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Ili show wayne-,W 1.6. This subtle spoiler of the beaver kind,
Contrives his wicker couch."
At this period of the year, when the sun has attained the tropical point, and the leafy woodlands are no longer accessible to the hunter, what pastime can be more delightful, what exercise more refreshing than the pursuit of the otter on the banks of some bright and rippling stream? Hither, then, let him hie, if he would combine the charms of nature with the sport of the field ; hither let him turu if he would seck an antidote to the many and serious evils which an idle life engenders. Health and Contentment are the handmaids that wait upon the sport and commend it to our instant practice : for what is life without health, or the possession of wealth without contentment ? Meadows enamelled with gold, sparkling streams clearer than crystal, vallies vocal with inusic, are the charms, apart from the sport, which afford a never-failing delight to the enraptured otter-hunter.
In requesting our friends to accompany us on a lutrine excursion, we do not propose to inflict upon them a long dissertation on the natural history of the otter ; nor, indeed, could we do so, were we ever so well inclined; for there is no animal, indigenous to this country, of which we are so thoroughly uninformed, nor one of whose habits we confess to know so little as the otter. An otter in a Zoological Garden is not a wild otter. As correctly would a naturalist arrive at the habits of a wild otter from observing one in captivity, as at those of the wild Bushman ere he had been captured and domesticated by the indefatigable Catlin. The animal's habits are soon affected by the requirements imposed on him by confinement ; his nature gradually submits to the change ; and few who gaze with admiration at the easy movements of the beast as he glides like oil o'er the surface of his pond, or dives without creating a ripple to secure the food that has been thrown him by some bystander, are aware how great that change is. They are not aware that in a wild state he curls himself up in a dry and dark hover through the live-long day, sleeping while the sun is in the heavens, and only stealing forth in search of his slippery prey when his enemies have retired to rest. Then is be king of the waters, or as Somerville describes him,
" - -Lord of the stream, and all
* * * * uor spears
With respect to the amphibious nature of the otter there exists a very prevalent error: he is not more amphibious than his neighbour, the water-rat, nor as much so as the pearl-diver of the Persian Gulf. He will seldom remain below the surface more than a couple of minutes; and if he be alarmed and hurried by the pursuit of men and hounds, he will rise to vent much more frequently, his respiration will become distressed, and he will usually land to avoid that element in which he is erroneously supposed to be capable of existing. He resorts to water because it supplies him with food, and enables him to escape from his enemies ; and admirably has nature furnished him with facilities for these objects: his webbed feet, muscular limbs, and rudder tail give him such power in the water that he can pass with great speed through it, and overtake the fastest fish ; and he will rise, when somewhat beaten, so artfully to the surface, with his nose, or rather his nostrils, covered by a small stump, or even a floating reed, that the most practised eye can scarcely detect him. The eyes of the otter are small, black, and brilliant ; and when he is angry they show a kind of white rim or circle, which gives him a very vicious appearance : their situation is such as to enable him to see objects above him with ease, and as he rises to the surface of the water his head resembles that of a bearded congor eel. A well-known naturalist says, that “this property of seeing what is above gives it a particular advantage when lurking at the bottom for its prey, as the fish cannot discern any object under them, and the otter seizing them from beneath, by the belly, readily takes any number with little exertion.” That fish cannot discern any object under them, we beg leave to doubt ; and we deny in toto that the otter seizes them by the belly, for we have constantly picked up and always examined fish that have been caught by the otter, especially pike, and have invariably found the marks of the otter's teeth on each side the dorsal fin, while the scales of the back were broken and displaced.
On one occasion we met on the banks of a large fish-pond, about four o'clock in the morning. The hounds hit off a hot trail at once, and carried it up a small sluggish river which fed the pond. Suddenly they threw up, and appeared to have found him ; but on coming to the spot We discovered a pike gasping on the bank, and apparently just transferred from his element; out of his mouth depended a long tail, which, on examination, proved to be that of a huge rat, and which, from its freshness, had very lately been captured. The only marks of violence upon this fish were in the region of the dorsal fin. In about a quarter of an hour the hounds marked the otter, and after showing us some capital sport they killed him in a willow bed, where he had landed to cross a neck of land in order to gain the fish-pond. We then cut him open, and found the remains of two or three wild ducks, and a quantity of fish in a state of deglutition ; from the fineness of the bones we agreed that they belonged to trout, which, it appears, he had preferred to the less delicate pike.
