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The Dolphin

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



A shoal of dolphins, tumbling in wild glee, Glowed with such orient tints, they might have been The rainbow's offspring, where it met the ocean." - MONTGOMERY.

Few anglers have taken this beautiful creature, whose home is upon the high seas, and whose presence often gladdens the heart of the mariner in the idle forties; hence few know the amount of power, force, exhilaration, and game qualities possessed by this gorgeous acrobat, this harlequin of the sea. It happened some years ago that I was caught at sea in a remarkable calm, which continued for nearly a week, during which period the ship drifted many miles, but sailed not one. We were in the Gulf Stream, so went on at a mysterious pace, yet without sails, to the measure of the eternal tapping and rippling music of countless reefing points and the nerve-rasping creaking of booms whose jaws, drying under the pitiless heat, seemed to scream in very agony at every lunge of the ship. All the expedients known to mariners were brought into play. The foremast was hammered by all hands. The captain of the galley, a jolly shipmate under some circumstances, whistled for the wind with a rare faith, while the good skipper swore and believed himself bewitched as the days sped by.

Such monotony became intolerable, and I began to occupy myself by rowing about in a boat, always keeping near the ship in case the welcome wind should come. We were on the outskirts of the famous Sargasso Sea. Great patches of sargassum, the gulfweed, covered the water everywhere, each islet forming, at least to me, a fascinating world in itself. They were floating islands with marvellous populations, crabs, shells, shell-less " shells," and fishes, all colored the exact tint of their surroundings, a rich green. Here was the strange antennarius, or walking fish, with its nest, a bunch of weed held together by a glutinous secretion and covered with myriads of eggs the size of a pin's head. So marvellous was this fish in its mimicry that I could hardly distinguish it from the weed when lying on it, even with my face but two feet distant.

On these trips I took a rod, hoping to catch a bonito, and so it came about that one day, I think the fourth of our imprisonment, when every one was desperate, that I ran foul of the misnamed dolphins. I was sculling along to enter a little bay in the gulfweed, when I saw a number of large fishes come coursing along, charging the weed evidently in search of small fry. Quickly taking the rod, which was baited with a small flying-fish that had flown aboard ship in the night, I cast fairly among them, and I have reason to believe that every dolphin in the pack and I say pack advisedly dashed for it. One fortunate fish took it on the run and never stopped until two hundred feet of my line was unreeled, to such music as I had never heard before. The following day, when I took the reel apart to see what had happened, I found the interior flaked and covered with brass filings, which told the story of that rush. The fish was followed by the entire school, and when I finally checked it, they noted every move until I had the gamy creature in the toils. Such rushes in and out, such doubling, such sudden stops, were never seen. Suddenly with a wild rush the fish would encircle the boat, then dash into a mass of weed, and for fifteen minutes I did not gain thirty feet on this glorious fish, and I never would have caught it on my light tackle had not hard luck, the very hardest, fallen to the lot of this beautiful "offspring of the rainbow." I fought it, played it, turned it, but seemed incapable with my rod and line to bring it in; and finally, in one of its rushes in a circle, it dashed into a particularly dense mass of gulfweed, and with the line so completely involved itself that I took it with ease the most bare-faced act of piracy ever perpetrated in this latitude, I dare say.

When I approached, stopping now and then to reel in the slack, the dolphin was lying flat upon its side almost entirely out of water, its efforts and struggles forcing it further out on the thick mat of weed. How shall I describe its wonders, its flashes of color, gorgeous changes from tint to shade, its dazzling effulgence? I have never seen anything to compare with it in suddenness of unexpected beauties, unless I except a large squid which I once kept in confinement alive for an hour, over whose surface color changes in all the tints of red passed with such rapidity that it could only be compared to heat lightning, which I have observed in the tropics when there was absolutely no cessation, but a never ceasing pulsating glare. I could think of but one comparison, the interior of a large and brilliant haliotis shell with its marvellous shades of blue, yellow, red, pink, violet, black, and white pearl. This might convey in some degree the beauties of the dolphin as it changes color in the bright sunlight. The fish was nearly four feet in length, and I should judge weighed in the neighborhood of sixty pounds. Its head was large, mouth big, eyes radiant, and down the back to the sharp-pointed tail a long, purple dorsal fin splashed with other tints, itself a coat of many colors.

