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Station Amusements

Chapter II. Eel Fishing

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Chapter II. Eel Fishing.

One of the greatest drawbacks in an English gentleman’s eyes to living in New Zealand is the want of sport. There is absolutely none. There used to be a few quails, but they are almost extinct now; and during four years’ residence in very sequestered regions I only saw one. Wild ducks abound on some of the rivers, but they are becoming fewer and shyer every year. The beautiful Paradise duck is gradually retreating to those inland lakes lying at the foot of the Southern Alps, amid glaciers and boulders which serve as a barrier to keep back his ruthless foe. Even the heron, once so plentiful on the lowland rivers, is now seldom seen. As I write these lines a remorseful recollection comes back upon me of overhanging cliffs, and of a bend in a swirling river, on whose rapid current a beautiful wounded heron—its right wing page 29 shattered—drifts helplessly round and round with the eddying water, each circle bringing it nearer in-shore to our feet. I can see now its bright fearless eye, full of suffering, but yet unconquered: its slender neck proudly arched, and bearing up the small graceful head with its coronal or top-knot raised in defiance, as if to protest to the last against the cruel shot which had just been fired. I was but a spectator, having merely wandered that far to look at my eel-lines, yet I felt as guilty as though my hand had pulled the trigger. Just as the noble bird drifted to our feet,—for I could not help going down to the river’s edge, where Pepper (our head shepherd) stood, looking very contrite,—it reared itself half out of the water, with a hissing noise and threatening bill, resolved to sell its liberty as dearly as it could; but the effort only spread a brighter shade of crimson on the waters surface for a brief moment, and then, with glazing eye and drooping crest, the dying creature turned over on its side and was borne helpless to our feet. By the time Pepper extended his arm and drew it in, with the quaint apology, “I’m sorry I shot yer, old feller! I, am, indeed,” the heron was dead; and that happened to be the only one I ever came across during my mountain life. Once I saw some beautiful red-shanks flying down the gorge of the Selwyn, and F—— page 30 nearly broke his neck in climbing the crag from whence one of them rose in alarm at the noise of our horses’ feet on the shingle. There were three eggs in the inaccessible cliff-nest, and he brought me one, which I tried in vain to hatch under a sitting duck. Betty would not admit the intruder among her own eggs, but resolutely pushed it out of her nest twenty times a day, until at last I was obliged to blow it and send it home to figure in a little boy’s collection far away in Kent.

I have seen very good blue duck shooting on the Waimakiriri river, but 50 per cent. of the birds were lost for want of a retriever bold enough to face that formidable river. Wide as was the beautiful reach, on whose shore the sportsmen stood, and calmly as the deep stream seemed to glide beneath its high banks, the wounded birds, flying low on the water, had hardly dropped when they disappeared, sucked beneath by the strong current, and whirled past us in less time than it takes one to write a line. We had retrievers with us who would face the waves of an inland lake during a nor’-wester, —which is giving a dog very high praise indeed; but there was no canine Bayard at hand to brave those treacherous depths, and bring out our game, so the sport soon ceased; for what was the good of shooting the beautiful, harmless page 31 creatures when we could not make use of them as food?

I often accompanied F—— on his eel-fishing expeditions, but more for the sake of companionship than from any amusement I found in the sport. I may here confess frankly that I cannot understand anyone being an inveterate eel-fisher, for of all monotonous pursuits, it is the most self-repeating in its forms. Even the first time I went out I found it delightful only in anticipation; and this is the one midnight excursion which I shall attempt to re-produce for you.

It had been a broiling midsummer day, too hot to sit in the verandah, too hot to stroll about the garden, or go for a ride, or do anything in fact, except bask like a lizard in the warm air. New Zealand summer weather, however high the thermometer, is quite different from either tropical or English heat. It is intensely hot in the sun, but always cool in the shade. I never heard of an instance of sun-stroke from exposure to the mid-day sun, for there always was a light air—often scarcely perceptible until you were well out in the open,—to temper the fierce vertical rays. It sometimes happened that I found myself obliged, either for business or pleasure, to take a long ride in the middle of a summer’s day, and my invari- page 32 able reflection used to be, “It is not nearly so hot out of doors as one fancies it would be.” Then there is none of the stuffiness so often an accompaniment to our brief summers, bringing lassitude and debility in its train. The only disadvantage of an unusually hot season with us was, that our already embrowned complexions took a deeper shade of bronze; but as we were all equally sun-burnt there was no one to throw critical stones.

What surprised me most was the utter absence of damp or miasma. After a blazing day, instead of hurrying in out of reach of poisonous vapours as the tropic-dweller must needs do, we could linger bare-headed, lightly clad, out of doors, listening to the distant roar of a river, or watching the exquisite tints of the evening sky. I dwell on this to explain that in almost any other country there would have been risk in remaining out at night after such still, hot days.

