The urge to fish is administered by a gene. It is situated next to the cooking-over-the-open-flame gene, not far from the storytelling gene. My Dad has all three and he passed them on to me. With this disclaimer made, I swear every word below is true. Just ask Dad.
Much of the thrill of hunting fish is sensory. Fishing uses all the senses. The sights on the water, watching for the ripples in the water of baitfish being herded to the surface and the gulls joining the frenzy, the rasp of the reel ratcheting out line after a bite, the smell of the salt and the fish itself, the tactile thrill of the gentle tug on the line as a fish samples the bait, and the taste, succulent, delicate, wet, smoky, of grilled fish.
Yes, we ate all that we caught. We were not practitioners of the strange 21st century ethic of catch and release. We would never have thought of throwing back a hard won catch unless it was undersized or we were over the limit. Often our creel was so full that we gave fish to our neighbors who came to like my Dad so well he could have been elected mayor. There was, however, one time when I threw my catch back…
I was hooked on fishing before my first memory formed. One of the first things I remember was a fishing trip in the 20 foot runabout Dad co-owned with Uncle Eddie. It had a long shiny wooden deck, polished til it looked like a Louis XIV armoire. It gracefully stretched like a bird’s bill, tapering, and sloping down for about 8 feet in front of the windshield. As the bow dug into the trough between the waves there was a shower – cold, salty, fishy – more dulcet to this tadpole than Kool Aid or Cola. I became so addicted to the taste that as I grew older I would crawl under the deck, across the wet mildewy anchor rope, and pop my head and shoulders up out of the bow hatch at the very apex of the boat, like a six year old jack-in-the box, declaring, arms flung apart, palms skyward, yippppeeeee!
Dad knew the sandy bottoms where flounder lived in Long Island Sound. Flounder are strange flat otherworldly creatures that looked like a collapsed football, white on the underside and brown speckled on the top, where both eyes resided side by side. And soooo good tasting, seasoned with salt, paprika, powdered garlic, then grilled and served with toasted almond slivers.
One Sunday morning, while working the bottom, Dad got a huge strike. The fish headed under the boat and bowed the pole in a rainbow arch. It struggled harder than any flounder we had ever caught. The battle went on far longer than any I had seen. Dad is a sportsman and used light spinning gear with thin line, easily broken if your do not work the fish properly, letting line out when it mounts a frantic run, and reeling furiously when it relaxes. Purists feel this makes the contest more even and rewards only the most skillful anglers, or the most wily fish.
The second most thrilling moment in the battle comes as the exhausted prey appears a few feet below the surface as a grey blur. It is also the most dangerous time. If the prey makes a run and scrapes the line on the bottom of the boat or the motor, you go hungry. And with lightweight line, you can’t hoist the fish above the surface where it is no longer buoyed by the water, and the dead weight will snap the line like tissue paper.
So I grabbed the net and as soon as I saw the grey outline about three feet down I scooped it up. As I swung the weighty load into the small boat it jumped out of the net, snapped the line, and there, flopping wildly on the tiny deck, was a 3 foot long juvenile sand shark. An instant later it had my big toe in its mouth. I was being eaten by a shark. I let out a caterwaul loud enough to shatter the lens of the lighthouse. Dad sprung into action. He went for his tackle box.
“Get him off me!” I screamed.
He kept rummaging through his tackle box.
“Help me!” I pleaded.
He pulled out his filleting knife, reared back, and plunged it through the shark just behind its head, pinning it to the teak deck so it could not wiggle so violently and tear off my toe. Then he grabbed a beach towel, pried open its jaws, freed me, pulled up the knife, and threw the maneater over the side. Perhaps in shock, I asked him why he threw it back and he laughed and said “I never eat fish that can eat me back.”
The $100 trout
Then there was the $100 trout. When I was 10 we moved to Florida. One day after school, Dad and I were wetting our lines from a dock in Sarasota Bay. We used shrimp for bait. We loved eating shrimp, but we loved eating gray trout even more.
I got the first hit of the day, a weighty fish that kept my rod bowed and vellicating. As I worked the weighty meal to dockside we could see a blue plastic badge on it’s tale, placed there by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. They offered rewards for tagged fish and info about them to help with research, and the blue tag was worth $100. Dad hung over the dock with a net, but the tide was low and he had trouble reaching the surface. He lay on his stomach, stretching to scoop up the $100 fish, holding a piling with one arm and digging his toes into the weathered wood. He still was a few inches short of the surface, so he let go of the piling, dug his toes into the grass, and took hold of the fishing line to raise the fish to the net. But the added weight of the fish moved his center of gravity. Slowly he tumbled forward, rolling onto his back, and hitting the surface with a splat. The line broke and the fish escaped to tell his wife the tale. I know Dad has told his wife the tale. Many times.
The flying fish
There was an inlet near Sarasota that linked the bay to the Gulf, and we had good luck there catching sheepshead near the pilings that held aloft the bridge that crossed it. We knew it would be a good day because the surface was roiled by baitfish while seagulls and pelicans circled and dove for dinner.
Knowing that big fish hang out below baitfish driving them to the surface, I cast into the center of the activity hoping to drop my bait below the baitfish into the mouth of a hungry whopper. After the line ran out, I started a slow retrieve to take the slack out. There was a mighty tug on the line and I yanked the pole back to set the hook. Immediately the line ran out against the ratchet set loosely to prevent a big ‘un from breaking the light line. It made a distincting zing as the line ran out. I reeled against the drag and tightened it. As I scanned the surface to see if the fish had risen I was shocked to see the tip of the rod did not bend down. It bent up.
Apparently as I cast, the line had wrapped around the wing of a seagull. I carefully retrieved him and it took three of us to subdue him while we unwound the line. I never knew these big birds could bite with that big bill. I guess I deserved it.
Another one I released
The sun had been up for a couple of hours and game fish would be seeking shade. We glided my brother-in-law, Anthony’s, rowboat to within 40 feet of shore. Between us and dry land was a patch of lilly pads, and we could hear the lowing grunts of bullfrogs. These sights and sounds mean one thing: bass. Bass love to lurk beneath pads and ambush bullfrogs. Bass are great fun to catch. They are no-nonsense. They don’t suck and gum and play with the bait. They chomp down. And then they take off, fast, alternatively going airborne and diving for the bottom. And they taste great sautéd in butter, tarragon, and shallots.
So I hooked up Kermit, my trusty plastic frog with floppy legs and big eyes, and I dropped him right on top of a pad. I let him sit there for a minute, and then with a twitch of my wrist, I made him jump off into the water, hopefully to catch the ear and eye of a lunker. Nothing.
I flicked my rod tip to make Kermit swim and kick its legs. A huge splash with water flying like one of those World War II depth charges. I snapped the rod tip back and up to set the hook and the weight on the line told me I had him good.
The rod pulled the lure below the surface for a moment and all was quiet, and then, again on the surface, there was a splash, and another, and another. This was no ordinary bass! I peered through the flying water, and there was Kermit on the surface, and perched on his back was a bullfrog twice his size, flailing away at him with its forearms. Bullfrogs are famously territorial, and this fella wanted no company in his lilly pads. He was administering a whuppin. His big mistake was trying to bite Kermit. Sure enough he was hooked.
I brought the combatants into the boat, Anthony took a picture so all would know I wasn’t making up a fish story. I thought about frog’s legs for dinner, but what would my wife eat?
So I threw him back. So help me frog.