Project Canterbury

The Compleat Angler
Or the Contemplative Man's Recreation

by Izaak Walton

Observations of the Salmon, with directions how to fish for him.

PISC. The Salmon is accounted the King of fresh water-Fish, and is ever bred in Rivers relating to the Sea, yet so high or far from it as admits of no tincture of salt or brackishness; He is said to breed or cast his spawn in most Rivers in the month of August: some say, that then they dig a hole or grave in a safe place in the gravel, and there place their eggs or spawn (after the Melter his done his natural Office) and then hide it most cunningly, and cover it over with gravel and stones; and so leave it to their Creators protection, who by a gentle heat which he infuses into that cold element makes it brood and beget life in the spawn, and to become Samlets early in the spring next following.

The Salmons having spent their appointed time, and done this Natural Duty in the fresh waters, they then haste to the Sea before Winter, both the Melter and Spawner: but if they be stopt by Flood-gates or Weres, or lost in the fresh waters, then those so left behind, by degrees grow sick, and lean, and unseasonable, and kipper, that is to say, have bony gristles grow out of their lower chaps (not unlike a Hawks beak) which hinders their feeding, and in time such Fish so left behind, pine away and dye. ’Tis observed, that he may live thus one year from the Sea; but he then grows insipid and tasteless, and loses both his blood and strength, and pines and dies the second year. And ’tis noted, that those little Salmons called Skeggers, which abound in many Rivers relating to the Sea, are bred by such sick Salmon, that might not go to the Sea, and that though they abound, yet they never thrive to any considerable bigness.

But if the old Salmon gets to the Sea, then that gristle wears away, or is cast off (as the Eagle is said to cast his bill) and he recovers his strength, and comes next Summer to the same River (if it be possible) to enjoy the former pleasures that there possest him; for (as one has wittily observed) he has (like some persons of Honour and Riches, which have both their Winter and Summer houses) the fresh Rivers for Summer, and the salt water for Winter, to spend his life in; which is not (as Sir Francis Bacon hath observed in his History of Life and Death) above ten years: And it is to be observed, that though they grow big in the Sea, yet they grow not fat but in fresh Rivers; and it is observed, that the farther they get from the Sea, they be both the fatter and better.

Next, I shall tell you, that though they make very hard shift to get out of the fresh Rivers into the Sea, yet they will make harder shift to get out of the salt into the fresh Rivers, to spawn or possesse the pleasures that they have formerly found in them, to which end they will force themselves through Flood-gates, or over Weires, or hedges, or stops in the water, even beyond common belief. Gesner speaks of such places, as are known to be above eight foot high above water. And our Cambden mentions (in his Brittannia), the like wonder to be in Pembroke-shire, where the river Tivy falls into the Sea, and that the fall is so downright, and so high, that the people stand and wonder at the strength and slight that they see the Salmon use to get out of the Sea into the said River; and the manner and height of the place is so notable, that it is known far by the name of the Salmon-leap; concerning which, take this also out of Michael Draiton, my honest old friend.

And when the Salmon seeks a fresher stream to find,
(which hither from the Sea comes yearly by his kind)
As he towards season grows, and stems the watry tract
Where Tivy falling down, makes an high cataract,
Forc’d by the rising rocks that there her course oppose,
As though within her bounds they meant her to inclose;
Here when the labouring fish does at the foot arrive,
And finds that by his strength he does but vainly strive,
His tail takes in his mouth, and, bending like a bow
That’s to ful compass drawn, aloft himself doth throw,
Then springing at his height as doth a little wand
That bended end to end, and started from mans hand,
Far oft it self doth cast; so does the Salmon vaut,
And if at first he fail, his second Summer sought,

He instantly essaies, and, from his nimble ring,
Still yerking, never leaves until himself he fling
Above the opposing stream. ––

And next I shall tell you, that it is observed by Gesner and others, that there is no better Salmon than in England: and that though some of our Northern Countries have as fat and as large as the River Thames, yet none are of so excellent a taste.

And as I have told you that Sir Francis Bacon observes, the age of a Salmon exceeds not ten years; so let me next tell you, that his growth is very sudden: it is said, that after he is got into the sea, he becomes from a Samlet, not so big as as Gudgion, to be a Salmon, in as short a time as a Gosling becomes to be a Goose. Much of this has been observed by tying a Ribband or some known tape or thred, in the tail of some young Salmons, which have been taken in Weirs as they have swimm’d toward the salt water, and then by taking a part of them again with the known mark at the same place at their return from the Sea, which is usually about six moneths after; and the like experiment hath been tryed upon young Swallowes, who have after six moneths absence, been observed to return to the same chimney, there to make their nests and habitations for the Summer following: which has inclined many to think, that every Salmon usually returns to the same River in which it was bred, as young Pigeons taken out of the same Dove-cote, have also been observed to do.