On this particular evening, during my first summer in the New Zealand Malvern Hills, after we had watered my pet flowers near the house, and speculated a good deal as to whether the mignonette seed had all been blown out of the ground by the last nor’-wester or not, F—— said, “I shall go eel-fishing to-night to the creek, down the flat. Why don’t you come too? I am sure you would like it.” Now, I page 33 am sorry to say that I am such a thorough gipsy in my tastes that any pursuit which serves as an excuse for spending hours in the open air, is full of attraction for me; consequently, I embraced the proposal with ardour, and set about gathering, under F——’s directions, what seemed to bid fair to rival the collection of an old rag-and-bottle merchant. First of all, there was a muster of every empty tin match-box in the little house; these were to hold the bait-bits of mutton and worms. Then I was desired to hunt up all the odds and ends of worsted which lurked in the scrap-basket. A forage next took place in search of string, but as no parcels were ever delivered in that sequestered valley, twine became a precious and rare treasure. In default of any large supply being obtainable, my lamp and candle-wick material was requisitioned by F—— (who, by the way, is a perfect Uhlan for getting what he wants, when bent on a sporting expedition); and lastly, one or two empty flour-sacks were called for. You will see the use of this heterogeneous collection presently.

It was of no use starting until the twilight had darkened into a cloudy, moonless night; so, after our seven o’clock supper, we adjourned into the verandah to watch F—— make a large round ball, such as children play with, out of the scraps of worsted with page 34 which I had furnished him. Instead of cutting the wool into lengths, however, it was left in loops; and I learned that this is done to afford a firm hold for the sharp needle-like teeth of an inquisitive eel, who might be tempted to find out if this strange round thing, floating near his hole, would be good to eat. I was impatient as a child,—remember it was my first eel-fishing expedition,—and I thought nine o’clock would never come, for I had been told to go and dress at that hour; that is to say, I was to change my usual station-costume, a pretty print gown, for a short linsey skirt, strong boots and kangaroo-skin gaiters. F——, and our cadet, Mr. U——, soon appeared, clad in shooting coats instead of their alpaca costumes, and their trousers stuffed into enormous boots, the upper leathers of which came beyond their knees.

“Are we going into the water?” I timidly inquired.

“Oh, no,—not at all: it is on account of the Spaniards.”

No doubt this sounds very unintelligible to an English reader; but every colonist who may chance to see my pages will shiver at the recollection of those vegetable defenders of an unexplored region in New Zealand. Imagine a gigantic artichoke with slender instead of broad leaves, set round in dense compact order. They vary, of course, in size, but in our part page 35 of the world four or six feet in circumference and a couple of feet high was the usual growth to which they attained, though at the back of the run they were much larger. Spaniards grow in clusters, or patches, among the tussocks on the plains, and constitute a most unpleasant feature of the vegetation of the country. Their leaves are as firm as bayonets, and taper at the point to the fineness of a needle, but are not nearly so easily broken as a needle would be. No horse will face them, preferring a jump at the cost of any exertion, to the risk of a stab from the cruel points. The least touch of this green bayonet draws blood, and a fall into a Spaniard is a thing to be remembered all one’s life. Interspersed with the Spaniards are generally clumps of “wild Irishman,” a straggling sturdy bramble, ready to receive and scratch you well if you attempt to avoid the Spaniard’s weapons. Especially detrimental to riding habits are wild Irishmen; and there are fragments of mine, of all sorts of materials and colours, fluttering now on their thorny branches in out-of-the-way places on our run. It is not surprising, therefore, that we guarded our legs as well as we could against these foes to flesh and blood.

“We are rather early,” said the gentlemen, as I appeared, ready and eager to start; “but perhaps it is page 36 all the better to enable you to see the track.” They each flung an empty sack over their shoulders, felt in their pockets to ascertain whether the matches, hooks, boxes of bait, etc., were all there, and then we set forth.

