By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, May 6, 1939
“Oh boy,” cried Jimmie Frise, gripping the steering wheel, “it looks like fish to me.”
“Slow down, slow down,” I pleaded. “Let’s look over the lay of the land as we go by.”
“Look at that open stretch,” breathed Jim. “Look at the log jams in the bends.”
As we bumped slowly along the countryside road, to our left spread out semi-wild meadows in which meandered a trout stream amidst cedar thickets, willow clumps and alder.
“To think,” exclaimed Jim. “that this stream has been here, less than 80 miles from Toronto, all these years and we never even heard of it.”
“Until Bill tipped us off,” I pointed out. “We must give Bill credit. He knows where the trout streams are.”
“I don’t see anybody else fishing it,” remarked Jim.
“Bill said that was the beauty of it.” I reminded him. “Hardly anybody knows about it.”
“The farm house,” said Jim, “ought to be just past this next bit of bush.”
So in expectant silence we joggled and thudded over the narrow rutted road until we came in sight of the farm house which Bill had foretold us, and where we would find the elderly couple who owned this farm and this stream and from whom, for the payment of one dollar each, we could obtain the privilege of fishing all day in as fine a stretch of trout stream as there is in Ontario.
The house had that white tidy look that farm houses have which are inhabited by elderly people whose children have all grown up and moved away, leaving the old folks to do all the pleasant things they have wanted to do all their lives. The fences repaired, the door yard tidy and trim, flower boxes on the window sills, ready for the petunias of June and an old stiff dog waddling off the side porch to bark huskily and rather foolishly at our approach. No wreckage about the place, such as young people leave; no chores left undone by young men wanting to go to town; none of the barrenness that comes to farm houses because of all the cares and all the jobs that call, indoors, outdoors, from the lowing barn and from the far acres.
“Jim,” I said, “I like the look of this place.”
And Jim steered in the short lane and drew up alongside the pump.
On the side porch were two old rocking chairs. From the glass in the door a woman’s face looked out in that curious fashion in which country people await your knock.
Jim and I got out in all our fishing togs, and advanced under the shrewd gaze of what appeared to be a motherly old lady with spectacles set half-way down her nose. And she was hurriedly tidying her hair.
She even let us rap on the door, and waited a decent interval before she opened; though she must have been standing three feet from it.
“Good-day, gentlemen,” said she. And we both fell in love with her, because of the way she looked over the top of her spectacles at us.
“Ma’am,” said Jimmie. “a friend of ours sent us here to ask if we might have the privilege of the day’s fishing on your trout stream.”
“Aw,” said the lady, whose name presently appeared to be Mrs. Bushy. but which we changed for her before the night had fallen, “Aw, now, boys. I hate to see you waste your time on our bit of water. In the olden days, we used to get great fishing here. But you know. Time and tide. Time and tide.”
“Oh, don’t you worry,” cried Jim. “from what we’ve heard, we’ll be satisfied. The charge, I understand, is a dollar?”
“My husband,” said Mrs. Bushy, “makes a rule to charge visitors a dollar each. It’s just to keep people off really. You’ll never get a dollar’s worth of trout out of that stream.”
“We’re only too glad to pay it,” I cut in, wanting the dear old lady to look at me over her spectacles, too.
“Boys,” said Mrs. Bushy, “my husband insists on a dollar, because if we let everybody on the stream, there are always some who leave gates open and break down fences and build bonfires and leave trash around. But I take it you come from Toronto?”
We admitted it, warily.
Two Nice Boys
“Then,” said Mrs. Bushy. “Why not go another 20 or 30 miles farther up, where there is some trout fishing? I just hate to take a dollar from two such nice boys. All the way from Toronto, why its nearly 80 miles. And for another 20 miles or so, you could really get some fishing.”
“Ma’am,” said Jim, “we’d have to go a lot farther than 20 miles to get good trout fishing. It just so happens, a friend told us about the sport he had here on your farm last year. Your farm is out of the way. It is off the beaten path. Sportsmen pass it by, in the lure of more distant pastures.”
“Boys,” interrupted Mrs. Bushy, “take my advice. Don’t waste your dollars.”
“The greatest fishing in the world,” I insisted, “is in the stream that is generally supposed to be fished out. The minute a trout stream gets the reputation of being fished out, the trout get a chance to grow in it.”
“Listen, boys,” said Mrs. Bushy. “I’ve lived here all my life. My father before me. We’ve fished that there stream for over 70 years. For the first few years, while we were clearing this land, that trout stream helped feed us.”
