Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Catching trout in Nova Scotia

Illustrated by Henry George Hine


I am dreaming of the last ball I was at—or the ball I am to be at next—I am not sure which: at all events, I am cooling myself, not alone, in a conservatory after an unusually rapid dance, when crash goes a pane of glass, another, and then another. What can be the matter? I am first so surprised, and then so angry, that I open my eyes by degrees, actually, and find that I am lying on my bed, almost dressed, and that my servant is knocking with much energy at the door. Having become so far conscious, I suddenly remember that Captain V. and myself, having a few days’ rest from our ordinary harassing occupations in the celebrated town of ——, British North America, have arranged to go on a fishing expedition, pour passer le temps. I also recollect that, in order to make the most of our time, we had agreed to start at one o’clock this morning. So it was in consequence of this arrangement that my dreams were so rudely disturbed. My “waggon” is already waiting at the door—a “waggon,” by the bye, here supplies the place of all the innumerable varieties of one-horse vehicles in use in the “old country;” and the prominent features of mine, which may be taken as a type of the more “refined” class of waggon—are, imprimis, a seat, for two people, with light wooden frame—under this seat, a very light wooden tray, with “splash-board” in front, which supports the feet, and also holds a reasonable amount of luggage, &c., and under this again, four very light wheels. Our luggage, consisting chiefly on this occasion of our rods and fishing-tackle, with two or three flannel shirts, and some tea and sugar in a hamper, as well as rugs and wrappers for night-work, does not take long to stow away. We have, each of us, a little brandy in our flasks, but very little—for tea is the almost universal beverage of every body here, while in the “bush.” Some ten minutes’ driving, up a hill or two, while lamps grow less and less frequent, and we are out of the town, rolling along a road which is as good as an ordinary English turnpike-road—passing every now and then through spots of perfect darkness, where clumps of firs overhang the road on each side, and new again looking over a broad spread of water stretching away from our feet, with a row of distant wooded slopes appearing more and more clearly as the moon slowly rises. I have all the beauties of nature to myself as Captain V. (who did not take the prudent precaution of indulging in a few hours’ sleep before starting), has been dozing, to say the least of it, almost from the time of our leaving the door, and the cigar which he so carefully lighted before he mounted the waggon, dropped from his mouth before we were clear of the town, rather to the detriment of a certain plaid, wherein his extremities were wrapped. Just after sunrise, we come to a collection of wooden huts, all small, all dirty, and possessed each of them, apparently, of at least one pig, which is considered, more Hibernico, part of the family. V. who has just opened his eyes, constrained thereto by a vehement appeal from me, that he would admire a certain sunrise “effect,” has visions of Jamaica floating before him, as he sees some ten or twelve little black urchins, “when unadorned adorned the most,” rushing out to shriek at us as we pass. There is, too, at the door of almost every alternate hut, a peculiarly black matron with some more or less gaudy cotton, wound, turban fashion, about her head, occupied (in addition to staring at us) in squalling at either pig or children, and in nursing an admirable likeness, on a small scale, of herself. I explain to V., as we leave this interesting colony behind, that it is one of the “negro villages” which one meets with in the country, colonised by the descendants of certain emancipated slaves who were incontinently, some years ago, turned adrift into our “British North American” possessions. Some of these, generally, it seems, women, form a considerable part of the “low” population at one or two of the seaports. Others, as we see, “settle” up the country, but I am not aware of their devotion to agriculture, I having met, as yet, with grand success.

How gloriously warm the summer sun is now, as it pours its first rays into our eyes. How it rouses all the children of the forest around us. Now, instead of the quiet of an hour ago, birds are singing all round us, and the grey and zebra-like striped squirrels are running about in crowds along the picturesque zig-zag “snake fences” which mark the road on either side. The road has been getting worse for some time, and I am paying more attention to the sky than to what is exactly underneath us, when bang! bang—with a quick jerk or two which makes one tremble for the springs, independently of almost throwing us out of the waggon—rouses us to a sense of our position.

