The Dissecting Room . . . November 1986
At Least One Famous Fisherman
"Watson and I are famous fisherman-are we not, Watson?"
The good doctor never gave us his answer to that question of Holmes in SHOS. Were he and Holmes "famous fisherman"? They certainly had the gear for it, if the rods, reels, and baskets the two men packed off to Shoscombe are any indication. And Holmes seems well up on the lingo, able to converse easily with the local innkeeper on the subject. Watson, however, does not seem so gifted, and there may lie the downfall of any argument for both Holmes and Watson being able anglers. No real fisherman would speak of his sport as "the extirpation of the fish in the neighborhood"! True afficionados of the sport don't catch fish to destroy them-they catch fish to eat them. A word like "extirpation" used to describe fishing sounds like the kind of thing that would come from a man who gets queasy baiting a hook. It would be easy to peg Watson as a city boy, and thus, someone with little chance to get an education in the angler's art.
Holmes, on the other hand, came form a line of country squires; we know that for a fact. We also have numerous splendid examples of his fishing technique. Of course, he doesn't demon- 1 strate it in SHOS, but then why should he? 'Pike and trout are pretty smal.1 game when compared to the fish Holmes was used to hooking. Big fish, with names like Abe Slaney and Hugo Oberstein -- but don't get us wrong, not all of the criminals Holmes captured were "fished" for. As we said earlier, Holmes had a fishing technique, and sometimes he just happened to use it to catch criminals.
What was that technique? A rather basic one, but nonetheless effective. A line, some bait, and a hook were all the detective needed. His line was a line of communication. Even if he was not sure for whom he was fishing, a line of communication gave him access to the world of his prey, just as a fi sherman's line gives him access to the underwater world of the fish. That line of communication may have been a code as in DANC or REDC, or a newspaper agony column. as in BRUC. As common a communication as sending for a cab of a certain number or as contrived a one as pretending to be hiring a harpooner could serve as Holmes's line to that murky area where his quarry was hidden away.
And just as the skilled fisherman knows precisely what bait to.use for each fish, be it spoon-bait for young pike or minnows for bass, so too didholmes know just what bait to send along his line of communication. In DANC, he lured Abe Slaney with his long-lost love. In STUD, he summoned Jefferson Hope with cabfare. For Patrick Cairns a job offer, for Hugo Oberstein a missing part of the submarine plans -- each time that Holmes threw out some tidbit on his line of communication the bait was different, but always effective -- even if he had no idea just what fish he was after, as in the case of Colonel Valentine Walter of BRUC.
Once the line had been cast and the bait taken, there still remained-as any good fisherman knows -- the hook. All the rest is for naught if you can't hook your fish securely at that one crucial moment. Holmes was a master at knowing just the moment to hook his fish, something that shows real talent for fishing. The hooks he used were much bigger than those used for fish, of course, as his "fish" were so much larger. The clicking handcuffs or the revolver behind the ear served him just as well as d any barbed piece of curved metal in securing his catch. Once the fish was caught, all Holmes had to do was toss it in his creel -- the waiting arms of Scotland Yard.
So even though Watson may have had no skill at it, anyone with a feel for fishing can see that Sherlock Holmes knew his way around a fish pond. And even though Holmes claimed that his Biblical knowledge was "a trifle rusty," it is interesting to note how well he followed that book's injunction to be "fishers of men" -- not in the way it was originally intended, perhaps.
(Printed in Plugs & Dottles, November 1986)