Salmon Spearing

by Unknown

Hei mihi præteritum tempus! That is, the past time when new Fishery Laws did not forbid, and we young sportsmen might combat the salmon in his own element, armed, like the Retiarius, with a trident, but, unlike him, without a net. Ill-omened word! is it not to thee that the interdict is owing?—blockading the mouth of every river with thy cowardly meshes, only withdrawn for the barest minimum of hours out of the twenty-four to give free passage to the home-sick fish and lusty grilse to re-seek the dear old pools of his birth. For the grace now extended, and the check put upon the rapacious suppliers of Billingsgate and Leadenhall, we shall ever be grateful to the Commissioners, even though the same powers that have removed the stake-nets have prohibited the use of the spear, whose operation, as numbered amongst the things past, we purpose to record.

And first for the science of the sport. Salmon-spearing, as we used to perform it, was of two kinds. First, that by day; second, that by night. For the first, we choose that day when the more noble art of the rod and fly would be exercised in vain—a clear sunny day, with as little ripple as possible, and the water low, the field of operation being generally the upper pools, or, in preference, the larger "burn" or mountain stream whence the river took its source.

The implements, a spear, or rather iron trident of three prongs, barbed like a fish-hook, the prongs being about two inches apart, with a shaft some ten feet in length; two or three long poles, whose uses will be seen presently, and either a "gaff" or a landing-net. The essentials, a hawk-like keenness of eye sharpened by long practice, a goat-like agility amongst rocks and stones, and a philosophical indifference to all such minor discomforts as a complete wetting and a frequent fall or bruise. The night-work differed in the change of locality, the favourite spot being the long shallow "reach" at the river's mouth, and in the substitution of fir-torches for the poles of the day's programme. Thus much for the nature of the sport; for a description of it let the reader lend a kindly ear while we suppose the scene by the banks of the river Arkail, in the Northern Highlands of Scotland (a name which, by the way, he will in vain try to establish in the best of educational atlases or tourists' guides).

"What a baking day! No use taking out the dogs; there's not a breath of scent along the whole hill-side; and one might as well try to fish in a tub as throw a line over the looking-glass-like pools to-day. What's to be the order of the day, Frank? I think I shall take a walk up to the top of Ben Voil and 'spy' if there are any deer lying near the ground."

"I don't think you can do better. We have already planned a foray with the spear in the Upper Pools; but you don't care about that sort of work; so good luck to you, and adieu for the present. I suppose you'll take Stuart with you?"

Even as he spoke a cheery voice outside had summoned Frank, warning him that his set were waiting; so, with a parting remembrance from Charles Marston, the eldest of our party, and the tacitly-acknowledged head, to "mind and 'crimp' your fish directly you get him out of the water," Frank Gordon hastened to the gravelled square in front of the lodge, and found his brother amongst a group of keepers and "gillies," who, by the arms they bore, gave sufficient evidence of their intended occupation. With the exception of a "forester," Hugh Ross, who, by virtue of his position and his long Gaelic descent, persevered in the traditions of his ancestors, and robed his limbs in a kilt of home-spun tartan, the rest of the sportsmen were clad in knickerbockers, master and man alike. And now they were off, and making down the "brae" with the long dropping action which marks the practical mountaineer, being greeted as they passed the kennels by the most dismal howling from the dogs, who evidently did not comprehend that spears were not guns, and that there were occasions, such as salmon-spearing, on which their services might be dispensed with, and who further interpreted the volley of mingled Gaelic and Sassenach ejaculations hurled at them as a command to increase their note from forte to fortissimo, a proceeding accordingly executed with the most painful exactness which the canine intellect could suggest.

A short half-hour's walk, and the hollow moaning of a waterfall told of the journey's end. Brushing through a small birch-wood that clothed the high banks of the stream, our party stood on the edge of a sheer rock about thirty feet high, and, looking down on the scene of their intended operations, assigned to each his post and duty. A long, narrow, black pool, shallowing towards the tail into a rushing stream, dashing madly against the boulders scattered at random in its course; the rocks rising steep and bare on either side, but fringed on their summits with the drooping birch-trees and overhanging heather nestling round the delicate little ferns and rock-plants that peeped timidly out here and there; and away at the head of the pool, the finishing charm of the lovely spot, the tumbling waterfall, which ever filled the air with its clamorous voice, and beat the red waters below into a mad whirl of eddies and bubbles and leaping foam. Truly as sweet a picture as Nature ever limned, which, had it been a few degrees farther south, might have been an unfailing trap for excursionists to expend their savings on a "pack" in a covered carriage, and a cheap ride uninsured, or might have had its heath-covered banks dotted with picnic parties, and its waters sweetened with the chicken-bones so deftly thrown by the playful Miss Holiday; but being, alas, poor Monar—only one of many such scenes in the bosom of the Highland hills, all inaccessible by steam or jaunting-car—it must e'en remain unknown, save to the privileged few, who now looked at it with the less noble view of how they might draw a fish from its black depths.

