By Greg Clark, October 10, 1942
“Here’s a letter from Skipper,” cried Jimmie Frise, “inviting us to see them spawning the trout.”
“It might be fun,” I admitted. “If the weather isn’t too cold.”
“Besides,” announced Jim, studying the letter, “he wants us to help him catch some poachers.”
“Poachers?” I protested. “At this time of year?”
“He says,” read Jimmie, “that despite the Airedales they’ve got, despite watch kept by the hatchery employees, and despite trip wires that he has jigged up attached to a rocket that goes off with an awful bang, not merely as an alarm, but to scare the heck out of the poachers if they tripped it, there were poachers three nights last week.”
“But Jim,” I argued, “nobody would poach trout at this season of the year. October? Why, they’re full of spawn. Even the dirtiest poacher in the province wouldn’t kill trout now.”
“They’re doing it,” insisted Jim. “Skipper wants us to come up after lunch, some day this week, see the spawning set-up and have supper with him. And then join in a poacher hunt. He says he has got some of the loveliest trout netted into the spawning pond he has ever seen. Beauties.”
“It’s too early for spawning, Jim.” I said. “They don’t spawn until November, sometimes as late as December.”
“Even so,” said Jim, “Skipper’s very proud of his arrangements, and even if we only see the set-up he’s got, we can have a lovely afternoon and then we can have some fun trying to catch poachers.”
“I don’t want to get mixed up,” I said, “with any tough big poachers, in the dark. Especially the kind of birds that would kill trout at this time of year. They must be pretty low.”
“Don’t fret,” assured Jim. “Old Skipper will do it by remote control, anyway. He’s probably got some comic trick rigged up. He wouldn’t just walk up and grab a poacher. He never does anything the dull, ordinary way. He likes fun.”
“Those Airedales,” I submitted. “He’s got three of the meanest, biggest Airedales I ever saw. I’m scared every time I go up there that one of them will be loose.”
“They’re tied up,” soothed Jim, and usually only let loose at dusk.”
“Boy,” I said, “if he is using them, I don’t want to help in any poacher hunt. I’d hate them to mistake me …”
A Trout Rancher
Listen,” said Jim, “if the Airedales could catch these poachers why would he send for us? There’s something funny about this case.”
“There sure is,” I agreed. “Those dogs can smell a stranger a mile off. And they don’t even bark. They would just close on him and bite the pants off him…”
“You like mysteries, don’t you?” said Jim. “Okay. Here’s a mystery.”
So we telephoned Skipper long distance and said we would be up about mid-afternoon. Old Skipper is one of our most interesting friends. He retired from business some years ago and then devoted himself to fun. There is one thing he loves above all else, and that is feeling a trout, a good trout, on the end of a line. So he went and bought a farm with good springs on it, dammed up the springs to make a series of delightful ponds, deep amidst cedar groves. And then erected a very costly and complicated modern trout hatchery, where, in the fall of the year, he, like a rancher, corrals the choicest big trout in his ponds, takes their spawn from them and raises some hundreds of thousands of infant trout. He rears them to one and two-year-old trout in special ponds and sells them, at a handy price, to other sporting and fishing clubs all over the country. Skipper is, you might say, a trout rancher.
He took in three partners from among his well-to-do acquaintances. Neither Jimmie nor I had enough money to horn in on such a delightful enterprise. But we get invited up often enough.
But old Skipper, apart from his war activities, his winter job in the civilian defence corps and similar interests, devotes his summers to maintaining that precious little creature, Salvelinus fontinalis, the speckled trout, one of Canada’s most valuable assets. which brings millions of tourist dollars into the country every year. Without such men as Skipper, nature alone could never preserve the supply against the ravages of sportsmen.
When we arrived at the farm, Skipper was a high state of excitement.
“Boys,” he said, “I’ve got a real mystery on my hands. And tonight, I think I’m going to solve it, with your help.”
“Do you mean to say,” I demanded, “that those three wolves you keep can’t …”
“That’s the weirdest part of it,” declared Skipper. “I was sure I heard the poacher last night. The Airedales were loose. I called them, and they came straight from the spot I thought the poacher was.”
