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Title: From Thomas W. Magrath, Esq., to the Rev. Thomas Raddiff, Dublin.
CollectionAuthentic Letters from Upper Canada [Rev. Thomas Radcliff]
SenderMagrath, Thomas Wm
Sender Gendermale
Sender Occupationfarmer
Sender Religionunknown
OriginLondon, England
DestinationDublin, Ireland
RecipientRev. Thomas Radcliff
Recipient Gendermale
Doc. No.
Partial Date
Doc. Type
Word Count2448
TranscriptLondon, April, 1832.
My dear Sir,
I was obliged to close my last letter abruptly, or should
have missed a favorable opportunity of sending it free.
It terminates all I have at present to communicate as
to the sports of the wood; and I shall now touch briefly
upon those of the water.
Whoever is fond of fishing, should bring with him his
tackle duly prepared; a stiff trout rod, and all the usual
requisites for angling. The flies made use of, here, are
precisely the same as those which are most approved with
The Canadian trout is neither squeamish or particular,
and will not disdainfully reject any that you may throw
in his way, but on the contrary will rise briskly at some
that your epicures of the stream would hold in utter
I have frequently caught from nine to ten dozen in a few hours,
where an artificial fly had never appeared
before. In fishing for trout, the bass frequently takes off
the fly. The salmon fly is best suited to them—which is
here but seldom used, as the salmon are so well fed at the
bottom of the rivers, they arc, in but few instances, known
to take the fly; and the most usual method of killing them
is with the spear. If this take place in the day time, a bright
sun is preferred, and a tree having been felled, so as to
fall across the river, the sportsman taking his stand on
this, rests quiet, and strikes the fish as they pass up—any
violent movement will alarm the Salmon, and drive them
suddenly back or make them shoot forward with great
rapidity. By observing stillness and composure, I have
known a good spearman to kill from forty to fifty Salmon
in a few hours.
The method, however, which is usually preferred is
night-fishing, which is effected thus: Two sportsmen take
their stations in a light skiff, one at the bow, with spear
in hand, the other at the stern. The spear is three pronged,
the handle twelve feet in length, of the best white ash;
the thickness, that which is well known, but better handled,
in every fair in Ireland, under the title of a shilelagh.
In the Bow, also, is secured a pole of stronger dimensions
about four feet in length, to the top of which is
appended by means of a socket, an Iron Jack, or grate,
moveable on pivots, so as to balance, and right itself, when
the boat moves roughly through the rapids, and to prevent
the fire or light wood, which it is to contain, from being
thrown out. This Jack or grate is circular, about one foot
in depth, and fourteen inches in diameter. It is supplied from
time to time with pitch pine, cut into lengths of eight
inches, about an inch and a half in thickness—a large heap
of these is piled in the centre of the skiff, from which magazine
the light-Jack is replenished, so as to keep up a bright
and continued flame, which blazing upwards from two
to three feet, exhibits clearly to your view the fish even
to the depth of ten feet, or fairly across the river where it
happens to run shallow. The spear-man takes his stand
behind the Jack. If in deep water, he at the stem plies
the paddle, if in shallow, a light spear; by means of which
he prevents the skiff from bolting too suddenly down the
rapids, and often strikes a fish the bow-man may have
missed. Thus appointed, you go as quietly as possible
down the stream, and on seeing a fish, you must not be in
too great a hurry to strike, unless in a shallow and rapid
part of the river. If, in deep water, the blazing Jack
throws down its light upon a Salmon, let your eye not
swerve from the object, nor your spear deviate from its
poise, till you strike; and when you do, observe that you
throw yourself back to preserve your balance; or an upset,
and a cool dip, will be the penalty of your incaution.
In aiming at the fish, strike nearer to you than he
appears, and nearer still, in proportion to the depth of
the water.
In this respect, the young sportsman will meet frequent
disappointment, as nothing but experience will enable him
to calculate the power of refraction, so as to reconcile the
real, and apparent distance.
