Book Extract – Why Men Fish by Jon Wood
At first it sounds a simple question to answer, but the reasons why a man stands by water and tries his luck to catch a creature of lower intelligence are at the same time both complex and primeval. In Why Men Fish, the author unravels the mystery behind the problem, not just by tracing the origins of the sport and man’s affinity with nature, water and his evolutionary relationship with our finned cousins, but also by explaining why men are so competitive, their need to escape and their frequent preference for the company of a trout over that of a woman.
This is a book not just for the male fishing brethren but primarily for the unfortunate partner of the angler who has to cope with this often unfathomable pastime and incurable affliction.
The following extract is from chapter 4:
There are two groups of beautiful things that we come into contact with as anglers. The first is the fish itself.
Not all fish are beautiful. Some are downright ugly animals and even the keenest angler with the least critical eyes would be hard pressed to say that a lumpfish or a blobfish are beautiful animals. They’re not. But a great many of those fish which are of interest to the angler are and for that reason they are held in higher esteem by fishermen. And as for the ugly fish that are caught, then they are often unusual, fascinating or at least taste good. If you are a fish that has none of these redeeming qualities and are also ugly, then congratulations, you just made it straight into the catch-and-release category.
The blobfish, for those of you who have never heard of it and think I might have just made up the name to get my point across, is a deep sea fish which is not only pig ugly but has been provided by evolution with a miserable expression. The blobfish, whose scientific name is Psychrolutes marcidus and is a member of the fathead family of fishes (I kid you not) is a resident of Australian and Tasmanian waters and lives at depths of up to eight hundred metres where the pressure is so great that the fish has no swimbladder. Its method for maintaining buoyancy comes down to its composition and as its name suggests, it’s made of a gelatinous material with roughly the same density as water and which allows the fish to maintain its depth with relative ease. What it does then, is wait for food to float by and it opens its large mouth to ingest it. So not only is it ugly, it also sounds as if it’s very lazy. To add injury to insult, the fish is currently close to extinction due to extensive overfishing by deep-sea trawling in search of sexier and happier looking fish species. This has resulted in the blobfish forming part of the by-catch, something that has brought about a decline in blobfish numbers, even though the fish itself is inedible. Considering all this, as well as the fact that it probably gets called all kinds of names by the cooler fish at school, it’s not surprising that the blobfish continues to look miserable.
At the other end of the spectrum are the beautiful fish; those that a son would be pleased to take home to meet his mother. In Tales of Fishes, Zane Grey talks about his experiences with several of these including marlin, sailfish and wahoo. He explains how each one presents its own challenges but none of them was a hard to catch as the bonefish. He was amazed not only by its strength once hooked and its ability to remove his bait from the hook without any indication of a bite and then disappear phantom-like but more than anything, the fish’s beauty:
“Never have I seen so beautiful a fish. A golden trout, a white sea-bass, a dolphin, all are beautiful, but not so exquisite as this bonefish. He seemed all bars of dazzling silver. His tail had a blue margin and streaks of lilac. His lower fins were blazing with opal fire, and the pectoral fins were crystal white. His eye was a dead, piercing black, staring and deep. We estimated his weight. I held for six pounds, but R.C. shook his head. He did not believe that. But we agreed on the magnificent fight he had made.”
No two people appreciate beauty in the same way, but those things which become known for their beauty are those which a good percentage of people are in agreement about. However, there is a strange phenomenon associated with fanatics of almost anything, that they find things beautiful when almost everybody else does not. There are many examples, with people who keep exotic animals being among the most serious deviants. But a well-known and widespread example is that of cars.
There are hundreds of makes and thousands of models since the conception of the automobile and every fanatic has their favourite. Some people prefer the latest offering loaded with the most gadgets while others prefer classics with nothing more inside than two seats, a steering wheel a gear stick, pedals and somewhere to stick the key in. While people rave about the biggest shiniest American monstrosity to hit the streets, there are others who would prefer an E-type Jag or an early Carrera. These days, if a car doesn’t have somewhere to plug in an MP3 player, then many would say that it’s not a real car. Different strokes for different folks.
And when it comes to appearance, there are a large number of people, principally youngsters who are never content with the way a car looks despite the millions having been invested into the design of the vehicle by engineers and people who have been in the business almost as long as the Ford family. They take to sticking on bits and pieces of fibreglass and plastic to “improve” the appearance, changing the lights, the interior, the exhaust and all kinds of things to personalise the car and make it stand out from the rest. If they had left it the way it was when they got it and pocketed the money they used to modify the car, then maybe they would have been able to buy something better in the first place that naturally stood out from the rest.
This doesn’t happen with fish. They are and will remain as god made them and many of them are naturally beautiful. When it comes to fish, it’s the shiny ones that are usually referred to as attractive and the preferred quarry for many anglers. However, this is not always the case and many fanatics have chosen their target species not on looks, but often on fighting ability, although the taste of their flesh is often an important consideration as well.
In Europe, the species which has generated the largest number of followers is the carp. This is due to a number of reasons, but not because it is a particularly attractive species and not because it is associated with crystal clear virgin streams. It isn’t. It’s a fish which is usually found in muddy ponds and is principally a bottom feeder, eating detritus, creepy-crawlies and other wonderful things that live, die or rot in or on the mud. But these fish are treasured by the carping world despite their humble lifestyle and pig-like existence because they are an easily accessible fish due to the fact that they accept a wide range of baits and grow quickly to impressive sizes in a diversity of ponds, lakes, canals and rivers and as a result this makes them a favourite for trophy shots. They are not a typical shiny, silvery fish such as a salmon or a bass and if a family were made up of different fish species, then where the salmon would be the good-looking nephew that the girl fish in the neighbourhood all want a date with, then the carp would be the fat ugly uncle.