“Is it only one poacher?” I inquired.
“Only the one,” said Skipper grimly. “And what a beggar he is. Every night, he poaches in a different spot on the ponds. Last night he was on the pond I have got all my choicest spawners in. I can trace his footsteps so far and then I lose him out on the road. He even wears different boots every night.”
“I’ve got it,” I announced. “He carries a couple of pounds of raw hamburger to feed the dogs.”
“Never,” said Skipper. “I’ve trained them never to accept food from strangers. The why I did that was to put cayenne pepper and other stuff in meat and have strangers give it to them. They won’t accept any food from anybody but the kennel boy who looks after them.”
“Hmmmm,” said Jimmie and I both.
“Look,” said Skipper. “He usually fishes from one of the rustic piers we have built out in the ponds. I’ve even sawed planks part way through in the piers to trap him. And do you know who is the only guy to step on a sawed plank?”
“You?” we asked.
“Me,” said Skipper bitterly. “I nearly broke my leg.”
“Why don’t you put a bear trap for him?” I inquired.
“I have,” said Skipper. “And in the morning. I found a ham sandwich in it, sprung.”
“Why don’t you put spring guns?” said Jim.
“I have,” said Skipper. “And in the morning, I find the gun uncocked, with a fine big trout hung on the muzzle, with a sprig of water cress in its mouth, all ready for the frying pan.”
“This is Sherlock Holmes stuff,” declared Jim.
“He knows the paths,” declared skipper, as well as I do. He knows all the approaches. He is somebody who was born and raised around here. And I’m going to get him, if it costs a thousand dollars in electric wires and dynamite and bird lime.”
“Bird lime?” I inquired.
“It’s a sticky concoction,” explained Skipper “that they used to use in the old days to smear on branches of trees and catch wild pigeons and things. It’s the stickiest stuff in the world, and I have used about $30 worth of it trying to catch this guy. But he avoids it as if he had spread it there himself.”
“Maybe,” I said, darkly, you’re the poacher, Skipper? Maybe it’s a sort of Jekyll and Hyde business. You love trout fishing so much, your evil self departs from your body, after dark, and goes poaching…”
Skipper gave me an anxious look.
“I’ve even thought of that,” he confessed. “But I’ve had the farmer and the boy watch me. No, sir. It is some native of these parts. I’ve hunted the countryside, trying to put the finger on the likely man. But all in vain. Tonight, with your help, I think I can catch him.”
What was left of the afternoon we spent in looking over Skipper’s arrangements for the spawning of the trout which would take place late in October, early in November, or even as late as December, depending on the weather and the season. When the hen fish were ripe in spawn, they would be netted out, and their eggs, by the hundreds and thousands, removed from them by a gentle pressure of the hand, into big white pans. When a sufficient number of eggs was gathered, the male fish selected from the nets by their distinctive color and shape, with undershot jaw, would be relieved of their milt, by pressure of the hand. And then a big wing quill feather from a goose is used to stir the milt among the eggs. Instantly, a miraculous change occurs in the eggs. And then the eggs are spread flatly on trays to be immersed in cold, running water. You can watch the growth of the eggs day by day, but it is not until February that the young trout hatch out. And then, from trough to trough of running icy spring water, to little pond and larger pond, they are nursed to fingerlings and then to yearlings. It is like chicken ranching.
We went in at dusk and sat down to one of Skipper’s famous dinners. Corned beef, which he handles himself, from the butcher right to the guest’s plate. And a farm salad he mixes himself, from the raw beet and cabbage to the dressing. And then, about 8 p.m., he sent word to the kennel boy to let the Airedales loose.
“Much as I distrust these Airedales, said Skipper, “I feel this poacher has got some hold of them. They’ve all bitten me. They’ve all bitten the kennel boy. They are chosen for their job. No dog will do a job better than an Airedale, whether it is to mind a baby, guard a house or be the milk of human kindness to an old lady. Also, bite the pants off poachers. But this guy has got some hold on them…”
We went out on the veranda, which overhangs the ponds like the hanging gardens of Babylon. The October cedars wafted their fragrance to us, the stars fairly dripped and the planes of young gentlemen in training droned amid the stars.