“It looks lovely,” I said.
“It is lovely,” said Mrs. Bushy. “Sit down, boys.”
And she indicated the two rockers, but Jim and I made her sit down in one and I took the other and Jim sat on the step.
“It does look lovely,” said Mrs. Bushy, “but of course there are no fish in it. Not many, anyway. Not worth a dollar.”
“We’d like to spend the day on it, nevertheless,” insisted Jimmie.
“When I was a little girl,” said Mrs. Bushy, “my father used to go out and catch a wash-boiler full of trout between here and that hill with the five elms on it. A wash boiler – full.”
“What would you do with them?” I asked cautiously
“We would have great feasts of them, breakfast, dinner and supper,” said Mrs. Bushy, with a faraway look over her spectacles. “We would send them to old people of the neighborhood, and sick people. And the minister. My father was given to fits and starts. He would fish all day from sunrise to sunset, and then never fish another worm for a year.”
“You like fishing?” asked Jim.
“In fits and starts,” said Mrs. Bushy. “I haven’t fished for years.”
“Have you ever made any great catches in your creek?” I inquired. “Any big fish?”
“I never could catch a wash-boiler full,” admitted Mrs. Bushy. “I’ve tried, but a couple of pails full is all I can remember. And never any big ones. My brother, when he was a boy, caught a fish of five pounds in that stream. At the log jam about half way to that hill, there, with the five elms.”
“Ma’am,” said Jim, and we both rose to our feet, “despite what you say, we’d like to fish your creek.”
“Aw, boys,” said Mrs. Bushy.
“You see,” explained Jim. “it isn’t trout a real fisherman is after. It’s the fishing. The day in the open. On the stream. The expectation. The quiet. The peace and mystery. The hope.”
“Hope is all you’ll get,” laughed Mrs. Bushy. Over the top of her spectacles very twinkley. “I do wish you boys would go where there is trout.”
“If you don’t want us on the …” I submitted.
“No, no,” cried the dear old lady leaping up. “My husband is away, but will be home before the day’s out, so I’ll simply have to abide by his rule. But I hate to take the dollar…”
But Jim and I had the dollar out of our pockets and handed them into her grudging soft hand, and she hid them behind her without looking at them as if they were shameful.
“Come back,” she said, “at noon, for lunch.”
“Please,” said Jim, “it is only two hours to noon, we’ll just be getting started. And besides we have sandwiches….”
“Aw, you fishermen,” said Mrs. Bushy.
“Well see you on our way out,” said Jim genially, “with a wash-boiler full of trout.”
“Stay for supper,” said Mrs. Bushy, taking her hand from behind her, and revealing the crumpled and shameful dollars.
“No, no,” we both cried. “We’ll be late coming off the stream….”
“You’ll be glad to quit before sundown,” assured Mrs. Bushy, firmly. “I’ll have something on the table for you here, whenever you come back.”
Boxes of Knick-knacks
So she stood and watched us unpack our gear, the rod cases, the fishing bags full of fly boxes and knick-knacks and shook her head when we pulled on our waders and set our rods up, and over the top of her spectacles looked taken aback at so much preparation for so little in store.
“My dear boys,” she said, when we were ready to haste down to the stream, “this is all so silly. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Wait until we come back,” we predicted confidently.
And down the lane and out over a lumpy meadow we strode as hard as we could and came to the stream. A hurrying, gurgling, brim full and crystal clear stream it was, rising out of some miracle of springs back in the stony hills. A stream where trout should be, time nor tide. A stream it would be a pleasure to fish, if only in memory of the trout that once must have inhabited it.
“You fish up,” said Jim, “and I’ll fish down, and then we’ll return and pass each other. Here’s your sandwiches. I’ll take mine. We won’t waste time in meeting for lunch.”
“Okay,” I agreed, already whisking my line out, and bowing low, laid the first fly on a particularly coiling bit of current, where a trout of 11 inches should be lurking.
With that fresh eagerness which, like the first plunge into water for a swimmer, is the best part of all, I fished up the stream, slowly, patiently; casting a hundred times over each likely pool and letting my flies dance down every ripple and swim past all logs and embedded stumps along the margins. But not a rise did I get not a single flash or wink under water of a bright slashing form of a trout. If there were trout in this stream, they were sulky indeed.