You should always aim at the shoulder, and if you
strike successfully, bring in the fish with as much expedition
as possible, lest he should twist himself off the spear
—when you have him fairly in the skiff, you loose your
spear from the fish, by striking it against the seat.
Should the Salmon, however, at which you have struck,
escape, and turn down the stream, keep steadily on, and
when he wheels to pass you, wheel also rapidly, by putting
out your spear at one side to assist the steersman, then
push up the stream to get above the fish, as he will
generally rest some time after making what is termed the
dart pass, and you will be sure to find him in the first
sudden deepening of the river. The slightest wound he may
have received will appear quite white in the water, and
should he be out of distance, you must endeavour to strike,
by throwing your spear, for which purpose you must grasp
it at the middle with your left hand, and at the top with
your right, and fling it at the remote object with such
aim and dexterity as you can command—many are expert
at this, but he that is not, had better avoid the experiment
as the effort will probably be unsuccessful, and it will
require the greatest possible steadiness, to keep his feet,
when the spear has quit his hand. Shortly after our
arrival here, my brother and I speared one hundred and
twenty Salmon of a night; but they are now becoming less
numerous in consequence of the number of saw-mills
erected, the profusion of saw dust on the water, (always
annoying to the fish) and, the multitudes of oak staves
annually floated down the river.
By the hardy sportsman, night-fishing is always preferred,
but is a source of misery to the Dandy, who is afraid
of wetting his feet. For this description of animal, I have
so little respect or pity, that I have often undergone a
wetting by upsetting the Canoe, to enjoy the terror of the
would-be sportsman—one need not however, often volunteer
these occasional ablutions; they will occur of themselves,
and, when you least expect them. As my brother
Charles is generally my companion in all sports upon land,
so my brother James is upon the water—not having the
same relish for the fatigue of Deer shooting as for the
saddle of a Prime Buck; to which no man can pay his
respects in greater style, or better understands the due and
relative proportions of the currant jelly and wine sauce;
and woe betide the cook, if there be any omission on her
part, of preparing, cording, pasting and basting, when he
invades her premises on a visit of inspection.
For our third or fourth attempt at night-fishing, we
prepared by pulling our skiff a couple of miles up the river
by day light, and when night came on, to use the sporting
phrase, we lighted up, and falling down the stream with
excellent amusement, had taken about thirty Salmon, when
being driven at a spanking rate by a smart current, we
discovered, (but alas! too late) that a tree had fallen
across the river against which the staff of the light-Jack
having struck, the skiff wheeled broadside to the stream,
and the gunwale coming in contact with one of the
branches, the capsize was as sudden as disastrous—every
article on board, our dear selves—the numerous Salmon
—magazine of Firewood-—axe—rifle—brandy bottle—
light-Jack—all—in a moment committed to the deep!!—
Most fortunately, however, we were not past our depth,
but pretty nearly so. Floundering about in our blanket
coats for some time, and having at last gained the bank,
our first look out was for the skiff; having hauled her on
shore, and with much groping recovered one of the spears,
our next exertion was to kindle a fire, the night being too
dark from the over-hanging trees, to venture forward
without a light. In our dripping state this was a project
of very dubious result; but having luckily, between us, a
flint and steel, at the sore expense of our knuckles in the
dark, we at length succeeded in setting fire to an old tree;
and forming a torch with some birch-bark, we resolved on
walking home, and returning in the morning for the
recovery of our apparatus.
Here, however, the idea of being laughed at, shook our
resolution; were we, uninjured in our persons, and
unentitled to any serious sympathy, to come back like
drowning Rats, to the family fireside, divested too, of the
produce of our night's labour? how truly ludicrous would
be the exhibition! No; it would never do—we could not
stand the jibes and jeers, even of the home party.
Resolved, therefore—
That, the skiff be forthwith launched once more.
That, the fishing light be renewed, and—
That the recovered spear be put in immediate requisition
to raise and fish up our sundry property, from the
place of its immersion.
