An Apology for Fishing by Unknown

Ever since the time when the famous definition of angling as a combination of "a stick and a string with a worm at one end and a fool at the other" was first given to the world, it has been the custom of a large section of society to disparage the particular sport, which has for its object the catching of fish, very much more than any of the other developments which the killing propensity takes among sportsmen. When a man mentions that he is going off on a fishing expedition, the announcement is not met with the respect which is accorded to him who proclaims the fact that he has it in contemplation to spend a day in beating the turnips for partridges, or riding across country in pursuit of a fox. People have a provoking way of smiling when fishing is spoken of; and when they meet you, armed with the necessary paraphernalia which makes up an angler's equipment, their countenances directly assume either an amused expression, indicating a state of feeling not very remote from absolute pity, or a look of delicate forbearance which is almost the more difficult to bear of the two.

There surely never was any pastime regarded with so little respect as this of fishing. But one good quality (that of patience) is ever identified with it; and even that, when connected with this particular sport, is sometimes spoken of in a disparaging tone; so that it is by no means an uncommon thing to hear a man brag of his deficiency in this respect, saying, "I've not got patience enough for that sort of thing"; as if the fact redounded enormously to his credit.

"Going fishing?" says your hearty friend as he meets you in the hall, equipped for the sport, "You must be hard up for some amusement—for of all the deadly-lively proceedings——"

"Going fishing?" says another. "Well, it's certainly too early in the season for anything else in the way of sport; but still——"

The very partisans of fishing, too, help, in a certain way, to bring it into discredit. What a literature it has! The literature of all sport is apt to be trying; but this of fishing is surely especially disastrous. The facetious element always figures here in such grievous force. Nor only that. Dreadful conventional forms of expression, phrases in inverted commas, involved ways of expressing a simple thing, abound—so that one meets continually with such expressions as the "gentle craft" and the "finny tribe." The sportsman who devotes himself to fishing is called a "member of the piscatorial fraternity," or a "brother of the angle," or a "disciple of 'old Izaak,'" or by some other roundabout and exasperating designation. Why it is that people who write on this particular subject cannot express their ideas in plain English and avoid such forms of speech as the above it is difficult to say; but so it is.

These stereotyped phrases are to be ranked among the conventionalities of "piscatorial" literature. Another of these is a perpetual insistence upon the contemplativeness of character which this particular sport tends to develop in those who engage in it. The fisherman is supposed to be left by his pursuit at leisure to ponder and reflect on all sorts of abstract questions wholly unconnected with what he is about. Fishing is called the contemplative man's recreation, and seems, indeed, to be looked upon by a very large section of society as a sort of excuse for mooning. For my poor part I confess that it seems to me that the fact is far otherwise. If there is one thing more than another necessary to fishing, it is that the man who engages in it should have all his wits about him, and be thoroughly absorbed in what he is doing. A fisherman who took to being contemplative would, I fancy, stand but a poor chance of catching anything, and would certainly find himself involved in many difficulties connected with the management of his rod and line. While he was contemplating, his fly would speedily get itself fastened to some neighbouring tree, or fixed, may be, into some unattainable part of the contemplative one's own costume; while, if the line were suffered to remain in the water, the flies would certainly be carried by the current into a bed of weeds, or get twisted round a stone at the bottom of the river.

The study of the beauties of nature, again, is an occupation which angling is supposed to lend itself to. Yet even this, as it seems to me, is hardly likely to be carried very far by the really keen sportsman. When walking briskly across the hill or on the moorland on his way to the river he may, indeed, take note of the picturesque outlines of a distant mountain or the rich colouring of a patch of heather and fern, just as he is conscious of the freshness of the air or the warmth of the sun; but he will hardly, when there is any fishing to do, be likely to dwell on any of these delights, however much he may revel in them at other times. When once he gets really to work he is entirely absorbed in the sport, and will think of little or nothing else till the time comes for putting up his traps and going home. And it is just this which gives such value to every form of sport, and makes them so essential an element in the troublous life of the nineteenth century. They absorb the thoughts and confine the attention, for the time being, to what—in a comparative sense—may fairly be called trifles. You cannot occupy yourself with any deep abstract speculation when it is a question of catching a trout or bringing down a partridge.