Almost half a mile of wandering stream did I follow, in all devotion and unfailing expectation, until I came to the fence that marked the end of the farm. In trout fishermen, disillusion is slow in coming. In no other sport does hope die so hard. But when it dies, it is apoplectic. It dies with a dunt. And when I reached the boundary fence, disillusion fell on me like a weight, and I climbed out and sat on the stream’s bank to smoke. And a brown thrasher, sensing my trouble, came and sang on a dead tree his song, repenting each warble and each sardonic chuckle once, as if to gloat on it; and I fell asleep a little, and woke and began fishing down stream. But in all the smooth pools and up against all the tangled and mysterious log jams, and in all the coiling currents. I raised nary a fish. In time I passed the farmhouse and entered on the stretch Jim had fished, and found cress beds and sat down and had my sandwiches with fresh cress for a salad to them. And fished on far down to where, with afternoon now well gone, I found Jim sitting at the foot of a tree looking very dejected.
“Well.” I said, climbing out to join him.
“How many?” said he dully.
“I haven’t even seen a fish,” I said. “Mrs. Bushy was an honest woman. When will ever learn to recognize truth when in stands shining before us?”
“I got two,” said Jim, turning out his basket where, in a mat of mushy grass, two measly little seven-inch trout lay stiff and stark.
“Well, thank goodness,” I said, “At least there are a few ghosts of trout left.”
And we sat so for an hour, smoking and comparing the flies we had used, Jim getting his two on a small black hackle; and I confessing to have tied on nine different patterns of fly in my effort to interest the fish.
“We may as well push off,” said Jim. “A day like this is not badly spent, though. I had a swell day’s practice.”
“In fact,” I agreed, “when you have to cast so hard for fish that won’t rise, you get a lot better practice than when the fish are rising.”
We hoisted our bags and rods and walked slowly along the banks, through the thickets and followed the stream, stopping to admire the finest lays and marvelling that such water held no trout.
As we came near the clearing that led out of the meadows to the farm, we heard a sound, and stopped to peer through the brush. Ahead of us someone was fishing.
We tiptoed. And in an open space, at the foot of a bank, stood Mrs. Bushy, armed with a pole cut from a birch sapling, dunking a great gob of worms which she threw with a splash into the open pool. She was standing out in full view on a log, and her white apron made a sign and a signal to all the trout in Christendom not to come near.
“The dear old soul,” I murmured to Jim as we stood watching with amusement the spectacle. “Imagine her trying to catch trout in that white apron flapping in the wind, and her standing out in full view on that log.”
“Never mind, she’s having fun,” said Jim.
And at that instant Mrs. Bushy leaned forward, allowed her line to sink deeper, with a look of great intensity on her, and then, with a wild heave, she hoisted the pole and flung high over her head and onto the sod far behind her a speckled trout of over one pound in weight.
“My gosh!” gasped Jim.
So we broke into a trot and burst out of the bushes, to startle Mrs. Bushy, who was bent over trying to pick up the flapping trout thus unceremoniously bashed on to dry land.
“Great! great!” we cried to her, dancing around.
And then we saw the basket. An ordinary fruit basket, in which lay, bright in death, nine beautiful trout, from a foot to 16 inches in length. The basket being almost full.
“Boys,” said Mrs. Bushy. “I just thought in case you didn’t have a catch, I would pick up a few for you.”
And she returned to the log, stepped out in full view, white apron and all, waved the pole terribly around, heaved the fat gob of worms with a terrific splash into the open pool, allowed it to drift down under the log jam and then, as I stooped reverently to touch the fish in the basket, gave another wild heave and derricked another pound and a half trout over her head, almost braining Jim with it as it hurtled through the air.
“There you are, boys,” sighed Mrs. Bushy happily. “Ten. That will be five each. Enough for a snack when you get home.”
And Jim and I went furiously to work, thinking the rise had begun; and we fished and we fished, with Mrs. Bushy following us and begging us to use her pole and worms until dusk came and not a fish did we get, and then we walked all three up to the house.
Mr. Bushy was home and had the dinner on. And we had one trout each, fried in butter; followed by cold roast beef and pickles and cabbage and old boiled potatoes, and plum pie and cheese and strong tea.
And we stayed until 10.30 o’clock, telling Mr. and Mrs. Bushy all about Izaak Walton and how he advocated all forms of fishing scorning none; and we gave Mrs. Bushy the new name of Mrs. Walton, Mrs. I. Walton and then we drove out the side road and home, with three fine speckled trout each in our baskets, not counting Jim’s two measlies.
A wash-boiler is a large galvanized metal (or copper) tub with a lid that would be used for laundry.
This story appeared in The Best of Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise (1977) and the illustration was featured on the cover.