I've been fishing hard for the past 40 plus years and about thirty years ago I started to enjoy catching fish and tossing them back. I usually bring along a camera and have collected so many photos of me or friends with fish caught (and usually released) that they now fill two large fish albums.
My niece, Shana, recently complained, saying, "How come I'm not in the fish book?"
I explained that in order to get in the fish book, you had to catch a fish and have someone take the picture.
As a kid I used to fish on the piers of southern California and in those days everyone had a five-gallon bucket and into that bucket went every single fish they caught. You could walk down the pier, looking in peoples' buckets, seeing how the fishing was going. It was a point of pride to have a bucket full of fish--what kind of fish, tomcods, perch, mackerel, croaker, bonito, didn't really matter. What mattered was having a bucketful of fish.
Most of the many fish I tossed in my bucket ended up getting buried in our back yard. Good fertilizer for the plants was the way we excused it. Not that in those days we needed any sort of excuse for keeping every single fish we caught. It was the way it was done then.
On the ocean piers today I see much the same thing. Catch and release appears to be a very foreign idea. Last time I was on the pier I was casting a line of little jigs, catching and then tossing back lots of big sardines. The people on both sides of me asked me to give the fish to them, but I said no, I was into catching and releasing. They looked at me with a certain bit of hostility and as though I had to be completely out of my mind.
One thing about me that is quickly apparent is that I'm pretty big. At 6'2" tall and 230 pounds I don't look like someone to mess with, and I'm not. This gives me somewhat of an advantage with irate fisherfolk.
Two weeks ago I was in Minnesota visiting my brother in St. Paul. One afternoon I decided to drive down to nearby Long Lake to try my hand at tossing bread balls to the carp. There's a little pier on that lake and I walked out on it and started to drown the white bread. I had the whole pier to myself and it was quite nice, even if the carp weren't cooperating.
Pretty soon a man who brought an ice chest, a paperback copy of Clan of the Cave Bear, several rods, a big tackle box, and a large portable radio joined me. He tuned his radio to some classical music station and turned it up loud. Now I like violins as much as the next guy, but not especially when I'm carp fishing. But it was a public pier and I'm a polite guy so I didn't complain.
This new fellow was quite the talker. In no time he'd told me half his life story. He worked for the city, had read Clan of the Cave Bear five times, and was a (self proclaimed) expert on all matter anthropological. He also complained bitterly about the hoards of damn foreigners who had moved to Minnesota and who caught all the fish while they lived high on the hog on public welfare. I tired to ignore him as best I could but it wasn't easy. Once in awhile I'd try to get my own two cents in about something or other but he never let me finish a sentence and I quickly gave up trying.
He was fishing with what looked like fifty-pound line, a huge bobber, a heavy sinker, a size 1 hook and a dead leach. He claimed there were huge bluegills in the lake but he wasn't catching any of them.
I decided to give him a little competition. I was using six-pound line on an ultra light outfit. I rigged up with a long shanked number 8 gold hook, put a very small bobber some four feet up from my hook, baited it with a worm from my brother's perennial garden and started to fish for bluegills. On the first cast I quickly got into a really beautiful bluegill, big, fat, solid, a male with a bright orange chest. I pulled him up, admired him for a moment and then dropped him back into the murky waters of Long Lake.
"What the hell did you do that for?" said my classical loving buddy. "That was a damn good fish."
"I'm into catch and release," I said. "I just like to fish and catch fish. I almost never keep any."
"Well, give them to me then," he said. Now to be honest, if I'd have liked the guy better, a whole lot better, I probably would have. But his welfare talk and ramblings about how the minorities had screwed up the world was bugging me...that and his big mouth and loud classical music.
"Sorry," I said, "I catch 'em and I toss 'em. You'll just have to catch your own." And then I started to fish bluegills with a vengeance. I started catching bluegills almost as fast as I could toss in my line and almost every one of them was huge. It had been years since I'd caught such big sunnies. Every time I tossed one back I could hear this guy groaning but I just ignored him.
After I'd caught a dozen or so of these slab sunfish another fellow joined us on the end of the pier. He took a spot at the rail, between me and the other guy. He hadn't come to fish, just to socialize I guess. I quickly found out he was a retired optometrist, and that he too felt oppressed by all the gays, lesbians, blacks, Asians, Mexicans, politicians, you name it.
I hung into my biggest bluegill yet. On my light tackle the little bruiser put up a darn good fight. I landed my fish, admired it briefly and tossed it back into the lake. "My God!" swore the old optometrist. "That was really nice sunfish. Why did you throw it back?"
"I'm into catch and release, " I said.
"Yeah?" said the old geezer.
"Yep," said the city employee. "He's into catching them and throwing them back. Nice fish like that, you'd think he'd give some to someone else. But oh no, he throws them all back."
"You know," I said, talking to the retired optometrist and pretending the other guy wasn't even there, " People sometimes get me confused. They think I'm the welfare department, that I'm out here to pass out free fish to people. But I ain't the welfare department. And anyhow, all the fish I caught I put right back in the lake where anyone else can catch them themselves if they want to. Funny how some people are always looking for a handout, isn't it."
The old fellow just looked at me for a moment. "That's cold," he said.
And I guess it was. But you know what? I enjoyed it.
I caught a few more of the jumbo bluegills, tossed them back, and then left the pier. The fishing had been pretty decent but the ambiance sucked. It was time to find a different lake to fish.
About the Author
Tom Ogren is a writer from San Luis Obispo, California, and he admits to keeping the occasional walleye, trout or crappie to eat.