Why Does Everybody Catch Fish Except Me?

By Tom Neale, 9/23/2004


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One of my earliest memories about not catching fish was when my grandmother took me fishing in a lake near Charlotte, North Carolina. I was around 6. That occasion began a very distinct pattern in my life. Despite doing every thing “just right,” we didn’t catch a thing. It didn’t help that my father had predicted as much. My grandmother was a stoutly honorable person who always did what she said she’d do. Having told my parents that we were going to bring home some fish for dinner (maybe the word was “catch,” details fail with memory), we stopped at a fish market and bought a nice big one. Silence leaves a lot unsaid, especially when a fish is presented, with proudly raised eyebrows, a sharp affirmative nod of the head, and an “I told you so” smile, to a skeptical son in law. But my father immediately recognized the “catch” as being a tuna, which was about as likely to have been swimming around in a North Carolina Piedmont lake as a kangaroo hopping around in the Himalayas. Thus acquired were my first two fishing lessons. Don’t ever tell anybody you’re going fishing, and big ones never get away at the fish market. I’ve learned a few other things too.

I know what kind of worms to use. The kind you use depends on what you want the worms to do when they get loose inside the refrigerator. I’ve used the kind that I dig up, and I’ve bought them writhing and bloody from the tackle shops. The average garden variety worm will head for the vegetables. The trick with these guys when they show up in the broccoli is to tell your dinner guests that you only serve “garden fresh.” The blood worm will head for areas out of sight. There’s nothing like reaching back for a cold beer after a long hard day and coming out with a handful of blood worms.

I know what kinds of lures to buy. You buy the ones that least look like they’ll catch a fish because you know that you’re not going to catch fish anyway and it’s good to have something to blame it on when you come back to the dock.

When You’re the Fish Out of Water

There’s a lot more motivation for catching fish when fish can catch you. I’m talking about fishing with a Hawaiian Sling. You’re free-diving down underwater as a stranger, where the fish lives. You have very limited air (what’s in your lungs) and the fish has all the time in the world. You’re the “fish out of water.” And there’s competition, such as sharks and barracuda. It’s an amazing sport, great for exercise, and it makes that fish really taste good. Here are some pointers.

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I know when to bottom fish, when to drift and when to troll. You bottom fish when your motor just quit and you forgot to pay your TowBoatUS membership. You drift when your motor just quit and you forgot to tie the anchor when you threw it over. You troll when somebody else is paying for the fuel.

I even know how to tie a fancy lure for throwing out into the creek. I don’t tie it. Why go to all that trouble and take all that time for something that’s going to catch on that log and break loose anyway?

I know that’s it’s better to gaff a fish from a wooden boat. That way I don’t loose the gaff when I miss the fish. I just impale it into the hull. If I’m in a glass boat and I try to impale the hull, I usually drop the gaff and it’s usually somebody else’s and they want me to jump in after it with a very ticked off big fish that just got away.

I know how to avoid castration while “working” a hot fish from a chair with a rod holder between the legs. I let my wife do it.

I know how to tell when a sluggish big flounder who’s been working on my line for a half hour is finally hooked. It’s when the guy on the boat nearby pulls him in with my line still attached.

I know how to keep the cost of fish down from thousands of dollars per pound to hundreds of dollars per pound. I buy cheap gear and only go fishing in some one else’s boat.

I know how to avoid breaking my line when my hook snags on the bridge piling where “all the fish are biting.” I throw in my cheap rod and reel and go home.

I know how to catch minnows. I catch a minnow or two every time I pull the ‘tween hull drain plug in my Mako. I’m not sure how this happens, because all the water is supposed to be running out when you pull the plug while you’re up and running. But just about every time I put the plug back in I see a few minnows swimming around down there, heading for those interior spaces that you can’t get to without a stick of dynamite. I like to think that I’ve got my own special live well. A live well for minnows is a good idea for two reasons.

It’s a lot easier than buying those minnow buckets which you load up and leave floating over the side and then forget about when you take off until you see it bouncing and busted on the end of the line astern, slinging happy minnows through the air in every direction. But my ‘tween hull live well doesn’t live up to one half of the concept. That half is the “live” part. So I call it my “dead well.” A benefit of a dead well is that you always have a pretty good idea of how many minnows there are. You just sniff the bilge, and I don’t mean for gasoline.

A dead well has another benefit. I’ve got this problem about putting minnows on the hook so they’ll stay alive and keep on wiggling so that they can get eaten alive by some nice big fish. Come on. I’ve had some friends who were minnows. (Well, some might’ve called them goldfish, but we all have unique ways of looking at things.) When I take a minnow from the dead well, I don’t have to imagine how it feels when I work that hook in. Never mind that he’s not going to wiggle. Why have a wiggling minnow when you’re not going to catch anything anyway?

But I like fish. I like fishing too; it’s just that I can only handle so much embarrassment in a lifetime. So I was really happy when someone told me, around 25 years ago, about another way to fish. I free dive (no scuba tank, just hold your breath) with mask, snorkel, and flippers. If I see a fish that I want to eat, I spear it using a Hawaiian sling. This isn’t a spear gun, it’s a simple sling shot sort of device. You pull your spear back against surgical tubing and let go. When I’m in good shape (not often) I can dive down close to 30 feet and shoot a fish. None of this impaling of little fish on hooks. No indiscriminate dragging of hooks in the water, snaring fish that I don’t want or have to throw away because they were too small in the first place. No messing with worms or torturing of minnows. Best of all, there’s no one seeing me when I don’t get the fish, because I’m deep down under water where the fish lives. And they’re pretty good guys; they’ve got a lot more class than some of those people who’ve made fun of me over the years when I’ve come back empty handed. They never tell when they get away, and they never laugh when I lie.

Copyright 2004-2005 Tom Neale