Gateway to the Classics: School of the Woods by William J. Long
School of the Woods by  William J. Long

A School for Little Fishermen

T HERE came a day when, as I sat fishing among the rocks, the cry of the mother osprey changed as she came sweeping up to my fishing grounds,—Chip, ch'wee! Chip, chip, ch'weeeee?  That was the fisherman's hail plainly enough; but there was another note in it, a look-here cry of triumph and satisfaction. Before I could turn my head—for a fish was nibbling—there came other sounds behind it,—Pip, pip, pip, ch'weee! pip, ch'wee! pip ch'weeee! —a curious medley, a hail of good-luck cries; and I knew without turning that two other fishermen had come to join the brotherhood.

The mother bird—one can tell her instantly by her greater size and darker breast markings—veered in as I turned to greet the newcomers, and came directly over my head, her two little ones flapping lustily behind her. Two days before, when I went down to another lake on an excursion after bigger trout, the young fishhawks were still standing on the nest, turning a deaf ear to all the old birds' assurances that the time had come to use their big wings. The last glimpse I had of them through my glass showed me the mother bird in one tree, the father in another, each holding a fish, which they were showing the young across a tantalizing short stretch of empty air, telling the young, in fishhawk language, to come across and get it; while the young birds, on their part, stretched wings and necks hungrily and tried to whistle the fish over to them, as one would call a dog across the street. In the short interval that I was absent, mother wiles and mother patience had done their good work. The young were already flying well. Now they were out for their first lesson in fishing, evidently; and I stopped fishing myself, letting my bait sink into the mud—where an eel presently tangled my hooks into an old root—to see how it was done. For fishing is not an instinct with Ismaques, but a simple matter of training. As with young otters, they know only from daily experience that fish, and not grouse and rabbits, are their legitimate food. Left to themselves, especially if one should bring them up on flesh and then turn them loose, they would go straight back to the old hawk habit of hunting the woods, which is much easier. To catch fish, therefore, they must be taught from the first day they leave the nest. And it is a fascinating experience for any man to watch the way they go about it.

The young ospreys flew heavily in short irregular circles, scanning the water with their inexperienced eyes for their first strike. Over them wheeled the mother bird on broad, even wings, whistling directions to the young neophytes, who would presently be initiated into the old sweet mysteries of going a-fishing. Fish were plenty enough; but that means nothing to a fishhawk, who must see his game reasonably near the surface before making his swoop. There was a good jump on the lake, and the sun shone brightly into it. Between the glare and the motion on the surface the young fishermen were having a hard time of it. Their eyes were not yet quick enough to tell them when to swoop. At every gleam of silver in the depths below they would stop short and cry out: Pip!  "there he is!" Pip, pip!  "here goes!" like a boy with his first nibble. But a short, clear whistle from the mother stopped them ere they had begun to fall; and they would flap up to her, protesting eagerly that they could catch that fellow, sure, if she would only let them try.

As they wheeled in over me on their way down the lake, one of the youngsters caught the gleam of my pile of chub among the rocks. Pip, ch'weee!  he whistled, and down they came, both of them, like rockets. They were hungry; here were fish galore; and they had not noticed me at all, sitting very still among the rocks. Pip, pip, pip, hurrah!  they piped as they came down.

But the mother bird, who had noted me and my pile of fish the first thing as she rounded the point, swept in swiftly with a curious, half-angry, half-anxious chiding that I had never heard from her before,—Chip chip, chip! Chip! Chip! —growing sharper and shriller at each repetition, till they heeded it and swerved aside. As I looked up they were just over my head, looking down at me now with eager, wondering eyes. Then they were led aside in a wide circle and talked to with wise, quiet whistlings before they were sent back to their fishing again.

And now as they sweep round and round over the edge of a shoal, one of the little fellows sees a fish and drops lower to follow it. The mother sees it too; notes that the fish is slanting up to the surface, and wisely lets the young fisherman alone. He is too near the water now; the glare and the dancing waves bother him; he loses his gleam of silver in the flash of a whitecap. Mother bird mounts higher, and whistles him up where he can see better. But there is the fish again, and the youngster, hungry and heedless, sets his wings for a swoop. Chip, chip!  "wait, he's going down," cautions the mother; but the little fellow, too hungry to wait, shoots down like an arrow. He is a yard above the surface when a big whitecap jumps up at him and frightens him. He hesitates, swerves, flaps lustily to save himself. Then under the whitecap is a gleam of silver again. Down he goes on the instant,—ugh! boo! —like a boy taking his first dive. He is out of sight for a full moment, while two waves race over him, and I hold my breath waiting for him to come up. Then he bursts out, sputtering and shaking himself, and of course without his fish. As he rises heavily the mother, who has been circling over him whistling advice and comfort, stops short, with a single blow of her pinions against the air. She has seen the same fish, watched him shoot away under the plunge of her little one, and now sees him glancing up to the edge of the shoal where the minnows are playing. She knows that the young pupils are growing discouraged, and that the time has come to hearten them. Chip, Chip! —"watch, I'll show you," she whistles—Cheeeep!  with a sharp up-slide at the end, which I soon grow to recognize as the signal to strike. At the cry she sets her wings and shoots downward with strong, even plunge, strikes a wave squarely as it rises, passes under it, and is out on the other side, gripping a big chub. The little ones follow her, whistling their delight, and telling her that perhaps now they will go back to the nest and take a look at the fish before they go on with their fishing. Which means, of course, that they will eat it and go to sleep perfectly satisfied with the good fun of fishing; and then lessons are over for the day.

