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The Open Fire Henry van Dyke

The Smudge-Fire

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Table Of Contents: Fisherman's Luck

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Through the cloudy pillar which keeps back the Egyptian host, you see the waving of a long rod. A silver-gray fly with a barbed tail darts out across the pool, swings around with the current, well under water, and slowly works past the big rock in the centre, just at the head of the rapid. Almost past it, but not quite: for suddenly the fly disappears; the line begins to run out; the reel sings sharp and shrill; a salmon is hooked.

But how well is he hooked? That is the question. This is no easy pool to play a fish in. There is no chance to jump into a canoe and drop below him, and get the current to help you in drowning him. You cannot follow him along the shore. You cannot even lead him into quiet water, where the gaffer can creep near to him unseen and drag him in with a quick stroke. You must fight your fish to a finish, and all the advantages are on his side. The current is terribly strong. If he makes up his mind to go downstream to the sea, the only thing you can do is to hold him by main force; and then it is ten to one that the hook tears out or the leader breaks.

It is not in human nature for one man to watch another handling a fish in such a place without giving advice. "Keep the tip of your rod up. Don't let your reel overrun. Stir him up a little, he 's sulking. Don't let him 'jig', or you'll lose him. You 're playing him too hard. There, he 's going to jump again. Drop your tip. Stop him, quick! he 's going down the rapid!"

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Of course the man who is playing the salmon does not like this. If he is quick-tempered, sooner or later he tells his counsellor to shut up. But if he is a gentle, early-Christian kind of a man, wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove, he follows the advice that is given to him, promptly and exactly. Then, when it is all ended, and he has seen the big fish, with the line over his shoulder, poised for an instant on the crest of the first billow of the rapid, and has felt the leader stretch and give and SNAP!--then he can have the satisfaction, while he reels in his slack line, of saying to his friend, "Well, old man, I did everything just as you told me. But I think if I had pushed that fish a little harder at the beginning, AS I WANTED TO, I might have saved him."

But really, of course, the chances were all against it. In such a pool, most of the larger fish get away. Their weight gives them a tremendous pull. The fish that are stopped from going into the rapid, and dragged back from the curling wave, are usually the smaller ones. Here they are,--twelve pounds, eight pounds, six pounds, five pounds and a half, FOUR POUNDS! Is not this the smallest salmon that you ever saw? Not a grilse, you understand, but a real salmon, of brightest silver, hall-marked with St. Andrew's cross.

Now let us sit down for a moment and watch the fish trying to leap up the falls. There is a clear jump of about ten feet, and above that an apparently impossible climb of ten feet more up a ladder of twisting foam. A salmon darts from the boiling water at the bottom of the fall like an arrow from a bow. He rises in a beautiful curve, fins laid close to his body and tail quivering; but he has miscalculated his distance. He is on the downward curve when the water strikes him and tumbles him back. A bold little fish, not more than eighteen inches long, makes a jump at the side of the fall, where the water is thin, and is rolled over and over in the spray. A larger salmon rises close beside us with a tremendous rush, bumps his nose against a jutting rock, and flops back into the pool. Now comes a fish who has made his calculations exactly. He leaves the pool about eight feet from the foot of the fall, rises swiftly, spreads his fins, and curves his tail as if he were flying, strikes the water where it is thickest just below the brink, holds on desperately, and drives himself, with one last wriggle, through the bending stream, over the edge, and up the first step of the foaming stairway. He has obeyed the strongest instinct of his nature, and gone up to make love in the highest fresh water that he can reach.

The smoke of the smudge-fire is sharp and tearful, but a man can learn to endure a good deal of it when he can look through its rings at such scenes as these.

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Fisherman's Luck
Henry van Dyke

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