"Ah, wunna ye look at him? Hech, doon he comes; ye maun e'en try again, my bonny mon."

This address was called forth from honest Sandy Macgregor, one of the gillies of the party, by the sight of a salmon leaping at the falls, but who, having failed to clear them, hit with a heavy whack against the rock, and, with a vain wriggle and struggle, fell back into the pool beneath.

"You may see more of him yet, Sandy," said Alick Gordon, the elder of the brothers, "if meanwhile you will try and get me a little gravel."

A few minutes, and Sandy returned, bringing his cap full of sand and small stones, which Alick, taking, threw in handfuls down the pool, close by the edge of the rock. The result of this mysterious proceeding, being closely watched by the group, was announced by a general murmur of satisfaction as, almost straight beneath them, a string of bubbles rose to the surface of the stream and floated idly away. (For the benefit of those who have never seen this piece of fishing-craft, we may explain that, as a fish is lying at the bottom with his head up-stream, allowing the water to run into his mouth and out through his gills—his mode of breathing—some of the gravel as it sinks down enters his mouth, and as the fish ejects it, he sends up a few bubbles, which mark the spot he is lying in.)

"Is that your friend, Sandy?" cried Alick, on seeing the success of his device. "You ought to know him if you saw him again, so come along down here with me."

Away went the speaker to the farther end of the pool, where, by scrambling and swinging, he managed to let himself down the rock, and plunged knee deep into the rapids. Closely followed by Sandy, he made his way towards the deep water, keeping close beneath the high bank, where he knew that, at about the depth of his waist, a small ledge ran along the rock which would afford him a footing. Quietly and carefully he arrived at the spot where the bubbles had been seen to rise; and telling Sandy to hold him round the waist, as he stood beside him on their precarious footing, he took off his cap, and holding it over the water so as to throw a shade in which the smallest objects at the bottom of the stream were visible to his practised eye, he bent down, and began a long and wary search. One unaccustomed to the work might have looked till nightfall without seeing more than the changing lights and shadows playing over the deep-sunk stones; but Alick's experience soon showed him a long black object, like a shade, lying close by the rock, and in about nine feet of water. Having satisfied himself as to the exact position of his treasure-trove, he shouted a warning to the group above, and told Sandy to take a look.

"Ah, the big blackguard!" whispered the gillie, as he lifted his dripping face after his subaqueous search. "Have a care, Mister Alick, and give him the point well over the shouther."

"Hold up tight then, Sandy, and give a shade with your cap as I tell you. That's right; no, a little further out—now then, steady!"

As he spoke, Gordon was slowly letting down the spear a little behind the salmon, till, when it was about a foot above the fish, he paused, and braced himself for the stroke, his left hand grasping the spear about halfway down, to guide the aim, and the right hand holding it near the top to give the blow, while his face was nearly buried in the water, as he kept his eye on his prey.

"Further out yet with the cap, Sandy. Now, hold on!"

Down shot the spear: for one instant the shaft shook violently as the struck salmon struggled beneath the weight which was pinning it to the bottom, and the next, with a loud splash and flurry, the strong fish bore to the surface, and shaking himself off the barbs, dragged Gordon, still holding on to the spear, headlong into the pool.

A loud shout from the watchers on the top of the precipice greeted this "coup," and on the gillie, who had been posted near the bottom of the pool, announcing that "the fish had ne'er come his way," all those who had, up to this time, been mere passive spectators, made the best of their way down the rocks, to take their part in the coming struggle.