The fact is that a prodigious amount of ignorance prevails in connection with the sport of angling. People class all forms and modes of fishing together, and include them every one under the definition given at the commencement of this paper. The prevalent idea in the minds of most people is that fishing consists of sitting in an arm-chair in a punt watching a float bobbing up and down in the water, and partaking at intervals of very flat beer served out of a stone jar by the attendant boatman. Now this—the very lowest form of fishing that exists, and, unhappily, the form under which it is the oftenest and most conspicuously presented to view—so little really represents this particular sport, that I think I am hardly speaking too strongly in saying that no real fisherman would consent to hear such a proceeding classed under the head of fishing at all. When a sportsman speaks of fishing, he is thinking either of fly-fishing or spinning, and most generally of the former.

For fly-fishing, rightly engaged in, it is not too much to claim a very high position indeed among the sports of the field; many of the qualities on which it makes demands being the same which are required for the other forms of sport, while it also implies some which are not called for in those others, except, perhaps, in that of deer-stalking.

To be a perfectly good fisherman a man requires strength, agility, spirit, quickness and accuracy of eye, a neat hand, a nimble foot, considerable ability as a tactician, presence of mind, and coolness, coupled with the power of keeping his wits always about him. Nor is this all; a fisherman must have, besides, certain moral qualifications of an exalted nature. He must be possessed of patience, perseverance, and good temper; and, in addition to all this, he must thoroughly well understand his business in all its more intricate technicalities. Let us proceed to consider some of the points here insisted on a little in detail.

In fishing for trout with an artificial fly—a branch of sport to which, with the reader's permission, we will in this 'Apology' entirely confine ourselves—it is necessary, as it is in a great many other things, that a man should thoroughly understand what it is that he is doing—how, in short, the case stands. It stands thus. He sees before him a sheet of water, containing, as he has reason to suppose, a certain number of fish, some comparatively stationary, some darting hither and thither, all very much alive, very watchful, constantly on the look-out both for what may bring them advantage in the shape of food of divers kinds, or for what may give them cause for apprehension, in the shape of fish larger than themselves and of a predatory nature, herons, otters and, above all, men. To these creatures, vigilant, timorous, suspicious, it is the angler's business to present an object which they are to suppose is an insect which has dropped into the water and is floating down with the stream more or less near to the surface. If the fisherman succeeds in conveying this impression; if his counterfeit insect is a successful piece of imitation; if the fly which it imitates is one for which the fish has a liking, and if the fish itself happens at the particular moment to be "on the feed"—if all these conditions are fulfilled, then it will happen that the trout will rise swiftly through the water, will seize the bait, and the fisherman's object will be gained. This desirable consummation is, however, harder of attainment than might be supposed.

Very much is implied in the bringing that transaction which has just been described to a successful issue. If the particular portion of the stream into which you throw your fly is not the spot where a trout lies, if your fly is not well imitated from nature, or does not represent the kind of insect which the fish affects, if the hook is too little concealed, or the line too coarse, above all, if you yourself are conspicuous, standing on the bank, your chance of inducing a trout to rise is slender in the extreme. The fact is that the fisherman ought to look at this transaction from the trout's point of view and not from his own. Of the fishing-rod and line, and of the person who manipulates them, the trout must be kept wholly unconscious. This sounds a simple statement enough; but it does, in fact, imply a great deal. In the first place it implies that both the water and the atmosphere shall be in a condition favourable to the mystifying and confusing of the fish which we are bent on capturing. The atmosphere should not be bright and clear to an excess, nor, by rights, the water either. The water, again, should be, to a certain extent, troubled and agitated. This is effected in a running stream by the current; but in lakes and calm, deep rivers, especially in the former, it can only be brought about by a certain amount of wind, and for lake-fishing it may therefore be confidently asserted that a slight breeze is absolutely indispensable. A line falling on perfectly smooth water, however fine and delicate such line may be, or however skilfully cast, will make a certain amount of splash, which would awaken the misgivings of any fish which happened to be near.

One of the greatest of all the difficulties connected with the catching of fish is that experienced by the sportsman in keeping himself out of sight. At the first glimpse of a man moving by the side of the river, every fish at once darts away as fast as his fins can carry him. To this assertion there are few people who would venture to demur; and yet how common it is to see a fisherman placed on a high bank, with his whole figure in strong relief against the sky, and moving down the water, with all the fish in the river facing him as they lie with their heads up-stream. It can only be by some strange accident that he will take a fish under such circumstances.

