Chapter XXVII. Shad-Fishing by Proxy

According to the almanac, May was on time to a second, but Nature seemed unaware of the fact. Great bodies of snow covered the Adirondack region, and not a little still remained all the way southward through the Catskills and the Highlands, about the headwaters of the Delaware, and its cold breath benumbed the land. Johnnie's chosen intimates had given her their suffrages as May Queen; but prudent Maggie had decided that the crowning ceremonies should not take place until May truly appeared, with its warmth and floral wealth. Therefore, on the first Saturday of the month, Leonard planned a half-holiday, which should not only compensate the disappointed children, but also give his busy wife a little outing. He had learned that the tide was right for crossing the shallows of the Moodna Creek, and they would all go fishing. Johnnie's friends and Dr. and Mrs. Marvin were invited, and great were the preparations. Reed and all kinds of poles were taken down from their hooks, or cut in a neighboring thicket, the country store was depleted of its stock of rusty hooks, and stray corks were fastened on the brown linen lines for floats. Burt disdained to take his scientific tackle, and indeed there was little use for it in Moodna Creek, but he joined readily in the frolic. He would be willing to fish indefinitely for even minnows, if at the same time there was a chance to angle for Amy. Some preferred to walk to the river, and with the aid of the family rockaway the entire party were at the boat-house before the sun had passed much beyond the meridian. Burt, from his intimate knowledge of the channel, acted as pilot, and was jubilant over the fact that Amy consented to take an oar with him and receive a lesson in rowing. Mrs. Marvin held the tiller-ropes, and the doctor was to use a pair of oars when requested to do so. Webb and Leonard took charge of the larger boat, of which Johnnie, as hostess, was captain, and a jolly group of little boys and girls made the echoes ring, while Ned, with his thumb in his mouth, clung close to his mother, and regarded the nautical expedition rather dubiously. They swept across the flats to the deeper water near Plum Point, and so up the Moodna, whose shores were becoming green with the rank growth of the bordering marsh. Passing under an old covered bridge they were soon skirting an island from which rose a noble grove of trees, whose swollen buds were only waiting for a warmer caress of the sun to unfold. Returning, they beached their boats below the bridge, under whose shadow the fish were fond of lying. The little people were disembarked, and placed at safe distances; for, if near, they would surely hook each other, if never a fin. Silence was enjoined, and there was a breathless hush for the space of two minutes; then began whispers more resonant than those of the stage, followed by acclamations as Johnnie pulled up a wriggling eel, of which she was in mortal terror. They all had good sport, however, for the smaller fry of the finny tribes that haunted the vicinity of the old bridge suffered from the well-known tendency of extreme youth to take everything into its mouth. Indeed, at that season, an immature sun-fish will take a hook if there is but a remnant of a worm upon it. The day was good for fishing, since thin clouds darkened the water. Amy was the heroine of the party, for Burt had furnished her with a long, light pole, and taught her to throw her line well away from the others. As a result she soon took, amidst excited plaudits, several fine yellow perch. At last Leonard shouted:

"You shall not have all the honors, Amy. I have a hook in my pocket that will catch bigger fish than you have seen to-day. Come, the tide is going out, and we must go out of the creek with it unless we wish to spend the night on a sand-bar. I shall now try my luck at shad-fishing over by Polopel's Island."

The prospect of crossing the river and following the drift-nets down into the Highlands was a glad surprise to all, and they were soon in Newburgh Bay, whose broad lake-like surface was unruffled by a breath. The sun, declining toward the west, scattered rose-hues among the clouds. Sloops and schooners had lost steerage-way, and their sails flapped idly against the masts. The grind of oars between the thole-pins came distinctly across the water from far-distant boats, while songs and calls of birds, faint and etherealized, reached them from the shores. Rowing toward a man rapidly paying out a net from the stern of his boat they were soon hailed by Mr. Marks, who with genial good-nature invited them to see the sport. He had begun throwing his net over in the middle of the river, his oarsman rowing eastward with a slight inclination toward the south, for the reason that the tide is swifter on the western side. The aim is to keep the net as straight as possible and at right angles with the tide. The two boats were soon following Mr. Marks on either side, the smooth water and the absence of wind enabling them to keep near and converse without effort. Away in their wake bobbed the cork floats in an irregular line, and from these floats, about twenty feet below the surface, was suspended the net, which extended down thirty or forty feet further, being kept in a vertical position by iron rings strung along its lower edge at regular intervals. Thus the lower side of the net was from fifty to sixty feet below the surface. In shallow water narrower nets are rigged to float vertically much nearer the surface. Mr. Marks explained that his net was about half a mile long, adding,

"It's fun fishing on a day like this, but it's rather tough in a gale of wind, with your eyes half blinded by rain, and the waves breaking into your boat. Yes, we catch just as many then, perhaps more, for there are fewer men out, and I suppose the weather is always about the same, except as to temperature, down where the shad are. The fish don't mind wet weather; neither must we if we make a business of catching them."

"Do you always throw out your net from the west shore toward the east?" Webb asked.

"No, we usually pay out against the wind. With the wind the boat is apt to go too fast. The great point is to keep the net straight and not all tangled and wobbled up. Passing boats bother us, too. Sometimes a float will catch on a paddle-wheel, and like enough half of the net will be torn away. A pilot with any human feeling will usually steer one side, and give a fellow a chance, and we can often bribe the skipper of sailing-craft by holding up a shad and throwing it aboard as he tacks around us. As a rule, however, boats of all kinds pass over a net without doing any harm. Occasionally a net breaks from the floats and drags on the bottom. This is covered with cinders thrown out by steamers, and they play the mischief."