For the information of those who are unacquainted with the arcana of otter hunting, and who, living within the reach of some pleasant streams, perhaps abounding with the animal, may be anxious to keep two or three couple of hounds and to follow the diversion, we beg leave to subjoin a few hints, which being the fruit of a long apprenticeship may be found serviceable to the novice.
When the pack is not strong, and consists only of a hound or two perfectly at home in the business, with two or three couple of others, which are added for the sake of a cry or appearance, the hour of meeting cannot well be too early. The fresh reeking scent of the animal, hanging as it does upon every weed and willow with which he has come in contact, will give the hounds a good chance of finding, and induce those that have not entered the more readily to follow the example of their better instructed companions. A couple of hounds that thoroughly understand their business are quite sufficient upon ordinary rivers ; but where the waters are large a larger force is of course required. Our own otter-hunting pack was established on the foundation of one hound, which for two whole seasons was the only hound out of eight couple that would properly draw for the animal ; the rest, it is true, would hunt him when he was found, but they had not attained sufficient taste for the scent, and although they were regularly hunted and killed many otters, still they were miserably slack till the animal was found, and then they worked him in good earnest. In process of time, by meeting early in the morning and clapping them upon the hot trail before the sun had subdued the scent, every hound became an otter-hound, and the whole pack as efficient a one as ever found an otter.
We have already recorded our opinion that the sport is altogether artificial to hounds. It is well known that hounds will stoop to the scent of a deer the very first day they are shown one, and it requires but little persuasion to induce them to hunt a fox or a hare ; but this is not the case with an otter : hounds that have been regularly hunted with others throughout a season will frequently not own an otter at the end of it; and that man may esteem himself fortunate, who out of ten couple gets one couple of good entries during that period. Besides, the natural object of the hound in hunting is prey; and we are strongly disposed to think that the best hounds that ever were littered would pursue an otter till doomsday without killing him if they were left to themselves, and not assisted by the eye and intelligence of man. Again, we never saw the hound that could break the skin of an otter, and we have seen five couple of fox-hounds fixed upon one, all diverging like radii from a centre, tugging and dragging at the beast without even tearing the fur off his hide. Had the hound in a wild state to make prey of such a tough morsel we are puzzled to know how he would dispose of it.
The weather and state of the rivers must regulate the commencement of the season ; however, we have usually killed our first otter between the 20th of April and the 1st of May, and then the sport may be continued up to the 1st of September.
In arranging the meets for otter-hunting, regard should always be had to the facility of crossing to a fresh river, in case the one drawn should prove a blank, and the less frequently a river is drawn the better is the chance of finding upon it. Scarcely any river, except those which are contiguous to the sea, and up which fresh otters are constantly coming, will afford more than a day or two in a month, for when once a river has been stained by hounds that understand their work, and that have drawn the hovers carefully, the otter, whose powers of scent are so exquisite, will be shy of frequenting his old haunts till every stain of his enemies has been Washed away by & flood or removed by time. Early in the season otters will be high up the streams, where the fish, after spawning, are
found in greatest abundance ; but as the sunimer advances and the waters decrease they then drop farther down, still following their prey and availing themselves of the protection of the deep pools.
In drawing a river hounds and men cannot stick too closely to the banks ; riot is thus avoided, and hounds become steady at their work. The slower the hound is, provided his slowness be not the effeet of slackness or old age, the more valuable is he ; in fact, if it were not for the immense amount of road work which is required from otter-hounds, the crippled and maimed of all descriptions would be the most useful. A stifled hound was the best drawer we ever saw ; not a hole nor a stump escaped his careful investigation, and when the otter was found he never left the water, which appeared to be his element as long as a mark was to be obtained ; ashore he was a perfect lubber, shambling along and apparently valueless.
