THE CAPRICES OF SALMON.
THERE is an opportunity still waiting for the writer of a new book about salmon. We have learnt something, and probably we have a good deal more to learn, about the life-history of the fish as revealed by the markings on its scales. Parr and grilse have been marked, and we have been able to study the habits of the fish in leaving and returning to their native river. We know something, if it is not very much, about the diseases to which salmon are subject. But what most naturalists, and certainly all fishermen, would agree we do not know enough about, and would like to know much more about, are the causes which lead to salmon taking or refusing a bait in fresh water. If a writer could contribute anything fresh to our knowledge on that point he would find
a number of very grateful readers. Suppose, then, he were to set about a chapter on the supposition that what appear to be mere caprices on the part of salmon are in reality due to ingrained habit. He might begin to get together material for such a chapter by collecting information from a large number of fishermen as to the time of day at which they have hooked their fish.
This is a point on which no valuable or important statistics, compiled on a large scale, are available. And yet it is surely one of the first points from which to start towards a working hypothesis. Of course, some fishermen would say at once that salmon will take a fly or a bait at any time, that there is no time at which they will not take, that the whole thing is a matter of mood on the part of the fish, or the con. dition of the water, or the wind, or a dozen other things, and that, in short, inquiry on the point would establish nothing. But would these be the majority P Would not most men who have caught salmon agree in a general way with the proposition that there is a time each day when the fish are taking, and that the important thing for the fisherman is to be " in the water " at that time P Would not some go further, and agree that salmon generally move somewhere about mid- day and also about dusk P Would there not be others, perhaps, who would admit that, if they bad to choose one single hour of the day as the hour in which to catch a fish, they would take the hour just before dark P Would there not be one or two, perhaps, who would suggest that it might be true of salmon that they move every three hours, and that in a spring month like March or April twelve, three, and six o'clock, or within half an hour either way, are the times at which they have taken most of their fish ? That is the present writer's experience at all events. And if it is conceded as possible that salmon may be in the habit of moving every three hours or so, that habit might be compared to the known habits of their relation, the Thames trout, whose feeding places and feeding times are carefully watched and marked by Thames-aide fishermen. The big fish moves at certain times, and at those times only. Of course, salmon can only be compared with trout up to a point, since trout feed in fresh water and salmon do not. But as regards moving at a particular time, no one can have fished a salmon river for long without having noticed the fact that two or three rods fishing neighbouring pools frequently have a fish on at the same moment. The writer on two successive days last March on the Aberdeenshire Dee hooked a fish within a few minutes of six o'clock in the evening. On each occasion, on glancing round, he noticed that the 'rod of the angler in the next pool was bent to a "pull." The two fish had moved not merely near the same hour, but at the same second of time. The same experience, or something like it, has probably happened to most fishermen. A thrill goes through the chord of the river, and the cold blood of the waiting fish pulses to it and falls to torpor again.
But even if it be granted that a salmon is more likely to take a bait at one time than at another, is it anything more than mere caprice which induces him to take a bait at all P If salmon do not feed in fresh water, and cannot therefore be acting under the impulse of hunger, why should they take into their mouths imitations of various live things which are put before them P It is an old question, and we are still waiting perhaps for the right answer, but it may at least be contended, as against the contention that caprice alone decides the matter, that salmon seem occasionally to be guided by sense of taste or smell as well as by sight. For instance, it is a creed of some fishermen that salmon will not touch a bait that has been preserved in formalin, or at all events not until all the taint of the preservative has been taken out by laying it in salt. The writer has watched a formalined bait being let down to salmon lying in a pool, and before the bait came within yards of the fish they had turned tail and rushed from the pool. It was not the sudden fading away into deeper water which you may notice when going too near a salmon resting behind a stone; the fish whisked from the pool as if in fury or disgust. On the other hand, there are gillies who will assure you that a salmon will take a fresh boiled natural prawn when he will take nothing else; and certainly in the writer's experience salmon have taken fresh prawns when they would not move for anything else he had with him. There are times, again, when the only bait seems to be a bunch of worms; and many arguments have been founded upon the fact that when a salmon takes a bunch of worms he does not take it like a fly, with a single quick " rug " under water, but mouths it down into his gullet. He has been argued from this to make an exception with worms to his rule of never feeding in fresh water ; but the truth seems to be that he munches the worms for some time, and even swallows them down, but ejects them eventually. He cannot, however, eject the hook, and so he comes unfortunately to an end.