"Do the fish swim against the tide?"

"Usually, but they come in on both sides."

"Mr. Marks, how can you catch fish in a net that is straight up and down?" Amy asked.

"You'll soon see, but I'll explain. The meshes of the net will stretch five inches. A shad swims into one of these and then, like many others that go into things, finds he can't back out, for his gills catch on the sides of the mesh and there he hangs. Occasionally a shad will just tangle himself up and so be caught, and sometimes we take a large striped bass in this way."

In answer to a question of Burt's he continued: "I just let my net float with the tide as you see, giving it a pull from one end or the other now and then to keep it as straight and as near at right angles with the river as possible. When the tide stops running out and turns a little we begin at one end of the net and pull it up, taking out the fish, at the same time laying it carefully in folds on a platform in the stern-sheets, so as to prevent any tangles. If the net comes up clear and free, I may throw it in again and float back with the tide. So far from being able to depend on this, we often have to go ashore where there is a smooth beach before our drift is over and disentangle our net. There, now, I'm through, with paying out. Haven't you noticed the floats bobbing here and there?"

"We've been too busy listening and watching you," said Leonard.

"Well, now, watch the floats. If you see one bob under and wobble, a shad has struck the net near it, and I can go and take him out. In smooth water it's like fishing with one of your little cork bobblers there on your lines. I'll give the shad to the first one that sees a float bob under."

Alf nearly sprang out of the boat as he pointed and shouted, "There, there."

Laughing good-naturedly, Mr. Marks lifted the net beneath the float, and, sure enough, there was a great roe-shad hanging by his gills, and Alf gloated over his supper, already secured.

The fish were running well, and there were excited calls and frantic pointings, in which at first even the older members of the party joined, and every few moments a writhing shad flashed in the slanting rays as it was tossed into the boat. Up and down the long, irregular line of floats the boats passed and repassed until excitement verged toward satiety, and the sun, near the horizon, with a cloud canopy of crimson and gold, warned the merry fishers by proxy that their boats should be turned homeward. Leonard pulled out what he termed his silver hook, and supplied not only the Clifford family, but all of Johnnie's guests, with fish so fresh that they had as yet scarcely realized that they were out of water.

"Now, Amy," said Burt, "keep stroke with me," adding, in a whisper, "no fear but that we can pull well together."

Her response was, "One always associates a song with rowing. Come, strike up, and let us keep the boats abreast that all may join."

He, well content, started a familiar boating song, to which the splash of their oars made musical accompaniment. A passing steamer saluted them, and a moment later the boats rose gracefully over the swells. The glassy river flashed back the crimson of the clouds, the eastern slopes of the mountains donned their royal purple, the intervening shadows of valleys making the folds of their robes. As they approached the shore the resonant song of the robins blended with the human voices. Burt, however, heard only Amy's girlish soprano, and saw but the pearl of her teeth through her parted lips, the rose in her cheeks, and the snow of her neck.

Final words were spoken and all were soon at home. Maggie took the household helm with a fresh and vigorous grasp. What a supper she improvised! The maids never dawdled when she directed, and by the time the hungry fishermen were ready, the shad that two hours before had been swimming deep in the Hudson lay browned to a turn on the ample platter. "It is this quick transition that gives to game fish their most exquisite flavor," Burt remarked.

"Are shad put down among the game fish?" his father asked.

"Yes; they were included not very long ago, and most justly, too, as I can testify to-night. I never tasted anything more delicious, except trout. If a shad were not so bony it would be almost perfection when eaten under the right conditions. Not many on the Hudson are aware of the fact, perhaps, but angling for them is fine sport in some rivers. They will take a fly in the Connecticut and Housatonic; but angle-worms and other bait are employed in the Delaware and Southern rivers. The best time to catch them is early in the morning, and from six to eight in the evening. At dusk one may cast for them in still water, as for trout. The Hudson is too big, I suppose, and the water too deep, although I see no reason why the young fry should not be caught in our river as well as in the Delaware. I have read of their biting voraciously in September at a short distance above Philadelphia."

"Do you mean to say that our rivers are full of shad in August and September?" Leonard asked.

"Yes; that is, of young shad on the way to the sea. The females that are running up now will spawn in the upper and shallow waters of the river, and return to the ocean by the end of June, and in the autumn the small fry will also go to the sea, the females to remain there two years. The males will come back next spring, and these young males are called 'chicken shad' on the Connecticut. Multitudes of these half-grown fish are taken in seines, and sold as herrings or 'alewives'; for the true herring does not run up into fresh water. Young shad are said to have teeth, and they live largely on insects, while the full-grown fish have no teeth, and feed chiefly on animalcules that form the greater part of the slimy growths that cover nearly everything that is long under water."

"Well, I never had so much shad before in my life," said his father, laughing, and pushing lack his chair; "and, Burt, I have enjoyed those you have served up in the water almost as much as those dished under Maggie's superintendence."

"I should suppose that the present mode of fishing with drift-nets was cheaper and more profitable than the old method of suspending the nets between poles," Leonard remarked.

"It is indeed," Burt continued, vivaciously, for he observed that Amy was listening with interest. "Poles, too, form a serious obstruction. Once, years ago, I was standing near the guards of a steamboat, when I heard the most awful grating, rasping sound, and a moment later a shad-pole gyrated past me with force enough to brain an elephant had it struck him. It was good fun, though, in old times to go out and see them raise the nets, for they often came up heavy with fish. Strange to say, a loon was once pulled up with the shad. Driven by fear, it must have dived so vigorously as to entangle itself, for there it hung with its head and one leg fast. I suppose that the last moment of consciousness that the poor bird had was one of strong surprise."