What is the matter? Nothing at all, except that one of the small torrents, so numerous in this country, has overflowed in the course of the last day or two, and made an extempore channel, now dry, of the exact spot we are passing along for some ten or fifteen yards. The consequence is the displacing of the gravel, and the bringing to light of rocks, great in their “solidarité,” but enough to petrify McAdam, as they rear their heads at intervals, with yawning chasms between. This difficulty surmounted, we come, in a few miles more, to a road or track through the bush, turning off from the main road. After some reconnoitering and discussion (for neither of us have been exactly to this place before), we decide that this must be the track which is to lead us to the domicile of “Jack.” We proceed painfully along a road which is formed, in different places, in addition to its native soil, of planks, faggots, and sometimes of nothing less than trunks of trees, placed side by side with a small space between. We are getting accustomed to all these varieties of road, and have crossed the fifth rickety bridge (we count the bridges, for our hearts rejoice at the fishing prospect held out by the brooks below them), when a fresh obstacle makes its unwelcome appearance.

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(See p. 87.)

A large fir, borne down, probably, by the weight of years, has fallen exactly across our road, with its dead branches sticking out to meet us like a natural chevaux de frise. We begin by a vigorous attack on the protruding branches, till we reduce the part which has to be crossed to a bare trunk, raised some three or four feet from the ground. The horse is unharnessed, and “led” across, and with much exertion, and putting of shoulders to the wheel, literally, we succeed in lifting the waggon over it. Nothing further stops us, till we come suddenly on an open space, which, pretty as it is, has a borrowed beauty from its contrast to the dark, almost impenetrable, shade we have been passing through lately. Just to the right of us is a low, substantial-looking, hut—built entirely of roughly sawn planks, with plastered clay to fill up the interstices between them. The chimney only, made of rough stone with the some natural mortar, contrasts with the dark grey of the wood. One or two farm-buildings, strongly resembling the hut, stand out against the dark foliage at the back. In front of the hut extends a gentle partly-cultivated slope—several acres of land have been “cleared”—some for years, evidently, others so lately that the blackened stumps of trees still appear gloomily above the luxuriant grass. Here and there a snake-fence winds over a ridge, and is hidden again in a hollow; close to the house a small stream rushes along over rocks to that lake, as large as our own Derwentwater, which washes the base of the slope I have spoken of. How it glitters in the sun’s rays, how perfect the effect of those points and islands, with their heavy rocks and dark foliage, which rise abruptly out of the dazzling water; and then that grey, yet distinct ridge which shuts in the view. Well, we have waited long enough outside; now let us see if the proprietor of this establishment, to whom a message had been sent by a “trader,” about a week before, is expecting us.

“Glad to see you, gentlemen, first-rate time for sport,” and the owner of the voice, dressed in the everywhere-to-be-met-with grey “homespun,” with a brilliant scarlet flannel shirt, and straw hat, rolls out of the door, and sets to work, without loss of time, to unharness my horse, whose wants having been attended to, we proceed to fortify ourselves with the breakfast prepared for us by the “old woman,” who had not seen “a strange face for three months, and better.” This breakfast consists of the perpetual ham and eggs, with hot bread and cold bread of more varieties than I feel equal at this present moment to describing. Half-past six o’clock sees us loaded with fishing tackle, food, kettle, &c., which miscellaneous collection of baggage has been divided between us—Jack taking, I must confess, the lion’s share—on our way to the first day’s fishing-ground, some five miles from our halting-place. For about three miles we follow a “track,” that is to say, a sign to the regular woodsman that somebody has been there before him,—nothing like our English notions of a path. Then we come on a little opening among the trees, and a half-ruined “lumberman’s” hut. Here we strike off into the regular untracked “bush,” and while we are scrambling along, loads and all, through the entangled underwood, let me say something of our guide “Jack.” He probably had a surname, but the nom de guerre by which he was known answered all our purposes so well, that we never thought of inquiring farther. His grandfather was an old soldier, discharged after “the war of independence” with a grant of land—the same spot we have already seen; and Jack, in addition to tolerably successful farming, was well known as a guide to every one whose inclination led him in that direction to try the perils of moose-hunting in winter, or the milder, but hardly less exciting, sport of salmon or trout-fishing in summer. His square, strong form, dark face, and clear, sharp, blue eyes, make him in appearance a good type of his class. At last, here we are at the end of our journey, at least, here we may begin to think of sport. I will try to give some idea of the place we find ourselves in; but, as I could not even flatter myself that the sketches I proceeded to take do it justice, I cannot expect to succeed better in writing. First of all, we are in the perfect solitude of the bush, a silence which “may be felt,” its effect is not lessened by the sound, at intervals, of our own voices. Above us the magnificent forest trees are almost hiding the blue sky, and only allowing flecks of bright light, here and there, to penetrate to the mass of interlaced boughs, and shrubs, and foliage underneath. Before us is a stream, varying from ten to twenty yards in breadth, rushing down the slight slope here in rapids, with rocks rising in all directions above the water; and there in a regular fall of eight or ten feet. From the point we are now at, we are to fish up the stream, a little distance to a pool, where there is a chance of our finding a salmon or two—trout being the primary object of our expedition.