In general appearance the dolphin is one of the most attractive of all fishes. The prevailing tint is greenish olive, brownish olive above ; the belly white with a golden sheen ; but the most marked ornamentation is a series of vivid splashes of labradorite blue along the upper portion. Add to this, blue-splashed fins and a yellow tail, and some idea of this radiant creature may be imagined a fish which, if available to anglers near shore, would take its place among the great game fishes of the world.

A few days later the " dead calm " gave way before the trade: a sleeper awakened, and the ship made her course again under the stiff breeze, with cordage whistling the music of Arion in the AEgean Sea. The dolphins came in schools and raced along under the cutwater, darting by it, performing mighty feats of valor. It was an easy matter to observe and catch them, and swinging from an improvised seat on the dolphin striker the men supplied the galley with these splendid fishes.

Few fishes are better known than the dolphin, yet as rarely seen at close quarters, though I have often taken them from the bows of ships at sea, and the sport is a common one among sailors. The real dolphin is a well-known figure in mythology. It was Arion who, captured at sea by pirates, when sentenced to death, asked permission to play upon his harp. The notes drifted away over the sea so sweetly that they attracted a school of dolphins, and when Arion was tossed over he fell upon the back of one and was carried to the shore ; hence we see in the heavens Arion's harp and the dolphin forming the well-known constellation of that name.

The dolphins (Coryphaenidae) are pelagic fishes living on the high seas and offshore on the American coast from Virginia to the Rio Grande, often venturing beyond these lines, but rarely if ever seen inshore. There is a single genus and but two species, the one described, C. hippurus, a large, powerful fish, attaining the length of six feet, and C. equisetis, from two to three feet. The name dolphin is an unfortunate misnomer ; the fish might better be called harlequin, as the name dolphin is applied to the mammalian dolphins small, whalelike animals, equally common and referred to in mythology. Doubtless few anglers have seen the real dolphin (Delphinus) landed. I once saw a bottle-nose dolphin, weighing about fifty pounds, which was taken with hook and line and sardine bait at Santa Catalina. The angler supposed he had a seal, and landed the animal only after a hard and consistent struggle ; and knowing all the details of the capture, I am enabled to place this interesting creature on record as a very gamy catch.

While the fish dolphin is a gorgeous creature, it has been my good fortune to see at the California islands another fish, a cousin germane, whose glories cannot be adequately described. This is the butterfly-fish, the opah, Lampris Luna, known as cravo, Poisson luna, soho, and other names in all parts of the world. It attains a weight of nearly five hundred pounds, is an active, hard-fighting fish extremely difficult to catch, and may be considered the rarest of what might be termed the pelagic game fishes of the United States, which, though rarely seen near the main-land shores, are found about the adjacent islands of the Pacific from the Coronados to the Farallones, and on the high seas in general. Large individuals have been seen at Monterey on the California coast. I remember well when a fisherman at Avalon came to tell me of the splendid fish he had taken, and the beautiful object which met my eyes on going to the beach where the opha, a small individual weighing perhaps fifty pounds, was hung. Its normal or ground tint appeared to be dull silver, but over this was drawn a seeming fabric of rose-lilac hue, while dotted over the surface were round, pronounced, vivid silvery spots, giving the fish a most artificial appearance. The fins were vermilion; the eyes very large, larger than in any other fish I recall, and a deep blue, completing a make-up which was at once striking and beautiful. The flesh was a deep red, and recalled salmon in its flavor. If this shy fish of many glories was available, it would afford excellent sport to the lover of big game at sea.



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