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The Open Fire Henry van Dyke

The Smudge-Fire

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If he makes it in an old iron pot, so much the better, for then you can move it around to the windward when the breeze veers, and carry it into your tent without risk of setting everything on fire, and even take it with you in the canoe while you are fishing.

Some of the pleasantest pictures in the angler's gallery of remembrance are framed in the smoke that rises from a smudge.

With my eyes shut, I can call up a vision of eight birch-bark canoes floating side by side on Moosehead Lake, on a fair June morning, fifteen years ago. They are anchored off Green Island, riding easily on the long, gentle waves. In the stern of each canoe there is a guide with a long-handled net; in the bow, an angler with a light fly-rod; in the middle, a smudge-kettle, smoking steadily. In the air to the windward of the little fleet hovers a swarm of flies drifting down on the shore breeze, with bloody purpose in their breasts, but baffled by the protecting smoke. In the water to the leeward plays a school of speckled trout, feeding on the minnows that hang around the sunken ledges of rock. As a larger wave than usual passes over the ledges, it lifts the fish up, and you can see the big fellows, three, and four, and even five pounds apiece, poising themselves in the clear brown water. A long cast will send the fly over one of them. Let it sink a foot. Draw it up with a fluttering motion. Now the fish sees it, and turns to catch it. There is a yellow gleam in the depth, a sudden swirl on the surface; you strike sharply, and the trout is matching his strength against the spring of your four ounces of split bamboo.

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You can guess at his size, as he breaks water, by the breadth of his tail: a pound of weight to an inch of tail,--that is the traditional measure, and it usually comes pretty close to the mark, at least in the case of large fish. But it is never safe to record the weight until the trout is in the canoe. As the Canadian hunters say, "Sell not the skin of the bear while he carries it."

Now the breeze that blows over Green Island drops away, and the smoke of the eight smudge-kettles falls like a thick curtain. The canoes, the dark shores of Norcross Point, the twin peaks of Spencer Mountain, the dim blue summit of Katahdin, the dazzling sapphire sky, the flocks of fleece-white clouds shepherded on high by the western wind, all have vanished. With closed eyes I see another vision, still framed in smoke,--a vision of yesterday.

It is a wild river flowing into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, on the COTE NORD, far down towards Labrador. There is a long, narrow, swift pool between two parallel ridges of rock. Over the ridge on the right pours a cataract of pale yellow foam. At the bottom of the pool, the water slides down into a furious rapid, and dashes straight through an impassable gorge half a mile to the sea. The pool is full of salmon, leaping merrily in their delight at coming into their native stream. The air is full of black-flies, rejoicing in the warmth of the July sun. On a slippery point of rock, below the fall, are two anglers, tempting the fish and enduring the flies. Behind them is an old HABITANT raising a mighty column of smoke.

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Fisherman's Luck
Henry van Dyke

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