And you are yet to observe further, that the He Salmon is usually bigger than the Spawner, and that he is more kipper, and less able to endure a winter in the fresh water, than the She is, yet she is at that time of looking less kipper and better, as watry, and as bad meat.

And yet you are to observe, that as there is no general rule without an exception, so there are some few Rivers in this Nation, that have Trouts and Salmon in season in winter, as ’tis certain there be in the river Wy in Monmouth-shire, where they be in season (as Cambden observes) from September till April. But my Scholar, the observation of this and many other things, I must in manners omit, because they will prove too large for our narrow compass of time, and therefore I shall next fall upon my direction how to fish for this Salmon.

And for that first, you shall observe, that usually he staies not long in a place (as Trouts wil) but (as I said) covets still to go nearer the Spring-head; and that he does not (as the Trout and many other fish) lie near the water side or bank or roots of trees, but swims in the deep and broad parts of the water, and usually in the middle, and near the ground; and that there you are to fish for him, and that he is to be caught as the Trout is, with a Worm, a Minnow (which some call a Penk) or with a Fly.

And you are to observe, that he is very seldom observed to bite at a Minnow, (yet sometimes he will) and not oft at a fly, but more usually at a Worm, and then most usually at a Lob or Garden-worm, which should be well scoured, that is to say, seven or eight daies in Moss before you fish with them: and if you double your time of eight into sixteen or more, into twenty or more daies, it is still the better, for the worms will still be clearer, tougher, and more lively, and continue so longer upon your hook, and they may be kept longer by keeping them cool and in fresh Moss.

Note also, that many use to Fish for a Salmon with a ring of wyre on the top of their Rod, through which the Line may run to as great a length as it is needful when he is hook’d. And to that end, some use a wheel about the middle of their Rod, or nearer their hand, which are to be observed either by seeing one of them, or a large demonstration of words.

And now I shall tell you, that which may be called a secret: I have been a fishing with old Oliver Henly (now with God), a noted Fisher, both for Trout and Salmon, and have observed, that he would usually take three or four worms out of his bag, and put them into a little box in his pocket, where he would usually let them continue half an hour or more, before he would bait his hook with them; I have asked him his reason, and he has replyed, He did but pick the best out to be in a readinesse against he baited his hook the next time: But he has been observed both by others, and my self, to catch more fish than I or any other body, that has ever gone a fishing with him could do, and especially Salmons; and I have been told lately by one of his most intimate and secret friends, that the box in which he put those worms, was anointed with a drop, or two, or three, of the Oil of Ivy-berries, made by expression or infusion, and that by the worms remaining in that box an hour, or a like time, they had incorporated a kind of smell that was irresistably attractive enough to force any Fish within the smell of them, to bite. This I heard not long since from a friend, but have not tryed it; yet I grant it probable, and refer my Reader to Sir Francis Bacons Natural History, where he proves fishes may hear: and I am certain Gesner sayes, the Otter can smell in the water, and I know not but that Fish may do so too: ’tis left for a lover of Angling, or any that desires to improve that Art, to try this conclusion.

I shall also impart two other Experiments (but not tryed by my self) which I will deliver in the same words that they were given me (by an excellent Angler, and a very friend) in writing, he told me the latter was too good to be told, but in a learned language, lest it should be made common.

Take the stinking oil, drawn out of Polypody of the Oak by a retort, mixt with Turpentine, and Hive-honey, and anoint your bait therewith, and it will doubtless draw the fish to it.

The other is this: Vulnera hederae grandissime inflectar sudant Balsamum oleo gelato, albicantique persimile, odoris vero longe suavissimi.

’Tis supremely sweet to any fish, and yet Asafoetido may do the like.

But in these things I have no great faith, yet grant it probable, and have had from some chimical men (namely, from Sir George Hastings and others) an affirmation of them to be very advantageous: but no more of these, especially not in this place.

I might here, before I take my leave of the Salmon, tell you, that there is more than one sort of them, as namely, a Tecon, and another called in some places a Samlet, or by some, a Skegger: but these (and others which I forbear to name) may be Fish of another kind (and differ, as we know a Herring and a Pilcher do), which I think are as different, as the Rivers in which they breed, and must by me be left to the disquisitions men of more leisure, and of greater abilities, than I profess my self to have.

And lastly, I am to borrow so much of your promised patience, as to tell you that the Trout or Salmon being in season, have at their first taking out of the Water (which continues during life) their bodies adorned, the one with such red spots, and the other with such black or blackish spots, which give them such an addition of natural beauty, as I think, was never given to any woman by the Artificial Paint or Patches in which they so much pride themselves in this Age. And so I shall leave them, and proceed to some Observations of the Pike.

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