With a few strokes Alick gained the shallows at the tail of the pool, and as the stream divided into two chief courses, himself commanded one with his spear, and deputed the other to Hugh Ross. Meanwhile, Frank was directing the gillies, who were "poking" the fall and deep water with the long poles we mentioned, a proceeding intended to drive any fish that might be lying about there down to the lower end of the pool, where they would meet the spearmen, or else to take refuge behind the big rocks and boulders, where they might be discovered afterwards. All was noise and eagerness, save with the two spearmen, who, silent as statues, were keenly watching the few yards of clear water in front of them, ready to spring into life the moment they detected the approach of a fish. And as Hugh Ross looked, a black shadow of a sudden swept down with the current before him, and as he moved a step to meet it, whisked away, and shot past him with the arrow-like speed which a salmon, better than any fish that swims, can command; but the active Highlander was a match for the occasion, and with a dexterity which must be seen to be appreciated, gave a backward spring, and struck sharp down with his spear a good two feet in front of his mark; and as he held the struggling fish down by bearing with his whole weight on his weapon, the shaking shaft told of the good quarry he had secured. With a wild shout of triumph Alick rushed to the rescue, and throwing himself down in the water, seized the salmon under the gills, and quickly bore him to land, where Marston's injunction was acted upon, and the crimping-knife brought into play.

"Ye took a good shot, too, Mister Alick," said Hugh Ross, looking at the wound behind the head which Gordon had given; "but he was a clean-run fish, and as full of life as a stag in August; and I'm thinking he will not have joost right justice at fifteen pounds' weight."

"I'd be sorry to carry him at that weight, Hugh," answered his master. "But all the merit belongs to you, for little should we ever have seen of him again but for that flying shot of yours. However, there he is, and a beautifully-shaped fish too; so tie him up, and let's carry him off to the house, where you'll get glory enough from both Mr Marston and the cook. Come along Frank."

So saying, Alick marched away, followed by the rest of the party. On arriving at the lodge, they found that Marston had not yet returned; so it being still early in the day, they debated as to the best method of employing the time yet left them; and as the bright still weather effectually negatived all propositions of going after grouse or taking a cast with a fly in any of the Upper Pools, the suggestion of Hugh Ross who had become unusually keen after his triumph of the morning, to rest till the evening and then make a night of it with the spear at the mouth of the river Arkail, was unanimously adopted. There was a good thirteen miles' walk over the hill between the lodge and the intended scene of the night's operation, but our hardy young sportsmen regarded that only so far as to order their dinner at an earlier hour than usual, so as to start in time in the evening, and employed the intervening period in tying up bundles of fir-splinters to make torches, and in providing themselves with dry suits of clothing, after the wetting they had just received.

Shortly before seven o'clock they were ready to start, and having left a note for Marston, who had not yet returned from the hill, they set out, following Hugh Ross in single file, as he led the way over the darkening moor. All were too well accustomed to the work to come to much grief over the broken ground, beyond an occasional stumble or sudden fall as the foot slipped into an unseen hole in the moss; and before long the autumn moon rose full and bright to light their way, promising an idle time of it to the torches, which some of the gillies bore patiently on.

It was not yet eleven o'clock when the sportsmen stood on the banks of the Arkail, looking happily across the broad river, which flowed musically over its shallow bed, showing almost clearer in the silver radiance of the moon than in the dazzling splendour which lit it up during the day; but across on the opposite bank the trees which fringed its sides stood out black and heavy as a wall of rock.

"What a glorious night!" exclaimed Alick, as the scene first burst upon him. "Look, Frank, away over there where the river runs into the Firth; that bit of it you see by the farthest corner gleams like a sheet of pure silver, and the Inch-na-coul hills look as if they were touched with hoar-frost. Isn't it pretty? and what a night for us! Come on, Hugh and Sandy there, let's be getting to work, but warm the cockles of your heart first with a drop of whisky. Here, try my flask, Hugh. That's right—the same to you, thanks, and good luck to us both," as the forester drank his young master's health; "and I think I shall stay about here with Mr Frank, if you will go a little lower down and post the boys, and tell them to keep a sharp look-out, and mind and 'holloa' in time; and I say, Donald there, don't you be giving us any stones for fish to-night, you rascal." (This was in reference to a false alarm raised on a previous occasion by the unhappy Donald, who had mistaken the ripple caused by a stone lying in the way of the stream for the wake made by a travelling salmon, and had given notice accordingly: and while here, we may explain that the modus operandi in salmon-spearing by night is to post watchers down the bank at regular intervals, who on seeing the wake of a fish going steadily up stream—and remember that salmon only travel or run up a river at night—shout to the spearmen above to give notice, who, being put on the alert, wait till they also see the little wave which marks their prey, and then walk into the river to meet it.)