Maybe I’m being a little unfair and I must say that since the carp has become a domesticated favourite in many countries as a food fish since the Middle Ages, it has spawned, quite literally, a diversity of shapes, colours and forms. However, the majority of carp which are now pursued by these fanatics, or carpers as they call themselves, are subspecies of the original common carp which now have few or no scales. Instead, they have a leathery appearance, devoid of the small scales which covered the original wild common carp which was a far less unattractive fish than the majority of existing variants. However, the fish grows to large sizes and anglers like big fish.
As a consequence of the popularity of carp and carp fishing, many lakes now specialise, as I mentioned earlier, in this type of fishing. Overfeeding of these fish through the excessive use of carbohydrate and fat rich feeds to attract them often creates fish which add obesity to their list of negative characteristics making them more pig-like than ever and even so, carpers hold them in great regard, they kiss them before they return them to the water and affectionately give them names. You might think that I have little respect for the carp which has been described by others as the queen of fish but the truth is that I am trying to disguise the fact that I’m a carper to make a point. My last book was about carp fishing and the name of my largest carp (a photo of which I had blown up to ego-satisfying proportions and is currently hanging in my living room) was called Leonard.
The carp is not the only fish which is pursued despite not fitting into the category of truly beautiful fish and from what I understand, one of the most frequently caught fish in the United States is the channel catfish which is hardly beautiful to look at. But yet again, it can grow to big sizes although maybe not quite as big as the European wels catfish which has also got its followers principally because of its size and fighting ability. The wels can grow to over two hundred and fifty pounds and specimens are caught fairly regularly over two hundred in the Spanish carp and catfish Mecca at Mequinenza on the River Ebro which is a hot spot for specimen anglers and a hang out for a least two species of ugly fish. However, the wels catfish beats the carp hands or rather fins down when it comes to ugliness. It resembles a giant slug with a widely cavernous mouth and the tiniest and beadiest of eyes set in a flat head with a serpent-like tail. It isn’t brightly coloured or silvery, just mottled brown, scaleless and slimy.
Bass species, on the other hand, are popular fish in the US and are good-looking and although maybe not supermodel standard fish, they offer good fighting ability, are widely distributed and therefore accessible and taste good. In fact any kind of bass, whether they are the sea or freshwater varieties are attractive creatures and this consensus explains why so many anglers fish for them.
So as not to offend any other fish that have managed to get hold of a copy of this book, I would like to move on, but before I do, we should spare a thought for those species that dream of being even a carp or a catfish. Evolution has provided the angler with all shapes and forms of fish to angle for, from fish with a sharp beak (or sword) called swordfish, to fish which are flattened and live on the bottom that are called flatfish and fish which have a head like a snake that are called, well, have a guess…
As with women or cars or anything else, it is common knowledge that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and this is also true when it comes to fish. And the appearance of the fish, whether it’s normal or unusual and whether you consider it beautiful or ugly or somewhere in between, makes the fish unique and often prized for other reasons.
There are fish which provoke other kinds of feelings apart from disgust at their ugliness. There are fish which because of their armoury such as big teeth or spines that come with or without venom make anglers fearful of catching them. If they do manage to catch one of these, either on purpose or by accident, then the usual reaction is often a cry for help to unhook the beast and get it back in the water as quickly as possible. The group of fish which have received the worst publicity are sharks. In my opinion these are some of the most beautiful and fascinating animals swimming around the oceans but due to a combination of ignorance and no shortage of films showing the negative side of these wonderful, ancient and well adapted creatures, shark species have suffered at the hands of both recreational and industrial fishermen.
And how many anglers fish for flatfish, a group of fish that have developed a completely different morphology from the majority of other teleosts? When they hatch, flatfish look more or less the same as any other typical round-fish larvae, but each of their species reaches a point where it changes its preference from life in the water column to a bottom-dwelling existence. At that moment in its larval development a metamorphosis occurs and one of the eyes moves from the lower side of the head to the upper and from then on the flatfish possesses a blind side (the one in contact with the seabed) and a sighted side (the one that faces upwards). If you ever get into a fight with one, make sure you try and take advantage of its blind side.
These fish are excellent examples of fish that are not particularly beautiful to many “beholders” but they are unusual, certainly tasty and they present their own challenges and attraction to flatfish angling fanatics. They are “beautiful” in their own particular flattened way and are perhaps the pinnacle of curiosity, or at least they will be once the blobfish finally becomes extinct.
Although many anglers fish to feed themselves and others, any fish, whether it be attractive or ugly provokes a certain degree of sensitivity when it comes to the inevitable moment of sacrificing the animal for the table when the need to provide occurs. It is often with regret that a fish is killed for food and it is those of us who truly appreciate what the fish has offered us that experience a stronger pang of conscience, maybe as a result of its particular beauty, its strength and its ability to put our sanity, patience and tackle to the test. It may also be a more relevant emotion when we are dealing with a truly beautiful specimen, such as Grey’s bonefish or Walton’s trout or when we are so fulfilled by the fishing experience, that to take a life at that moment is like breaking a sacred rule. In that case it is much better to let the fish go, both for the angler and of course the fish itself.
About the Author
Jon Wood has been a passionate angler all his life and a fish farm consultant since graduating in marine biology from Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.
He is currently studying for his doctorate in aquaculture and lives in Viña del Mar, Chile.
Jon has also written the book Carp Fishing Science.