At first it appeared as if we had stepped from the brightness of the drawing-room into utter and pitchy blackness; but after we had groped for a few steps down the familiar garden path, our eyes became accustomed to the subdued light of the soft summer night. Although heavy banks of cloud,—the general precursors of wind,— were moving slowly between us and the heavens, the stars shone down through their rifts, and on the western horizon a faint yellowish tinge told us that daylight was in no hurry to leave our quiet valley. The mountain streams or creeks, which water so well the grassy plains among the Malvern Hills, are not affected to any considerable extent by dry summer weather. They are snow-fed from the high ranges, and each nor’-wester restores many a glacier or avalanche to its original form, and sends it flowing down the steep sides of yonder distant beautiful mountains to join the creeks, which, like a tangled skein of silver threads, ensure a good water supply to the New Zealand sheep-farmer. In the holes, under steep overhanging banks, the eels love to lurk, hiding from the sun’s rays in cool depths, page 37 and coming out at night to feed. There are no fish whatever in the rivers, and I fear that the labours of the Acclimatization Society will be thrown away until they can persuade the streams themselves to remain in their beds like more civilised waters. At present not a month passes that one does not hear of some eccentric proceeding on. the part of either rivers or creeks. Unless the fish are prepared to shift their liquid quarters at a moment’s notice they will find themselves often left high and dry on the deserted shingle-bed. But eels are proverbially accustomed to adapt themselves to circumstances, and a fisherman may always count on getting some if he be patient.

About a mile down the flat, between very high banks, our principal creek ran, and to a quiet spot among the flax-bushes we directed our steps. By the fast-fading light the gentlemen set their lines in very primitive fashion. On the crumbling, rotten earth the New Zealand flax, the Phormium tenax, loves to grow, and to its long, ribbon-like leaves the eel-fishers fastened their lines securely, baiting each alternate hook with mutton and worms. I declared this was too cockney a method of fishing, and selected a tall slender flax-stick, the stalk of last year’s spike of red honey-filled blossoms, and to this extempore rod I fastened my line and bait. When one considers page 38 that the old whalers were accustomed to use ropes made in the rudest fashion, from the fibre of this very plant, in their deep-sea fishing for very big prey, it is not surprising that we found it sufficiently strong for our purpose. I picked out, therefore, a comfortable spot,—that is to say, well in the centre of a young flax-bush, whose satiny leaves made the most elastic cushions around me; with my flax-stick held out over what was supposed to be a favourite haunt of the eels, and with Nettle asleep at my feet and a warm shawl close to my hand, prepared for my vigil. “Don’t speak or move,” were the gentlemen’s last words: “the eels are all eyes and ears at this hour; they can almost hear you breathe.” Each man then took up his position a few hundred yards away from me, so that I felt, to all intents and purposes, absolutely alone. I am “free to confess,” as our American cousins say, that it was a very eerie sensation. It was now past ten o’clock; the darkness was intense, and the silence as deep as the darkness.

Hot as the day had been, the night air felt chill, and a heavy dew began to fall, showing me the wisdom of substituting woollen for cotton garments. I could see the dim outlines of the high hills, which shut in our happy valley on all sides, and the smell page 39 of the freshly-turned earth of a paddock near the house, which was in process of being broken up for English grass, came stealing towards me on the silent air. The melancholy cry of a bittern, or the shrill wail of the weka, startled me from time to time, but there was no other sound to break the eternal silence.

As I waited and watched, I thought, as every one must surely think, with strange paradoxical feelings, of one’s own utter insignificance in creation, mingled with the delightful consciousness of our individual importance in the eyes of the Maker and Father of all. An atom among worlds, as one feels, sitting there at such an hour and in such a spot, still we remember with love and pride, that not a hair of our head falls to the ground unnoticed by an Infinite Love and an Eternal Providence. The soul tries to fly into the boundless regions of space and eternity, and to gaze upon other worlds, and other beings equally the object of the Great Creator’s care; but her mortal wing soon droops and tires, and she is fain to nestle home again to her Saviour’s arms, with the thought, “I am my Beloved’s, and He is mine.” That is the only safe beginning and end of all speculation. It was very solemn and beautiful, that long dark night,—a pause amid the bustle of every day cares and duties,— page 40 hours in which one takes counsel with one’s own heart, and is still.

Midnight had come and gone, when the sputter and snap of striking a match, which sounded almost like a pistol shot amid the profound silence, told me that one of the sportsmen had been successful. I got up as softly as possible, wrapped my damp shawl round my still damper shoulders, and, fastening the flax-stick securely in the ground, stole along the bank of the creek towards the place where a blazing tussock, serving as a torch, showed the successful eel-fisher struggling with his prize. Through the gloom I saw another weird-looking figure running silently in the same direction; for the fact was, we were all so cramped and cold, and, weary of sitting waiting for bites which never came, that we hailed with delight a break in the monotony of our watch. It did not matter now how much noise we made (within moderate limits), for the peace of that portion of the creek was destroyed for the night. Half-a-dozen eels must have banded themselves together, and made a sudden and furious dash at the worsted ball, which Mr. U—— had been dangling in front of their mud hall-door for the last two hours. Just as he had intended, their long sharp teeth became entangled in the worsted loops, and although he declared some had broken away and page 41 escaped, three or four good-sized ones remained, struggling frantically.