The mother, however, has other thoughts in her wise head. She knows that the little ones are not yet tired, only hungry; and that there is much to teach them before the chub stop shoaling and they must all be off to the coast. She knows also that they have thus far missed the two things she brought them out to learn: to take a fish always as he comes up; and to hit a wave always on the front side, under the crest. Gripping her fish tightly, she bends in her slow flight and paralyzes it by a single blow in the spine from her hooked beak. Then she drops it back into the whitecaps, where, jumping to the top of my rock, I can see it occasionally struggling near the surface. Cheeeep!  "try it now," she whistles. Pip, pip!  "here goes!" cries the little one who failed before; and down he drops, souse!  going clear under in his impatient hunger, forgetting precept and example and past experience.

Again the waves race over him; but there is a satisfied note in the mother's whistle which tells me that she sees him, and that he is doing well. In a moment he is out again, with a great rush and sputter, gripping his fish and pip-pipping  his exultation. Away he goes in low heavy flight to the nest. The mother circles over him a moment to be sure he is not overloaded; then she goes back with the other neophyte and ranges back and forth over the shoal's edge.

It is clear now to even my eyes that there is a vast difference in the characters of young fishhawks. The first was eager, headstrong, impatient; the second is calmer, stronger, more obedient. He watches the mother; he heeds her signals. Five minutes later he makes a clean, beautiful swoop and comes up with his fish. The mother whistles her praise as she drops beside him. My eyes follow them as, gossiping like two old cronies, they wing their slow way over the dancing whitecaps and climb the slanting tree-tops to the nest.

The day's lessons are over now, and I go back to my bait catching with a new admiration for these winged members of the brotherhood. Perhaps there is also a bit of envy or regret in my meditation as I tie on a new hook to replace the one that an uneasy eel is trying to rid himself of, down in the mud. If I had only had some one to teach me like that, I should certainly now be a better fisherman.

Next day, when the mother came up the lake to the shoal with her two little ones, there was a surprise awaiting them. For half an hour I had been watching from the point to anticipate their coming. There were some things that puzzled me, and that puzzle me still, in Ismaques' fishing. If he caught his fish in his beak, after the methods of mink and otter, I could understand it better. But to catch a fish—whose dart is like lightning—under the water with his feet, when, after his plunge, he can see neither his fish nor his feet, must require some puzzling calculation. And I had set a trap in my head to find out how it is done.

When the fishermen hove into sight, and their eager pipings came faintly up the lake ahead of them, I paddled hastily out and turned loose a half-dozen chub in the shallow water. I had kept them alive as long as possible in a big pail, and they still had life enough to fin about near the surface. When the fishermen arrived I was sitting among the rocks as usual, and turned to acknowledge the mother bird's Ch'wee?  But my deep-laid scheme to find out their method accomplished nothing; except, perhaps, to spoil the day's lesson. They saw my bait on the instant. One of the youngsters dove headlong without poising, went under, missed his fish, rose, plunged again. He got him that time and went away sputtering. The second took his time, came down on a long swift slant, and got his fish without going under. Almost before the lesson began it was over. The mother circled about for a few moments in a puzzled sort of way, watching the young fishermen flapping up the slope to their nest. Something was wrong. She had fished enough to know that success means something more than good luck; and this morning success had come too easily. She wheeled slowly over the shallows, noting the fish there, where they plainly did not belong, and dropping to examine with suspicion one big chub that was floating, belly up, on the water. Then she went under with a rush, where I could not see, came out again with a fish for herself, and followed her little ones to the nest.

Next day I set the trap again in the same way. But the mother, with her lesson well laid out before her, remembered yesterday's unearned success and came over to investigate, leaving her young ones circling along the farther shore. There were the fish again, in shallow water; and there—too easy altogether!—were two dead ones floating among the whitecaps. She wheeled away in a sharp turn, as if she had not seen anything, whistled her pupils up to her, and went on to other fishing grounds.

Presently, above the next point, I heard their pipings and the sharp, up-sliding Cheeeep!  which was the mother's signal to swoop. Paddling up under the point in my canoe, I found them all wheeling and diving over a shoal, where I knew the fish were smaller and more nimble, and where there were lily pads for a haven of refuge, whither no hawk could follow them. Twenty times I saw them swoop only to miss, while the mother circled above or beside them, whistling advice and encouragement. And when at last they struck their fish and bore away towards the mountain, there was an exultation in their lusty wing beats, and in the whistling cry they sent back to me, which was not there the day before.

The mother followed them at a distance, veering in when near my shoal to take another look at the fish there. Three were floating now instead of two; the others—what were left of them—struggled feebly at the surface. Chip, ch'weee!  she whistled disdainfully; "plenty fish here, but mighty poor fishing." Then she swooped, passed under, came out with a big chub and was gone, leaving me only a blinding splash and a widening circle of laughing, dancing, tantalizing wavelets to tell me how she catches them.

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