Up the stream we go, wading, scrambling, slipping off rocks, catching flies and line in the boughs, which effectually prevent any but the most crafty kind of “cast;” but all this time catching trout, weighing from half a-pound to three times that weight, which we do not bother ourselves with carrying, but string together on thin sticks, and leave on rocks till we return again.

“What in the world!” shouts V., perched on a bough over a fall, to me, “are these mysterious beasts which swarm round my fly and won’t touch it?”

I know they are fish, common enough in these waters, but whose name I have forgotten at the moment,—like trout in size and shape, but of a paler colour, which won’t be caught. The most satisfactory part of the affair being, that they are worth nothing when they are caught.

Here is our pool, dull and still, with swamp on two sides. Here I put on the “gaudiest” fly of my collection, and try for a salmon. After waiting till V.’s patience is tried, I hook one, and thanks to Jack—whose part in the performances generally, by the bye, consists in carrying a business-like landing net, and finding us in conversation and advice on various subjects—I land him safely. However, we leave the rest of his tribe, if there are any in the pool, undisturbed, and proceed down the stream again. As the heat of the day comes on, we take up a position on a large shaded rock in the middle of the stream, and attack some cold meat and bread, which we wash down with large draughts of the water running beside us; then light our pipes, and enjoy the most delicious otium sine dignitate. I leave the two reposing, and wander off with my sketch-book, but the mosquitos and “black flies” take advantage of my hands being employed to attack me most vigorously, and soon succeed in “drawing blood.” I try what can be done with the blue veil I have provided myself with; but my unfeminine eyes are unable to penetrate successfully through its maziness, so I return in despair to the rocks, use my hands in keeping off the mosquitos, and wait patiently till we start for our evening’s fishing. At eight o’clock we leave off, having slaughtered, with two rods, nine and a-half dozen trout of all sizes, from three pounds and a-half downwards; horrible to relate, though, we leave two-thirds of them on different rocks, for we can’t eat them all, and we must only pack the very freshest of our last day’s fish to take home with us.

Now, then, for supper and bed. We must fix our camp before we eat, and here is the very place—in a “fork” made by a small stream—where several young firs growing in a sort of circle, make an apology for a roof with their branches. Now for half-an-hour’s work with our knives and axes to cut away the boughs, and to make a thick mattrass of small spruce branches for our bed, as well as to get logs for our fire. Out come thousands of fireflies as it grows darker, as if they mean to help us, but soon we shall have fire enough.