It would have been almost impossible for one man to lift such a weight straight out of the water by a string; and as we came up and saw Mr. U——’s agitated face in the fantastic flickering light of the blazing tussock, which he had set on fire as a signal of distress, I involuntarily thought of the old Joe Miller about the Tartar: “Why don’t you let him go?” “Because he has caught me.” It looked just like that. The furious splashing in the water below, and Mr. U—— grasping his line with desperate valour, but being gradually drawn nearer to the edge of the steep bank each instant. “Keep up a good light, but not too much,” cried F—— to me, in a regular stage-whisper, as he rushed to the rescue. So I pulled up one tussock after another by its roots,—an exertion which resulted in upsetting me each time,—and lighted one as fast as its predecessor burned out. They were all rather damp, so they did not flare away too quickly. By the blaze of my grassy torches I saw F—— first seize Mr. U—— round the waist and drag him further from the bank; but the latter called out, “It’s my hands,—they have no skin left: do catch hold, there’s a good fellow.” So the “good fellow” did catch hold, but he was too experi- page 42 enced an eel-fisher to try to lift a couple of dozen pounds weight of eels out of the water by a perpendicular string; so he tied it to a flax-bush near, and, stooping down in order to get some leverage over the bank, very soon drew the ball, with its slimy, wriggling captives, out of the water. Just as he jerked it far on shore, one or two of the creatures broke loose and escaped, leaving quite enough to afford a most disgusting and horrible sight as they were shuffled and poked into the empty flour-sack.

The sportsmen were delighted however, and departed to a fresh bend of the creek, leaving me to find my way back to my original post. This would have been difficult indeed, had not Nettle remained behind to guard my gloves, which I had left in his custody. As I passed, not knowing I was so near the spot, the little dog gave a low whimper of greeting, sufficient to attract my attention and guide me to where he was keeping his faithful watch and ward. I felt for my flax-stick and moved it ever so gently. A sudden jerk and splash startled me horribly, and warned me that I had disturbed an eel who was in the act of supping off my bait. In the momentary surprise I suppose I let go, for certain it is that the next instant my flax-stick was rapidly towed down the stream.

page 43

Instead of feeling provoked or mortified, it was the greatest relief to know that my eel-fishing was over for the night, and that now I had nothing to do except “wait till called for.” So I took Nettle on my lap and tried to abide patiently, but I had not been long enough in New Zealand to have any confidence in the climate, and as I felt how damp my clothes were, and recollected with horror my West Indian experiences of the consequences of exposure to night air and heavy dew, my mind would dwell gloomily on the prospect of a fever, at least. It seemed a long and weary while before I perceived a figure coming towards me; and I am afraid I was both cross and cold and sleepy by the time we set our faces homewards. “I have only caught three,” said F——. “How many have you got?” “None, I am happy to say,” I answered peevishly, “What could Nettle and I have done with the horrible things if we had caught any?”

The walk, or rather the stumble home, proved to be the worst part of the expedition. Not a ray of starlight had we to guide us,—nothing but inky blackness around and over us. We tried to make Nettle go first, intending to follow his lead, and trusting to his keeping the track; but Nettle’s place was at my heels, and neither coaxing nor scolding would induce him to forego it. A forlorn hope was nothing to the dan- page 44 gers of each footstep. First one and then the other volunteered to lead the way, declaring they could find the track. All this time we were trying to strike the indistinct road among the tussocks, made by occasional wheels to our house, but the marks, never very distinct in daylight, became perfect will-o’-the-wisps at night. If we crossed a sheep-track we joyfully announced that we had found the way, but only to be undeceived the next moment by discovering that we were returning to the creek.

From time to time we fell into and over Spaniards, and what was left of our clothes and our flesh the wild Irishmen devoured. We must have got home somehow, or I should not be writing an account of it, at this moment, but really I hardly know how we reached the house. I recollect that the next day there was a great demand for gold-beater’s skin, and court-plaster, and that whenever F—— and Mr. U—— had a spare moment during the ensuing week, they devoted themselves to performing surgical operations on each other with a needle; and that I felt very subdued and tired for a day or two. But there was no question of fever or cold, and I was stared at when I inquired whether it was not dangerous to be out all night in heavy dew after a broiling day.

We had the eels made into a pie by our shepherd, page 45 who assured me that if I entrusted them to my cook she would send me up such an oily dish that I should never be able to endure an eel again. He declared that the Maoris, who seem to have rather a horror of grease, had taught him how to cook both eels and wekas in such a way as to eliminate every particle of fat from both. I had no experience of the latter dish, but he certainly kept his word about the eels, for they were excellent.