Away went Hugh and his subordinates, leaving the brothers to choose their own positions; and as Alick walked off announcing his intention of crossing the river and taking one of the gillies with him to command the opposite side, Frank remained alone gazing at the running stream before him, and taking stock of all the ripples and eddies caused by the larger stones in the bed of the river, so that in the heat of the moment, when instantly expecting the salmon of which notice might have been given, he might not fall into Donald's error, and confound the inanimate with the living agent. The witching stillness of the night, broken only by the monotonous gurgling of the running waters and the soft whispering of the trees, before long lulled the young watcher into a state of semi-consciousness, in which he sat with open eyes staring forward into the space before him, with a dim remembrance that he was looking out for salmon, and that the white flood beneath him was a river and the appointed subject of his closest observation; but a whole shoal of salmon might have passed and dubbed him wisest of men for the blissful ignorance he would have manifested of their presence, had not a sudden shout of "Mark!" roused him from his somnolence and recalled his wits to full life and activity. With ear and eye painfully alert, he heard the shout taken up by the next gillie, and the sound of his feet over the gravel as he ran along the river's side to keep his prey in view; then the noise of some one cautiously wading out in the water, a sudden rush and splashing, and the next minute a clamour of voices, amongst which he could discern that of Hugh Ross calling for a light; and as he looked far down the stream he saw a torch coming down the bank and borne into the river, and the flare of the smoking pine-wood showed him a dark group standing in the water, and for one moment he fancied he saw the gleam of a fish being lifted out! and then, as the group retreated to the bank, he again distinguished Hugh's voice good-humouredly depreciating his own prowess, by proclaiming the unimportance of his capture, which was "joost a sma' grilse, and no worth the mentionin', an' it were not for makin' up the number."

The commotion created by this incident had barely subsided, when again a sharp cry through the stillness of the night announced the approach of another fish, and again Frank heard the warning taken up by one watcher after another, when, as he stayed expecting each instant to hear Hugh anticipate him in the encounter, his eye caught a moving ripple in the water, a small advancing wave tailing into a broad wake, and with a wild feeling of excitement he dropped into the river and waded carefully in to meet it: he was yet six or seven yards above it, as he stood nervously grasping his spear, and still he stood motionless as a statue, till the wave washed up close beside him, when sharp and sudden he launched out his spear—swish!—and the iron rattled on the pebbles in the river, as the salmon dived down beneath the blow which had grazed its back, and shot away up the stream.

"Alick, Alick, come here, I'm sure I struck it!" shouted the eager boy, as he rushed headlong after his prey, ever and anon tripping over a stone and falling with a loud splash into the shallow water, which for more than a mile from the mouth of the Arkail was rarely more than three feet deep; but though he every now and then fancied he saw the salmon's wake still bearing on before him, he ran to little purpose but to cover himself with wounds and bruises from head to foot, and was on the very point of giving up his fruitless chase, from sheer exhaustion, when a cry from his brother, sounding ahead of him, urged him on, and as he turned a corner round which the river swept in a sharp curve, he came upon Alick standing near the bank and pinning something down with his spear to the bottom of the water. "Go down and get him under the gills, old boy," was his brother's greeting, as Frank stumbled breathlessly up; "he's a regular monster, and will take you all you know to carry him in; but I think he's your friend, and he will count as yours, if we find your mark on him." "First spear" always counted in the Sunderbunds' (a precedent advanced by the speaker from his reminiscences of pig-sticking in Lower Bengal).

"There it is then, Alick," said Frank, as he laid the fish down on the river's bank and pointed to a jagged cut a little behind the dorsal fin. "I did not allow enough in front, and should never have seen him again but for you; but isn't he a thick fellow, and I can answer for his weight already. I shouldn't care about carrying him to the lodge, I know; but I suppose we had better take him back to the others, so we may tie him up, if you have a bit of string with you. Thanks,—that will do capitally."

Reader, I hope we have not failed by this time to give you an insight into the mysteries of a sport which, though now defended by stringent penalties, was no unworthy one in its time, requiring, as it did, the utmost dexterity, training, and endurance: three objects which in themselves are sufficient to elevate any pursuit which can promote them, and which many seek to acquire amongst the mountains of Switzerland or the hills of Scotland. In a lesser way, after the fatigues of the London season, the gentler sex strive to attain the same end by walking, riding, sailing, or otherwise recruiting with fresh country air.