honour'll be afther giving the blessed pool a bit of rest, an' we'll thry another directly."

So we sit and enjoy the beauty of the mountain and river scenery, with a pipe of good tobacco and a frequent furtive glance at the salmon, till a freshening breeze, or the sight of a rising fish, inspires us with fresh courage, to result, if we are lucky, in a fresh capture.

Pleasant, too, is the fishing from a boat on the rippling surface of our fair gem of a lake in the grand setting of those majestic mountains; ay, and pleasant too when the salmon are sulky, is the fishing for the beautiful white trout in the various streams between the lake and the tideway; and exciting indeed is the struggle when a white trout with glittering scales, only a few hours from the sea, is hooked on a small trout-fly and fine drawn gut—for your sea-trout is the most active of fish, and will give the angler a braver fight than a brown trout of more than double his size, flinging himself constantly high into the air, a silvery flash of light, game to the very last, making rush after rush, and spring after spring, when you think he should be quite safe for the landing-net.

Ay, and when the shades of evening are falling over mountain and valley, river, lake, and bay, when the smoke from the chimney of our inn, rising from amongst the trees which surround it, suggests busy doings at the huge peat-fire in the kitchen, pleasant is the walk or drive back to that snug hostelry, and jovial the dinner—with salmon and trout fresh from lake and river, grouse not quite so fresh from the mountain, and snipe from the marsh.

Genial and jolly, too, is the evening talk over our glasses of punch, the recital of incidents of sport during the day, the comparison of flies, the arrangement of plans for the morrow. "Early to bed and early to rise," is a very good motto generally for the sportsman; but there are seasons when the morning fishing is of but little account, and, mindful of this, we prolong our symposia and our yarns far into the small hours till our stock of anecdotes and tobacco are alike exhausted.

Many a rich man has paid down his hundreds for the rental of part of a salmon river, and perhaps his fish have cost him twenty to a hundred guineas each. But then again the poor professional anglers often make a good living by it, partly by the salmon they catch, and partly by acting as guides and instructors to tourists and amateurs. And here let me tell the reader to take the anecdotes of his tourist friends anent the salmon they have killed in Ireland or Scotland cum grano salis. I believe that about nineteen out of twenty fish "taken" by non-resident amateurs are risen and hooked by Patsy or Sandy aforesaid.

The most delicate part of the negotiation having thus been effected, the rod is carefully handed to the amateur, and he is instructed how to humour and play the fish, which is gaffed at last, and he may certainly be said to have killed it, though he was not exactly the man who caught it.

But to do Patsy or Sandy justice he is—though sometimes, sub rosâ, a bit of a poacher—a keen lover of real sport, and infinitely prefers accompanying anyone who can throw a fly and kill a fish himself to one of the amateurs aforesaid, in spite of the heavier fee he may expect from the latter.

A friend called one day on a professional fisherman near here, and found him lugging a big table about his cabin by the aid of a hook and a bit of a line. "What the divil are ye doin' at all at all?" asked his friend Corny. "Sure, thin, I'd betther be brakin' the hook in the table than brakin' it in a salmon," was the reply.

And this little yarn bears a very good practical moral. See that your tackle is sound and perfect in every respect before you go after salmon.

Ludicrous incidents sometimes happen in salmon-fishing. A bungling amateur on the Bandon river, near Cork, hooked something which seemed to him to be an immense and very sulky salmon. The stream was swift, but the fish never travelled very far, moving sluggishly about and resisting all his efforts to bring it to the surface.

At last, after a long but very uneventful play of about two hours, the thing came into a more rapid part of the stream, lifted to the top of the water, and behold, a big ox-hide, which had been sunk in that part of the river! The disgust of that angler, and the profane language he gave way to, may be imagined. A friend of mine had a long play with what seemed to be a very heavy spring fish, but at last it came to the top, when the attendant Patsy exclaimed, "Bedad, it's a judy, sir!" And a "judy" it was, that is, a spent fish or kelt, but it was hooked by the tail, which accounts for the vigorous play it gave.

There is a rather strong religious sentiment among some of our Irish professional salmon-fishers. One of them has been known at the commencement of a season to sprinkle his patron's rod, line, and flies with holy water, as a potent charm. Another worthy was out the other day with a friend of mine fishing for white trout. My friend hooked a nice strong fish over two pounds, which got away after a brief play. In the first excitement of this loss his attendant exclaimed, "Oh, the divil carry him then!" but, suddenly bethinking himself, added, "an' may God forgive me for cursin' the blessed fish—that didn't take a good hould!"

But the day has become so beautifully breezy and cloudy that I can't possibly sit here any longer, knowing that all my brethren of the craft are on the river or the lake, so I will e'en pick up rod, shoulder basket, and be off after them. Kind reader, I crave your indulgence, and—Au revoir.