Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Voices from the Past: A Bear on a Fly Rod (1887)

Today, I nominate my choice for the most horrific sportsman of the nineteenth century. The following letter is reproduced verbatim from an 1887 Forest & Stream and involves a braggart, a Charles Murphy fly rod, a double fly rig, and a bear. One can only hope Karma exists and somewhere, Mr. L.S. has to deal with an angry, angry bear in the after life.


Editor Forest and Stream:

Wonders will never cease. Riflemen hit the bullseye and the world wonders, admires and praises, but was a story ever better told or a feat ever better accomplished than by my companion for many a year in the good old times in the Adirondacks now for the first time relates of his feat with a split bamboo fly-rod—a Murphy make. Oh, ye shades of Jules Verne, Dave Crockett, Adirondack Murray and Ed Derby! You ask if I believe it? Why of course I do. Ask Dr. R. if L.S. ever exaggerated a trout capture. Never! If Dr. R. is so easily humbugged ask Cort Moody, and if he don’t, as an old Adirondack guide and hunter, agree with Dr. R., why it must be regarded as incredible. Next! S. S. N.

P. S. The bear tracks are still seen and the mouth of the brook also, but the latter only with a powerful telescope, but no trout. S. S. N.

The tale told by L. S. here follows:

I saw lately an item in a paper stating that Mr. Murray was soon to publish two books on the Adirondacks. I was glad I saw that item, for it told me it was time, if ever, to reveal a secret I had carried many years. It cannot be called an old story, though the facts I am about to relate occurred long ago, for this is the first time I ever mentioned it. I should not do so now were it not an innate peculiarity of all Californians that they do not like the slow-goin’ people of “the States” to jump their claims. With this long preface I will begin the story.

I was staying one hot July at Bartlett's, when the only occupation was eating, smoking and lounging. Fishing was out of the question, as all the trout had long since left the rapids. Lute Evans came to the landing in his boat, going nowhere, but tired of holding down chairs where he came from. We discussed the trout question, that and the deer question being never-ending subjects up there. I never knew a guide who didn't profess to know where there was “an all-fired lot of trout," with many more strong sounding words thrown in. If you get him to take you there, and fail to take the fish, he tells you how many Mr. Chapin caught there, intimating that if you fished as well as Mr. C. you might be as fortunate. Who can fish as well, or who can argue against such an insinuation? During the conversation Lute told me of one Bill Moody, who had left that part of the country, but when there had a perfect trout mine in a stream entirely unknown except at the mouth, which comes into the Saranac River, just above the "Middle Falls." I secretly resolved then and there to prospect that stream and mine before the setting of the sun.

Arriving at the mouth of the stream I hid my boat in the brush and struck off into the back country by an old lumber road. After walking nearly a mile I came to the conclusion that the stream as a trout mine lacked one very important requisite, that was water. There was none it. Also that the alders were fighting each other for standing room. I retraced my steps, repeating, "It was ever thus, from childhood's happy hours I've seen my fondest hopes decay," when I was brought to a halt by seeing in the path directly in front of me, not 30ft. off, a beautiful black bear, seated on his hindquarters, and inviting me with his fore paws to just step that way a moment if you please. I said he was beautiful, I mean as bears go. He had long, clean black hair, which gently waved in the wind, showing the glinting sunlight upon it, and strongly-made arms such as I a long wished to possess in order that with them I might confound mine enemies. He had claws and teeth that looked as though they were capable of performing any task the Creator intended them for when he first designed bears.

When in a tight fix one is apt to notice many things, and to remember many. Drowning men are said to have brought in view before them the incidents of their lives. I hope I may not be drowned. My procession was marching by on the double quick. Among the rest I noticed a small dog I knew, who many years ago had one of his eyes cut out by a whip-snapper in the hands of a cruel hack driver, who passed the door where the dog sat.

I had not thought of that poor dog for years. Call it providential interference if you will. At any rate it gave me an idea I was not slow to act upon. If a dog's eye was taken out with a whip, why not a bear's with a fly hook? I had on my line two flies. The stretcher was a coachman tipped with gold, body peacock hurl, wings lead-colored pigeon. The dropper was a small brown hackle. I should explain that this selection of flies was made for trout and not for bears. I was in very good training at fly-casting at the time; but in casting for trout and casting for bears' eyes there is this difference: In casting for trout an inch more or less in the length of the line is of no consequence, as the trout comes forward to meet it. In casting at a stationary object like a bear's eye the line used must be exactly the right or it will fall short or strike beyond. If one had to practice, the length in time could be adjusted to the distance. Bears won't generally stand that without disagreeable objections. I drew the line from the reel until I thought I had the right amount, made a cast straight and quick, prepared to strike hard as soon as the fly reached its aim. It fell, or rather flew, an inch short. I again drew from the reel an inch and an eighth, and cast again, planting the hook (a Sproat) square in the bear's right eye.

A sharp, well-tempered fish hook, when one thinks of it, is an ugly thing. Bartlett had told me of Coleman putting one into his nose, Coleman being unaware he was fast until Bartlett made a few gentle remarks as he was being lifted off the boat seat. Bears as a rule lead such quiet, uneventful lives that a fly-hook taking out the working part of this one's eye was such a new experience that he took no more interest in me, but occupied himself with rubbing the remains with his paw. Having got the range, as a rifleman would say, it was an easy task to put the coachman into his remaining optic at my leisure. I then had a blind bear on my hands. With a stick I drove him into the river, where in his perplexity he sank to the bottom.

Should any one doubt the truth of the story they can see the mouth of the brook as they go up the river in the spying, and the old lumber road if it is not overgrown.

L.S., Santa Cruz, California

-- Dr. Todd

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