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Call me Bill. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—I thought I would go fishing. It is a way I have of driving away the spleen, and after a winter spent in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, I had a whale of a swollen spleen. Whenever this happens; whenever I find myself snarling at little children; whenever I stop being grateful that my bottle is half full and start grumbling that it is half empty; whenever I get to thinking of committing myself to a mental institution like the handy one in Stockbridge, then I account it high time to go fishing as soon as I can, as soon as the season opens—if it ever does. The poet who wrote "If winter comes, can spring be far behind?" had never spent a winter waiting for spring to come to the Berkshires.
Now, when I say I am in the habit of going fishing whenever I begin to grow stir crazy, I do not mean to have it inferred that I am tormented by an itch for places remote, that I feel the lure of wild and distant seas and mysterious monsters of the deep. Not for me marlin off the Kona coast or swordfish off Iquique. I never like to journey more than about five miles from home to go fishing, although a reliable report of really good sport can tempt me to go as far away as 10.
When I go fishing, I, too, want to get away from it all, because it is silence and solitude more than fish that I am seeking; but I do not want to have to go far to find it. As to big fish, all is relative. Not every tuna is a trophy. Compared to, say, a pickerel, every whale is a whale, but not every whale is a big whale. There are small whales. Every species has its prodigies, and these are not always found where you might expect to find them. While men go in search of them in remote and desolate places, it may well be that the monarch of them all lies at this very moment in the shallow waters of that unlikely-looking little stream just over the hill behind the house. Tarpon of 100 pounds are common and earn their catchers no glory, but Mr. T. S. Hudson got his name in the record book, where it has stood for a generation, by catching a 4¾-pound bluegill. It must have taken fully five minutes to land it. Which is the panfishing equivalent of the three-day battle between Moby Dick and the crew of the Pequod.
Now, when I go fishing, I do not hitch a boat to my bumper or clamp a canoe on top of the car and head for the nearest lake. A lake is all too apt to have in and on it other boats, bathers and water skiers, and for me fishing is an act as private as prayer. Besides, when you've seen one lake, you've seen them all, whereas old Heraclitus tells us you can never step twice into the same river. No boats for me. I do not travel light when I go fishing—I go laden with gear, much of which I seldom use—but a boat is too big a piece of tackle for me. A boat demands so much attention itself, either rowing it or bailing it out, that it interferes with the fishing. The fisherman who fishes from a boat must needs be a boatsman, too; me, I am a fisherman pure and simple. I combine hiking with my fishing; when I catch nothing, as is most often the case, I console myself with the thought that I have at least gotten my exercise.
But the principal reason for my dislike of boats on lakes is my dislike of impounded water, still water, flat water, silent water—which is to say, stagnant, murky, tepid, weedy, scummy water; nor do I admire the kinds of fish that favor such water. Give me fast-flowing water, cold water, live water and the fish that thrive in its cold, against its currents. If while wading it I sometimes slip on a mossy rock and take a dip myself, I am only the wetter for the experience.
I am particular about my fishing, as you see, requiring that it be cheap, nearby yet uncrowded, in a mountain stream or a meadow brook; and, because it is more the fishing than the fish that I am out for, I want a fish that will test me—my brains, that is, not my brawn, of which latter I have even less than I do of the former. I want a fish that is fastidious and finicky, wily and skitterish, hard to lure, game when hooked. I want one that is not merely edible but delicious, and while I am at it, one that does not have to be scaled, if you please. "Is that all?" you may say. "Why, the fish you would have must be as rare as white whales—if not as big." I am hard to please; but there is among all the many kinds of fish that swim, one, just one, that fulfills all my many requirements—the trout.
And that winter in the Berkshires, just over the hill from my house, there was my kind of stream. Frozen hard, still and silent, it was waiting, as I was, for a thaw that was so slow in coming it seemed the Ice Age had returned.
A tributary of the Housatonic, this little creek originates in Stockbridge Bowl, the big lake below Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony, and meanders down to Stockbridge, where it joins the river. I rode alongside it—and at one spot, in the hamlet of Interlaken, four or five miles downstream, on the bridge over it—on my way to and from the library in Lenox, where I went to get the volumes of Hawthorne and Melville that had been my reading through the grim, gray winter just past.
The Hawthornes called the dell through which the brook runs "Tanglewood." In the little red cottage just below today's Tanglewood music festival grounds (or rather, in the original cottage which burned, and of which this one is a reproduction) the Hawthornes had lived during the year The House of the Seven Gables was written. To that cottage, mounted on his saddle horse and accompanied by his Newfoundland dog, Herman Melville, himself busy that same year of 1850 writing Moby Dick, rode over from Pittsfield to visit, and to tell, in the words of Julian Hawthorne, Nathaniel's son, "tremendous tales about the South Sea Islands and the whale fishery," looking, "when the narrative inspiration was on him, like all the things he was describing—savages and sea captains, the lovely Fayaway in her canoe, or even the terrible Moby Dick himself."
In Stockbridge Bowl and in the brook that issues from it, Julian Hawthorne learned to fish—an enduring pleasure. Such an ardent fisherman was the boy Julian that he even fished for chickens! Using kernels of corn for bait, he fished for them out of the barn loft door. More than half a century later, Julian Hawthorne had this to say: "Water...dashed and gurgled for us in the brook that penetrated like a happy dream the slumber of the forest that bordered the lake. The wooded declivity through which it went was just enough to keep it ever vocal and animated. Gazing down upon it, it was clear brown, with glancing gleams of interior green, and sparkles diamond white; tiny fishes switched themselves against the current with quivering tails.... Fragments of rock and large pebbles interrupted its flow and deepened its mellow song; above it brooded the twilight of the tall pines and walnuts, responding to its merriment with solemn murmurings. What playfellow is more inexhaustible than such a brook, so full of life, of motion, of sound and color, of variety and constancy."