For an hour, we sat, in the chill, listening to the eerie sounds of night. Only once did the Airedales make their presence known, by galloping, like menacing ghosts, across the lawns of the farm, noses out, rugged shoulders driving, as they went in search of what they were taught to seek.
Then came a small bump of sound from No. 2 pond, the pond Skipper keeps his chosen breeders in, just to the right of where we sat.
Skipper tip-toed in the house and got the kennel boy.
The kennel boy came out in the veranda and let go a short, commanding whistle.
And in less than half a minute, up on the veranda raced the three Airedales, in a pack, to be snaffled and leashed by the kennel boy immediately and hauled into the house.
“You saw where they came from?” whispered Skipper harshly. “The pier on No. 2 pond. That’s where the poacher is. Okay. The kennel boy will be back in a minute with a coil of rope about 200 feet long. He and you will go down to a path he’ll show you, which is the escape from the No. 2 pond, the only escape. He will weave the rope in amongst the trees, knee high, waist high ankle high. Your job is to help him, by tightening the rope as he weaves it. Haul it taut as a fiddle string.”
Jimmie and I were up ready.
“When the kennel boy has the rope strung,” whispered Skipper, “to its full length, crisscrossed from tree to tree across the path and all approaches to pond 2, he will bark like an Airedale. That is the signal to me to come down from the front here, with my flashlight, yelling ‘turn on your lights so I can see where to shoot’.”
“You won’t shoot?” I inquired.
“Heck, no,” said Skipper. “But that will cause him to start to run and he’ll trip over the ropes …”
“Got it,” we said.
And the kennel boy came out on the dark veranda with a big coil of rope over his shoulder and we followed him. He led us rapidly through paths in the night to the rear of pond No. 2, and then tied one end of his rope to a tree and wove it back and forward between trees until he had a maze of rope, ankle high, waist high, tightened by Jim and me until it was like a fiddle string.
Then the kennel boy led us to a vantage point to one side and barked sharply like an Airedale.
In a moment, we saw Skipper’s flashlight bobbing amidst the cedars on the far side of pond No. 2. And Skipper’s angry voice rang out:
“Turn on your lights, so I can see where to shoot!”
A Surprising Captive
We heard a terrific commotion in the dark and loud grunts and bellows. In a minute, Skipper came raging around the end of the pond and raced past us to the place in the ropes where apparently a hippopotamus had been enmeshed in the ropes we had strung. For It leaped up and fell down, leaped again and threshed madly, emitting terrific snorts with every crash of its body to the earth.
Skipper went by us full steam, his powerful light stabbing the night.
And there, in the bull’s-eye of his light, lay a large, elderly gentleman, with cheap telescope rod and a worm on the hook and a fine clutch of big spawner trout on a string hopelessly tangled in the ropes.
“A dirty trick, Skipper,” yelled the victim angrily. “A dirty, low-down trick.”
And Skipper, his eyes popping out of his head like pickled silver onions, was staring speechless at his captured poacher.
Jimmie and I leaped, with the kennel boy, to his aid.
But Skipper was tenderly and speechlessly assisting his captive to his feet.
“Boys,” he said brokenly, “let me present Bill McCoomb, W. T. McCoomb, one of my partners in this place …”
So we went up to the house and got the corned beef out of the ice box and while we sat around the kitchen table Mr. McCoomb explained:
“Sure I’m a member,” he said. “Sure I fish with flies, all summer. Sure I do. I even helped old Skipper lay out the program for checking poachers. But I also made friends with the Airedales. And then I…”
And a strange, willful expression flittered across his strong, tough old face.
“Heck,” he said, “there is nothing to fishing!”
Skipper is a real friend of Greg and Jim, who would play a bigger role in Greg’s stories of the 1950s and 1960s after Jim’s death.