Some Odd Ways of Fishing

by G. Christopher Davies

The maxim that one half the world does not know how the other half lives may, with slight variation, be applied to the world of sportsmen. The "sportsman" is not of any particular class. The highest in the land and the lowest may rub against each other in the broad field of sport. This is peculiarly true as regards the gentle art. Wandering by the side of an unpreserved stream you may see my lord casting a fly over this shallow; and, twenty yards further down, Tinker Ben seated by the side of a chub hole watching his float circling round in the eddy, and as the noble passes the boor an honest angler's greeting may be interchanged, and a light for the latter's pipe asked for and given. It may be taken as a general rule that between anglers who pursue their sport by fair means there is a levelling freemasonry of the craft which is as pleasant as it is right.

Between the fair fisherman and the poacher, there is, however, a broad line of demarcation—a line which bars the interchange of even the commonest civilities on the mutual ground of pursuing the same object. The fair fisherman hates the man who captures the finny tribe by unfair or illegal means as strongly as a foxhunter hates a foxkiller, or a strict sabbatarian hates a sinner who enjoys a Sunday afternoon's walk and the glimpses of nature it may afford him. There is also a line drawn between the man who fishes for amusement alone and he who fishes for profit. The division in the latter instance may not be so broad as it is in the former, but, nevertheless, it is wide enough to distinctly separate the two classes. Now I think the fair and amateur angler is in a great many instances unaware of the shifts and dodges adopted by the poacher and the pothunter to fill their pockets, and of the consequent hindrance to his own sport. Therefore by way of warning, of information, and possible amusement, I have noted down a few of the more singular instances which have come under my own observation.

Let anyone take a boat and row down the sluggish Yare from the dirty old city of Norwich as the shades of evening are darkening the river, and he will see several uncouth, rough-looking boats being slowly impelled down stream by rougher looking men. He will notice that they have short, stout rods and poles in the boats, and if he watches them, he will presently see them take up their stations by the margin. Driving poles in the mud at the stems and sterns of their boats, the men make them fast; and, taking their seats, proceed to "bob" for eels. A quantity of earthworms are strung on worsted, and, after being weighted, are suspended by a stout line from a short thick rod. The solitary fisherman holds one of these rods in each hand on each side of the boat, just feeling the bottom with the bait, and now and then pulling it up and shaking the eels, whose teeth get entangled in the worsted, into the boat. There he sits silent and uncommunicative, the greater part of the night and in all weathers, for the sake, perhaps, of, on the average, a shilling's worth of eels each night. Altogether his berth must be a lonely one. His companions take their positions too far off to hold conversation with him, and the splash of a water-rat or the flaps of the canvas of a belated wherry and the cheery good-night of its steersman are the only sounds to beguile the tedium of his midnight watching.

Another mode of capturing eels is by "eel picking" in the lower waters of the Yare near Cantley. The man, armed with his eel spear, takes his stand in the bows of his craft, and, stealing along by the edge of the reeds, plunges his spear at random in the mud. He uses his spear also as the means of propelling his tiny boat. I have seen four or five boats following each other along the side of the river in a queer-looking procession.

Those centres of interest to the angler—the Norfolk broads—are, alas! the strongholds of poaching. Norfolk anglers plead their great expanse of water as an excuse for "liggering" or trimmering to an enormous extent. Taking Norfolk anglers as a class, if they can "ligger" they will. The amount of destruction is something wonderful. The only time I ever yielded to the temptation of going with a friend "liggering," I am thankful to say, we caught nothing, and I am not in a hurry to repeat the experiment. Yarrell gives an account of four days' sport (?) at Heigham Sounds and Horsea, where in 1834, in the month of March, his informants caught in that space of time 256 pike weighing altogether 1135 lbs. What wonder that it is now difficult to get really good sport at these places with rod and line!

