Fisherman’s Luck and Some Other Uncertain Things

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Author: Henry Van Dyke

I Prelude—On an Old, Foolish Maxim

The inventor of the familiar maxim that "fishermen must not talk" is lost in the mists of antiquity, and well deserves his fate. For a more foolish rule, a conventionality more obscure and aimless in its tyranny, was never imposed upon an innocent and honourable occupation, to diminish its pleasure and discount its profits. Why, in the name of all that is genial, should anglers go about their harmless sport in stealthy silence like conspirators, or sit together in a boat, dumb, glum, and penitential, like naughty schoolboys on the bench of disgrace? ’Tis an Omorcan superstition; a rule without a reason; a venerable, idiotic fashion invented to repress lively spirits and put a premium on stupidity.

For my part, I incline rather to the opinion of the Neapolitan fishermen who maintain that a certain amount of noise, of certain kinds, is likely to improve the fishing, and who have a particular song, very sweet and charming, which they sing to draw the fishes around them. It is narrated, likewise, of the good St. Brandan, that on his notable voyage from Ireland in search of Paradise, he chanted the service for St. Peter’s day so pleasantly that a subaqueous audience of all sorts and sizes was attracted, insomuch that the other monks began to be afraid, and begged the abbot that he would sing a little lower, for they were not quite sure of the intention of the congregation. Of St. Anthony of Padua it is said that he even succeeded in persuading the fishes, in great multitudes, to listen to a sermon; and that when it was ended (it must be noted that it was both short and cheerful) they bowed their heads and moved their bodies up and down with every mark of fondness and approval of what the holy father had spoken.

If we can believe this, surely we need not be incredulous of things which seem to be no less, but rather more, in harmony with the course of nature. Creatures who are sensible to the attractions of a sermon can hardly be indifferent to the charm of other kinds of discourse. I can easily imagine a company of grayling wishing to overhear a conversation between I. W. and his affectionate (but somewhat prodigal) son and servant, Charles Cotton; and surely every intelligent salmon in Scotland might have been glad to hear Christopher North and the Ettrick Shepherd bandy jests and swap stories. As for trout,—was there one in Massachusetts that would not have been curious to listen to the intimate opinions of Daniel Webster as he loafed along the banks of the Marshpee,—or is there one in Pennsylvania to-day that might not be drawn with interest and delight to the feet of Joseph Jefferson, telling how he conceived and wrote RIP VAN WINKLE on the banks of a trout-stream?

Fishermen must be silent? On the contrary, it is far more likely that good talk may promote good fishing.

All this, however, goes upon the assumption that fish can hear, in the proper sense of the word. And this, it must be confessed, is an assumption not yet fully verified. Experienced anglers and students of fishy ways are divided upon the question. It is beyond a doubt that all fishes, except the very lowest forms, have ears. But then so have all men; and yet we have the best authority for believing that there are many who "having ears, hear not."

The ears of fishes, for the most part, are inclosed in their skull, and have no outward opening. Water conveys sound, as every country boy knows who has tried the experiment of diving to the bottom of the swimming-hole and knocking two big stones together. But I doubt whether any country boy, engaged in this interesting scientific experiment, has heard the conversation of his friends on the bank who were engaged in hiding his clothes.

There are many curious and more or less venerable stories to the effect that fishes may be trained to assemble at the ringing of a bell or the beating of a drum. Lucian, a writer of the second century, tells of a certain lake wherein many sacred fishes were kept, of which the largest had names given to them, and came when they were called. But Lucian was not a man of especially good reputation, and there is an air of improbability about his statement that the LARGEST fishes came. This is not the custom of the largest fishes.

In the present century there was a tale of an eel in a garden-well, in Scotland, which would come to be fed out of a spoon when the children called him by his singularly inappropriate name of Rob Roy. This seems a more likely story than Lucian’s; at all events it comes from a more orthodox atmosphere. But before giving it full credence, I should like to know whether the children, when they called "Rob Roy!" stood where the eel could see the spoon.

On the other side of the question, we may quote Mr. Ronalds, also a Scotchman, and the learned author of THE FLY-FISHER’S ENTOMOLOGY, who conducted a series of experiments which proved that even trout, the most fugacious of fish, are not in the least disturbed by the discharge of a gun, provided the flash is concealed. Mr. Henry P. Wells, the author of THE AMERICAN SALMON ANGLER, says that he has "never been able to make a sound in the air which seemed to produce the slightest effect upon trout in the water."

So the controversy on the hearing of fishes continues, and the conclusion remains open. Every man is at liberty to embrace that side which pleases him best. You may think that the finny tribes are as sensitive to sound as Fine Ear, in the German fairy-tale, who could hear the grass grow. Or you may hold the opposite opinion, that they are

"Deafer than the blue-eyed cat."

But whichever theory you adopt, in practice, if you are a wise fisherman, you will steer a middle course, between one thing which must be left undone and another thing which should be done. You will refrain from stamping on the bank, or knocking on the side of the boat, or dragging the anchor among the stones on the bottom; for when the water vibrates the fish are likely to vanish. But you will indulge as freely as you please in pleasant discourse with your comrade; for it is certain that fishing is never hindered, and may even be helped, in one way or another, by good talk.

I should therefore have no hesitation in advising any one to choose, for companionship on an angling expedition, long or short, a person who has the rare merit of being TALKABLE.

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Chicago: Henry Van Dyke, "I Prelude— On an Old, Foolish Maxim," Fisherman’s Luck and Some Other Uncertain Things, ed. Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in Fisherman’s Luck and Some Other Uncertain Things (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed January 31, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8MHBNS9D438DZ2N.

MLA: Dyke, Henry Van. "I Prelude— On an Old, Foolish Maxim." Fisherman’s Luck and Some Other Uncertain Things, edited by Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in Fisherman’s Luck and Some Other Uncertain Things, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 31 Jan. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8MHBNS9D438DZ2N.

Harvard: Dyke, HV, 'I Prelude— On an Old, Foolish Maxim' in Fisherman’s Luck and Some Other Uncertain Things, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, Fisherman’s Luck and Some Other Uncertain Things, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 31 January 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8MHBNS9D438DZ2N.