There—we have wood enough now, and while V. and I have been chopping, Jack has been collecting an armful of that white, glossy birch-bark which helps to make fire, light, wigwams, and canoes for the Indian. We build our fire in the most open corner of our camp (of which, by the bye, it is to occupy about half), and put a pile of logs close at hand to keep it up during the night. We have got the fire into a good blaze, and now for the cooking. We make a division of labour; Jack splits some sticks, plants one end in the ground close to the fire, divides fish—one for each stick—down the middle of the back, fastens the fish so divided in the fork of the split stick, and superintends the dressing, while V. and I arrange a tripod, and hang thereupon a big black kettle, with our tea in it, to boil (the luxury of tea-pots is unknown in the bush). Our supper to-night, with our tea in tin mugs, bread, some butter from Jack’s, and the trout, is by no means to be despised. I am sure no one can appreciate trout properly who has not eaten them, cooked bush fashion, just after he has himself caught them. After supper comes the “calumet of peace,” half an hour’s talk, and then to bed, rolling ourselves up, just as we are, in our wrappers, and lying down on our spruce branches—feet to the blaze—with the lullaby of the stream and the fire, we soon drop off into sound sleep. Whoever wakes up in the night throws a log or two on the fire, but I am bound to say that Jack took more than his fair share of fire-replenishing, or we should never have found it, as we did, blazing at four the next morning. Soon after four o’clock we unwind ourselves from our wrappers, Jack takes the greater part of our “heavy baggage” and proceeds to a place about a mile down the stream, where he is to get our breakfast ready, while we fish down till we meet him, which we do accordingly in about an hour and a-half. Proceedings are much like yesterday’s, we fish, eat, rest, and smoke after the same fashion; we don’t catch any salmon, and when we find ourselves at the debouching point of the stream into the lake I mentioned before, being the place where we are to camp to-night, our number of trout for the day turns out to be almost twelve dozen. Of course we have not brought half of them with us, but we have marked down the number in pencil at each point we stopped at. Close to the lake we fixed our camp to-night. Out sparkle the fire-flies, appearing one by one like the stars, and the broad surface of the lake fades away into darkness. We “turn in” about ten o’clock, with much the same shelter as last night. After I have been asleep some time I am roused—something falls on me; it must be a twig from the tree; I turn round, take an extra fold in my wrapper; again and again something falls. I open my eyes and see Jack crawling to put a log on the fire.

“What is the night like, Jack?”

“Don’t you feel the rain, sir?” says Jack.

“Indeed I do,” by this time, as the drops which came through our slender roof begin to hiss on the burning wood. Well, there is no help for it, for Jack says, “it is only midnight,” and we must have our sleep. So down goes my head again,—the hissing becomes more constant. I just recollect a slightly damp feeling about the legs, a distinct dream that I am at Chiswick, and have had to take refuge from a shower in a tent which is not large enough to hold me, and nothing more do I remember till I woke at three o’clock—rain still pouring, and everything belonging to me drenched.

Jack and I get up. I shake V., whose sleep having been of the profoundest, it is excessively amusing to see him awaking at the same time to consciousness and a drenching. No more fishing this morning, though we were to have coasted along the lake before going back to Jack’s, and starting for civilised life again. With a crust of damp bread, by way of breakfast, we pack up our traps and our fish and start for a four mile tramp through the bush to Jack’s. Those who have tried, as well as those who have not, a walk under the same circumstances, will easily believe that walking through thick, wet, bush, with from sixty to seventy pounds avoirdupois hanging to one’s back, as well as at least half that weight of drenched clothes clinging to one’s limbs, is not altogether pleasant. However, in due time we come to Jack’s, sit wrapped up in all the available blankets of the establishment till our clothes have finished pouring out their clouds of vapour before the fire, and do full justice, blankets and all, to one of “Mrs. Jack’s” best breakfasts. This done, we start for “home,” providently securing the assistance of Jack and his eldest son, till we have crossed our enemy, the venerable trunk prostrate across the road. We leave Jack, having bestowed on him the not very extravagant sum of ten dollars, as full, and more than full, discharge of all demands, as well as more fish than they want, and arrive at the door we started from some sixty hours before, having succeeded by this time in getting drenched again. We bring with us a large stock of that glorious fresh feeling which ever so slight a taste of bush-life gives, and some wonder why so few fishing men in England find their way to the splendid rivers and lakes of North America, and fish enough to live on for weeks (if they would but keep) for the especial gratification of those of our friends who care for such luxuries as trout.


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