Chapter XVII. Fishing Through the Ice

Every day through the latter part of February the sun grew higher, and its rays more potent. The snow gave rapidly in warm southern nooks and slopes, and the icicles lengthened from the eaves and overhanging rocks, forming in many instances beautiful crystal fringes. On northern slopes and shaded places the snow scarcely wasted at all, and Amy often wondered how the vast white body that covered the earth could ever disappear in time for spring. But there soon came a raw, chilly, cloudy day, with a high south wind, and the snow sank away, increasing the apparent height of the fences, and revealing objects hitherto hidden, as if some magic were at work.

"I have always observed," said Mr. Clifford, "that a day like this, raw and cold as it seems, does more to carry off the snow than a week of spring sunshine, although it may be warm for the season. What is more, the snow is wasted evenly, and not merely on sunny slopes. The wind seems to soak up the melting snow like a great sponge, for the streams are not perceptibly raised."

"The air does take it up the form of vapor," said Webb, "and that is why we have such a chilly snow atmosphere. Rapidly melting snow tends to lower the temperature proportionately, just as ice around a form of cream, when made to melt quickly the addition of salt, absorbs all heat in its vicinity so fast that the cream is congealed. But this accumulation of vapor in the air must come down again, perhaps in the form of snow, and so there will be no apparent gain."

"If no apparent gain, could there be a real gain by another fall of snow?" Amy asked; for to inexperienced eyes there certainly seemed more than could be disposed of in time for April flowers.

"Yes," he replied, "a fall of snow might make this whole section warmer for a time, and so hasten spring materially. Do not worry. We shall have plenty of snowstorms yet, and still spring will be here practically on time."

But instead of snow the vapor-burdened air relieved itself by a rain of several hours' duration, and in the morning the river that had been so white looked icy and glistening, and by the aid of a glass was seen to be covered with water, which rippled under the rising breeze. The following night was clear and cold, and the surface of the bay became a comparatively smooth glare of ice. At dinner next day Webb remarked:

"I hear that they are catching a good many striped bass through the ice, and I learned that the tide would be right for them to raise the nets this afternoon. I propose, Amy, that we go down and see the process, and get some of the fish direct from the water for supper."

Burt groaned, and was almost jealous that during his enforced confinement so many opportunities to take Amy out fell naturally to Webb. The latter, however, was so entirely fraternal in his manner toward the young girl that Burt was ever able to convince himself that his misgivings were absurd.

Webb was soon ready, and had provided himself with his skates and a small sleigh with a back. When they arrived at the landing he tied his horse, and said:

"The ice is too poor to drive on any longer, I am informed, but perfectly safe still for foot-passengers. As a precaution we will follow the tracks of the fishermen, and I will give you a swift ride on this little sledge, in which I can wrap you up well."

Like most young men brought up in the vicinity, he was a good and powerful skater, and Amy was soon enjoying the exhilarating sense of rapid motion over the smooth ice, with a superb view of the grand mountains rising on either side of the river a little to the south. They soon reached the nets, which stretched across the river through narrow longitudinal cuts so as to be at right angles to each tide, with which the fish usually swim. These nets are such in shape as were formerly suspended between the old-fashioned shad-poles, and are sunk perpendicularly in the water by weights at each end, so that the meshes are expanded nearly to their full extent. The fish swim into these precisely as do the shad, and in their attempts to back out their gills catch, and there they hang.

The nests are about twelve feet square, and the meshes of different nets are from to and a half to five and a quarter inches in size. A bass of nine pounds' weight can be "gilled" in the ordinary manner; but in one instance a fish weighing one hundred and two pounds was caught, and during the present season they were informed that a lucky fisherman at Marlborough had secured "a 52-pounder." These heavy fellows, it was explained, "would go through a net like a cannon-ball" if they came "head on," and with ordinary speed; but if they are playing around gently, the swift tide carries them sidewise into the "slack of the net," from which they seem unable to escape. There are usually about forty-five feet between the surface of the water and the top of the nets, therefore the fish are caught at an average depth of fifty feet. The best winter fishing is from December to March, and as many as one hundred and seventy pounds, or about two hundred bass, have been taken in twenty-four hours from one line of nets; at other times the luck is very bad, for the fish seem to run in streaks.