Acting upon the spirit and principle of the foregoing
resolutions, by means of the skiff and spear, we brought
up all the solid articles, except the brandy bottle, which,
rolling off the prongs at every effort to raise it to the skiff,
my brother, grievously disappointed, and suffering from the cold, determined on a desperate and final effort, and
wading in, to the shoulders, upon touching, with his foot,
the object of solicitude, immediately dived and brought
it safe to—the skiff?—no—the land?—no—his mouth?
yes—but not till he had removed both that, and the mouth
of the bottle, into shallower water, and beyond the risk of
admixture with that deteriorating element. He embraced
his regained companion with prolonged ardor, but had the
charity to interrupt his draft by leaving me a comfortable
potation, to which I paid my respects, with great complacency.
With renewed vigor we plied the axe—prepared
the firewood—re-lighted the Jack—and bound for home,
picked up at every eddy one or more of our lost salmon;
bringing back, in triumph, after all, twenty-seven choice
fish, being within three of the original number taken.
There are other modes of night fishing: —
That practised by the Indians, from whom we derive
our habits, differs from the foregoing in two particulars only.
First—Instead of the light-Jack they make use of a
slender pole, split at the top, so as to receive a torch of
birch bark, which, with respect to light, is equal to the
former method, but from the frequency of its renewal is
attended with infinitely more trouble.
Secondly—Instead of a steersman at the stern, that
situation is generally assigned to the squaw,
I should be very sorry that any fair lady, who may
intend, or be persuaded, to honor me with her hand,
should suppose that Mrs. T. W. Magrath would be obliged
to take her place at the stern of my canoe, upon such
In all other respects the Indian practice is the same
with our's.
Another method is that of erecting a stage or platform
in the river; and supplying it with sufficient light, you
spear the fish as they pass up. This often affords tolerable
sport, but very inferior, in point of number, to the other
It is, however, much to be recommended to your fat
and unwieldy fellows, who dislike being wet to the skin,
and enjoy a firm footing. The platform is an improvement
on the Indian plan, (with the same object of security,)
of fighting a fire on the bank, and striking the fish from thence.
There is one other method to be remarked, which is that
of cutting a hole in the ice, of about eighteen inches diameter,
and sitting over it, rolled up in a blanket or buffalo
skin, with a line and small hook baited with a grub taken
from the inside of the pine bark. Trout is the chief fish
sought for in this way; but you may occasionally hit with
the spear the bass, the pickrel, and the pike.
.Some dozens of trout have been often hooked through
this aperture, when the ice has been ten inches thick; a
kind of sport which I never enjoyed, but which may be
agreeable to those who, as my countryman would say, "are
very hot in themselves."
The salmon fishing is, to me, the most agreeable. I have
taken, in the river Credit, in spring, within twenty yards
of our hall door, as fine fish as I ever met in Ireland, as
firm and full of curd as if within ten miles of the sea,
instead of five hundred.
It is still a matter of doubt with some, whether the
salmon of Lake Ontario visit the ocean every year, or not.
My opinion is, that according to the natural history of
that fish, they must do so. It is only in the waters that
communicate with the sea they are to be found. No
salmon was ever seen in any river or lake above the Falls
of Niagara; indeed it would be, as the Yankee expresses
it, "pretty considerable of a jump for him."
Mullet, (a very bad fish,) are to be taken in vast numbers
; I have speared them till I could hold the spear no
longer. When they come up the river to spawn, they are
taken in hundreds by the net. They are still worse at that
season, but by some are thought worth being salted and
packed in barrels for future consumption.
The fish of the lakes are salmon, salmon trout, herring,
pickrel, cat fish, pike, white fish and maskanonge; the two
latter are of superior quality.
These may be treated of in future; but though I have
confined myself in this respect to the fish of the river, I
think I have furnished you with a pretty good dish for one
letter, which, in compassion to you and myself, I will now

I remain, my dear Sir,
Your's, &c. &c.