When a hound to be depended upon first speaks upon the trail, the spot should be noted, inasmuch as it will indicate at least one of the extreme points of the animal's progress during the night : the improvement of the scent from that point will enable the otter-hunter to judge if his hounds are carrying it in the right direction, and vice versâ if it be heel. The seal of the otter, which is remarkable for free toes without shewing the nails, is often seen on the sand or soft mud over which he has passed ; thus, the size of the animal may be guessed at pretty accurately by those who are cognisant of such matters ; but it will not be safe to depend upon the seal for the direction in which he has gone, for the otter almost invariably passes over his hover for fifty or a hundred yards and then doubles back to take possession of it. When the hounds are enjoying the trail, if the river is a meandering one, and they are observed to cross the necks of land frequently, it is a tolerably sure sign that the otter' is up stream; for the otter, when he has a point to make, will avoid the force of the current, and only fish the pools in his passage; but when he is dovon stream he will prefer the water for his course, and seldom take the trouble of landing. The hovers or holts upon a river are only discovered by long experience and the closest observation ; hounds and terriers will pass them for years and yet not find them: this is more especially the case when the entrance to them is below the surface of the water, which it frequently is. When an otter is found near such hovers he will be the guide to point out their existence, for during the chase he will visit them all for refuge, and the chain of bubbles will direct the watchful etter-hunter where to fresh-find him ; then if neither terriers nor hounds can get at him a few hearty jumps over his head or a few bangs with a pole will usually bolt him, if the place be not too strong, nor the animal too much exhausted. But if these fail there is nothing for it but to take water with pole in hand, and proddle stoutly from underneath the bank, and, our word for it, he will bolt instanter, For three seasons we drew the river Bow without finding an otter upon a certain portion of it lying between two bridges, the lower of which was washed by the tide ; yet we never failed to get a rattling trail upon it. It may be supposed, that time after time, nothing was left undone which perseverance, with the best of hounds and terriers, could do, and yet without effect : the otter's retreat remained a mystery. At last, chance led to its discovery. It was a very sultry day in the month of July, and the hounds were enjoying their trail as usual, throwing their tongués, plunging in and out of the streams, and showing, by every token in their power, that the animal was not far off. A man held our horse in a meadow where the scent was the strongest, while we joined and cheered the hounds in their merry-making ; the horse, standing on the bank of the river, became very restless, and stamped and kicked violently to rid himself of the flies which were attacking him on all sides ; when suddenly a screech from the man announced that the otter had bolted : the hounds sprang to the sound, and after an hour's fine sport killed him in the water. For years afterwards we scarcely ever drew that spot in vain ; if there were a trail on the river within reach, there were we sure of finding. Verily, it was a rare lodgment; and were it not for the hot day and the horse's stamping exactly over the head of the otter it would have baffled us to this very day. The entrance to it was at least two feet below the surface of the water, and, as far as we could judge by our pole, it ran about ten feet into the bank.
Many rivers become excessively muddy when an otter is found ; this adds to the difficulty of “ gazing ” him, and if the hounds be not clever at marking, the otter's escape is more than probable ; for the first half hour he vents but little, and if there be not shoals above and below him on which men can be placed to head him, the sole chance of success depends upon the hounds. The task of keeping a shoal, or, as it is called in the west, a stickle, is by no means an easy one : the man who is entrusted with this post, so important to the sport, must have the eye of a heron intent upon its prey : he must be content to give up the beautiful sight of seeing hounds dashing into the deep and displaying their utmost ardour : he is stationed there in the position of a sentinel on whom the success of an army depends, although he himself does not join in the battle : he must also be able to stand the extremes of heat and cold, or the situation will be a dangerous one ; in one moment his blood will be at fever heat, in the next plunged into cold water till it almost fizzes like hot iron from the effect of the sudden transition. The “ lookbelow," such is his designation, who has to watch the lower or down-stream shoal, has the most difficult office ; for towards him flows the turbid water, and with it comes the otter keeping pace with the current, and thereby almost defying observation if the man be not thoroughly awake and well up to his work ; whereas, he who watches the up-stream shoal has clear water, and the satisfaction of knowing that if he fail to gaze the otter as he glides by him, the hounds will readily hunt him against stream and soon come to a mark. We never knew but two men on whom the utmost reliance for this service could be placed ; it was next to im
possible for an otter to pass them without being “gazed.” The one * was a gentleman, the other a sweep; and many a joke was cut upon
poor chummy as he stood waist-deep in the water waiting for his game: he was often told that the otter mistook him for the prince of darkness and would not face a fiend. Chummy, however, never raised his eye from his work, and when he gazed the otter was satisfied to have the laugh on his side.
(To be continued).