Here, again, it may be argued that the salmon takes the fresh prawn or the bunch of worms because some memory of his feeding habits in the sea remains with him, and his senses are awakened to action just as they are by the periodical recurrences of the hour at which he has been used to make a meal. But there are other occasions when theory attempt- ing to account for the fish's action becomes so wild that it amounts not so much to mere guesswork as to an admission of hopeless incapacity even to guess. Caprice seems to be the only explanation, for instance, of a fish refusing a lure eleven times and taking it the twelfth—unless you agree that he takes it to get rid of it, as a dog may snap at a fly that teases him. But you do not know the reason in either case. And yet there are fishermen who either through long • experience, or by some instinct which belongs to few, do seem to come at last to a sort of understanding, almost a sympathy, with the most capricious notions of the salmon mind. The writer has been privileged to fish with an Irish gillie who possessed to an extraordinary degree this instinctive knowledge of what a salmon will or will not do, and when the fish will or will not take. Three particular occasions separate themselves from recent memories. On one he came up to the writer and asked which beat he would be on during the day. On being told (he knew already), he pro- duced from his pocket a fly which he bad dressed overnight. " You will take that fly," he said, " and you will fish that pool first with it in the morning, but only that pool ; and you will get a fish." So a fish was got, the only fish of the day. On another occasion the writer, having fished for five days in high cold winds without a "pull," went to the top of the beat to finish his sixth day. On the opposite bank the gillie stood up, and held three fish to view. He came in at night carrying six, and we heard bow they were got. The morning had been a blank, and the angler whom he was attending was lunching on the bank. Dan was given the rod to try his luck, fished tae pool down with a worm and met no fish. He fished it down again from a slightly different position and got a fish at once, then another. Then his employer rose and took the rod, and in a short time had three more fish on the bank; five in all from one pool. At this point in the story, it must be owned, the argument of caprice asserts:itself insistently, for at the next pool he who had just taken three on a worm went down the river alone and hooked and lost in the next pool, which was dead out of order, a fourth fish on the fly. However, he went down the river• further and pulled out another fish on the worm, according to directions given him ; so there were seven fish hooked in the day. The next day it was the writer's turn with that gillie. Three flies were put over the best pool on the beat, the gillie making no sign. When all three had failed be stood up, took away the fly-rod, and put on the bait-rod a fresh prawn. "You will go out to that rock," he said, " and you will stand in the water on another little rock beyond it. Then you will let your bait down to that point—to that point—and you will get a fish." The fish was duly hooked, but getting it out of the river was a difficult business. The gillie solved the difficulty by wading out into the stream and gaffing the fish from a rock in deep water. As he took the hooks out of its mouth he was congratulated on his choice of a fresh prawn. "Ah ! he said, "'tis not the prawn; 'tis they're taking, they're taking !" He gazed at the fish as primitive man, surely, gazed on a capture when very hungry. " Well well, well well! 'tis glorious, 'tis glorious !" be kept repeating. Then he held out the rod, baited afresh, with the same certainty of counsel. " You will do the very same thing, and you will get another fish." So, at the same point, another fish was hooked and duly brought to bank. A third time he baited the rod, and gave the same directions, but he did not add that another fish would be got. Instead, he glanced uneasily at the sky; the rain was beginning to come down in earnest. No other fish was hooked, and he did not expect that it would be. With the weather that was coming, he was content with the two. But he would give no reasoned explanation as to why the fish should take that particular bait at that particular time. He only knew that it would be so, that it was so, and that it was glorious.