Almost the first thing which the fisherman should think of in setting about his business is to conceal himself as much as possible. There are several ways in which this may be effected. In the first place, if the wind will at all allow of it, he should always fish up-stream, as he will then have the backs of the fish turned towards him instead of their faces. Fishing up-stream is more difficult and more laborious than fishing down, the current bringing the line back almost as fast as it is thrown in, so that the labour of casting it is almost incessant. Still, for the reason given above, it is better. It is good again for the angler to get behind some big rock or bush large enough to hide the greater part of his figure, remaining there, with as little motion as possible, till he has thoroughly fished every speck of water within his reach. Or if there are no bushes or rocks to be had for purposes of ambush, it behoves him to crawl along on the lowest part of the bank on his knees, aiding himself with the hand which is not engaged with the fishing-rod, and sometimes even to wriggle himself along after the manner of a snake—anything to diminish his conspicuousness.

Now all this is not by any means easy of accomplishment. To creep along in the manner just described, encountering some obstacle at almost every step—huge stones which, unless he is very careful, he tumbles over, small tributary streams which he plunges into—to get over and through all these difficulties, in a doubled-up position, which renders feats of agility very difficult indeed to accomplish, is not an easy task, especially as all the time he has to wave his line round and round in the air, to be ready for a long cast when he at last sees his way to that consummation. This is arduous work, depend on it, and yet, short of this, I don't know how, under some circumstances, his object is to be obtained. For fly-fishing, to be attended with success, is not a simple operation, but, on the contrary, a very complicated one, as any proceeding involving so exceedingly intricate a ruse as this one does, inevitably must be. That it is a ruse there can be no sort of doubt. Unless you succeed in taking this creature in, you will never succeed in capturing him. This is no open onslaught, as is the case in shooting and hunting. Strategy is your only chance, and the more deeply laid your plot, the greater is your chance of succeeding.

There is one element in the construction of this deeply-laid scheme which requires to be considered with an especial carefulness. The structure of the fly which is to be set before the trout on whose capture we are bent is an ingredient in the transaction the importance of which must by no means be overlooked. It should of all things—and this is a point not enough considered by the makers of these little works of art—be one which looks well in the water. There are many flies sold which appear perfectly right and natural while they remain out of the water, but which, when once they are thoroughly wetted, assume an entirely different and most inferior appearance. The loose wool and feather strands, which form the body of the fly, get matted together and the whole mass of them much reduced in size; the wings cease to stand out away from the body and from each other, and the hook, owing to the reduction of the size of the fly generally, which is effected by the tightening influence of the water, is left much too bare and prominent. The best way to obviate these difficulties is to make the body of the fly somewhat fuller and more fluffy than it is intended to be, and to dress it as far down towards the bend of the hook as is compatible with symmetry of structure. The hook is sure to be conspicuous enough at best, but every pains should be taken to make it as little so as possible. We are particular about all sorts of minute considerations of colour and form; we refuse to allow of the deviation of the sixteenth of an inch from the right standard in the length of a tail, or of the faintest false shade in the colouring of a wing—in all these matters we are exact and scrupulous, and rightly so; but is it quite consistent with such close attention to detail that we should be indifferent to so remarkable a deviation from the right model as is found in the immense and conspicuous hook which protrudes beyond the body of our counterfeit insect, and which seems quite as much calculated to attract attention as any other part of the fly? Of course, to some extent, this cannot be helped, the hook being a necessity of the fisher's case, but surely it might in many instances be much more carefully concealed than it is. The fly might, for instance, be dressed not actually on the shank of the hook, but on a piece of gut or bristle attached to it and hanging loose on the hook so as almost to hide it. In putting on a worm as a bait—the worm having the advantage of being the real thing—we take the utmost pains to conceal the hook; in putting on the fly—which has the disadvantage of being not the real thing but a counterfeit—why should we not do precisely the same thing?

It cannot be insisted on too strongly and too frequently that the whole of this transaction, which we call fly-fishing, is, from beginning to end, a most elaborately carried out piece of deception. But troublesome and difficult and inseparably connected with all sorts of disappointments as it is, yet is the game unquestionably well worth the candle, fishing, when really successful, being beyond all question one of the most delightful of occupations, while even when only moderately successful, it is full of charm and interest to any one who takes it up in earnest.