My favourite fish, the tench, has a bad habit of basking on the surface of some of these broads on hot summer's days in weedy bays, where he deems himself perfectly secure. But the amphibious Broadsman paddles quietly up to him, and actually scoops him out with his hand. You may touch his body with your hand and he shall not move, but if you touch his tail he darts away.

I have seen a somewhat similar thing in shallow pools in Shropshire. When the big carp come to the side to spawn, their bodies are half out of the water, and they may be approached and shovelled out with a spade. In the reeds adjoining a carp pool I once found a murderous instrument which was used by a gang of sawyers at work in the adjacent wood, for destroying the basking carp. It consisted of a large flat piece of wood, in which were set long nails like the teeth of a garden rake. This was attached to a long pole, and woe betide the unfortunate carp on whose back it descended.

Groping for trout in the shallow streams is a well-known amusement of country boys; but the dastardly and cruel practice of liming a brook is not now so often resorted to as it used to be. I have seen it done in a mountain brook, when, on account of my extreme youth, I have been powerless to prevent it, and the schoolboy notion of honour prevented my "peaching." A shovelful of quicklime is taken up the brook to some shallow ford, and then thrown into the water and triturated so that the stream carries it in a milk-white stream downwards. In a short time the poachers follow it, and pick up the trout, which are floating dead on the surface, or swimming in circles on the top of the water, with scorched and blinded eyeballs. The lime penetrates into every crevice of the stream bed, and if it does not kill every trout within its range, it cruelly tortures all. I well remember the sickening sense of shame that crept over me as, an unwilling participator in the outrage, I crept over the mossy ground, when the noise made by every water-ouzel that took wing and every sheep that leaped down the hill side seemed to herald the approach of a keeper, with awful penalties of the law in his train.

Diverting the course of a brook, and emptying the pools of their water, and afterwards of their fish, is a long operation, and therefore not so frequently resorted to; but that poaching instrument called the twopole net I have known to clear many a nice little pool in a stream of its spotted denizens.

Do my readers know what a cleeching net is? It is in effect a magnified landing-net at the end of a long pole, and its use is to grab fish from under clumps of weed and overhanging banks. I once had one made for the purpose of catching bait, and a ludicrous incident occurred to a friend of mine who used it. He plunged it in too far from the side where the water was deeper than he imagined, and the consequence was that he fell forward, his feet still on the bank, but his hands resting on the top of the pole within a foot of the water, into which he gradually subsided, in spite of our efforts to pull him back by the slack of his trousers. I have seen the cleeching net used in a very effective manner by bargees on canals. As their vessel is towed along, they put the net into the water alongside the bows, and walk back to the stern as the boat moves, so as to keep the net in the same position. The rush of the water, displaced by the passage of the barge, drives a good many fish into the net, and I have even known fair-sized pike to be captured in this way.

Once I was cruising down the Severn, and had moored the canoe under some bushes in a very secluded part of the river to take my midday rest. Presently I saw two men in coracles coming down the river. They stopped just opposite me, and commenced to net the river with a small meshed net. They paid the net out in a semi-circle, and then, beating the water with their paddles, they closed and completed the circle; and with their coracles side by side hauled their net in. It was a caution to see the fish they caught. Great chub of five, and one of nine pounds' weight, roach, pike, and dace. In half an hour they had caught a great number. They looked rather frightened when I shot out from my hiding-place and examined their sport and the net.

I have not space to chat about setting night lines, in which art the Norfolk yachtsmen are no mean proficients; of smelting in the Yare; of netting the weedy pools in Cheshire with a flue net; of setting hoop nets for tench baited with a bunch of flowers or a brass candlestick, which attract the too curious fish; of eel bays and weirs, and the large eel nets set in the Bure from below Acle to Yarmouth; of leistering salmon and snaring pike; of casting nets used for unlawful purposes; of snatch-hooks and salmon roe, and other like deadly means of compassing the destruction of the finny tribe; but I fancy I have said enough to call to the angler's remembrance that his rod and line have formidable rivals, and that it behoves him to do all in his power to suppress and punish illegal and unfair sport.