The luck was exceedingly moderate on the present occasion, but enough fish were caught to satisfy Webb's needs. As they were watching the lifting of the nets and angling for information, they saw an ice-boat slowly and gracefully leaving the landing, and were told that since the ice had grown thin it had taken the place of the sleigh in which the passengers were conveyed to and from the railroad station on the further shore. The wind, being adverse, necessitated several tacks, and on one of them the boat passed so near Webb and Amy that they recognized Mr. Barkdale, the clergyman, who, as he sped by, saluted them. When the boat had passed on about an eighth of a mile, it tacked so suddenly and sharply that the unwary minister was rolled out upon the ice. The speed and impetus of the little craft were so great that before it could be brought up it was about half a mile away, and the good man was left in what might be a dangerous isolation, for ice over which the boat could skim in security might be very unsafe under the stationary weight of a solidly built man like Mr. Barkdale. Webb therefore seized a pole belonging to one of the fishermen, and came speedily to the clergyman's side. Happily the ice, although it had wasted rapidly from the action of the tide in that part of the river, sustained them until the boat returned, and the good man resumed his journey with laughing words, by which he nevertheless conveyed to Webb his honest gratitude for the promptness with which the young fellow had shared his possible danger. When Webb returned he found Amy pale and agitated, for an indiscreet fisherman had remarked that the ice was "mighty poor out in that direction."

"Won't you please come off the river?" she asked, nervously. "I've seen all I wish."

"It's perfectly safe here."

"But you were not here a moment since, and I've no confidence in your discretion when any one is in danger."

"I did not run any risks worth speaking of."

"I think you did. The men explained, in answer to my questions, that the ice toward spring becomes honeycombed--that's the way they expressed it--and lets one through without much warning. They also said the tides wore it away underneath about as fast as the rain and sun wasted the surface."

"Supposing it had let me through, I should have caught on the pole, and so have easily scrambled out, while poor Mr. Barkdale would have been quite helpless."

"Oh, I know it was right for you to go, and I know you will go again should there be the slightest occasion. Therefore I am eager to reach solid ground. Please, Webb."

Her tone was so earnest that he complied, and they were soon in the sleigh again. As they were driving up the hill she turned a shy glance toward him, and said, hesitatingly: "Don't mistake me, Webb. I am proud to think that you are so brave and uncalculating at times; but then I--I never like to think that you are in danger. Remember how very much you are to us all."

"Well, that is rather a new thought to me. Am I much to you?"

"Yes, you are," she said, gravely and earnestly, looking him frankly in the face. "From the first moment you spoke to me as 'sister Amy' you made the relation seem real. And then your manner is so strong and even that it's restful to be with you. You may give one a terrible fright, as you did me this afternoon, but you would never make one nervous."

His face flushed with deep pleasure, but he made good her opinion by quietly changing the subject, and giving her a brisk, bracing drive over one of her favorite roads.

All at the supper table agreed that the striped bass were delicious, and Burt, as the recognized sportsman of the family, had much to say about the habits of this fine game fish. Among his remarks he explained that the "catch" was small at present because the recent rain and melting snow had made the water of the river so fresh that the fish had been driven back toward the sea. "But they reascend," he said, "as soon as the freshet subsides. They are a sea fish, and only ascend fresh-water streams for shelter in winter, and to breed in spring. They spawn in May, and by August the little fish will weigh a quarter of a pound. A good many are taken with seines after the ice breaks up, but I never had any luck with pole and line in the river. While striped bass are found all along the coast from Florida to Cape Cod, the largest fish are taken between the latter place and Montauk Point. I once had some rare sport off the east end of Long Island. I was still-fishing, with a pole and reel, and fastened on my hook a peeled shedder crab. My line was of linen, six hundred feet long, and no heavier than that used for trout, but very strong. By a quick movement which an old bass-fisherman taught me I made my bait dart like an arrow straight over the water more than one hundred feet, my reel at the same moment whirling, in paying out, as if it would fuse from friction. Well, I soon hooked a fifty-pound fish, and we had a tussle that I shall never forget. It took me an hour to tire him out, and I had to use all the skill I possessed to keep him from breaking the line. It was rare sport, I can tell you--the finest bit of excitement I ever had fishing;" and the young fellow's eyes sparkled at the memory.

Strange as it may appear to some, his mother shared most largely in his enthusiasm. The reason was that, apart from the interest which she took in the pleasure of all her children, she lived much in her imagination, which was unusually strong, and Burt's words called up a marine picture with an athletic young fellow in the foreground all on the qui vive, his blue eyes flashing with the sparkle and light of the sea as he matched his skill and science against a creature stronger than himself. "Are larger bass ever taken with rod and line?" she asked.

"Yes, one weighing seventy-five pounds has been captured. Jupiter! what sport it must have been!"

"How big do they grow, anyhow?" Leonard queried.

"To almost your size, Len, and that's a heavy compliment to the bass. They have been known to reach the weight of one hundred and fifty pounds."