Hooked On Fishing? It's All Worth It

By Stephen Sautner

Despite the trials and tribulations for the weekend-warrior angler, the rewards are found in the fish landed and the stories told.

Stephen Sautner shows off smallmouth bass catchThe author shows off another catch, a smallmouth bass hauled out of Newboro Lake in Ontario, Canada.

One day last summer I floated a few miles of the Upper Delaware River with my son and two friends. Springtime trout and shad seasons were over and the fishing had become lazy and casual. We drifted along, lobbing spinning lures here and there to rocky shorelines and slow, deep holes. Maybe we would catch a smallmouth or a rock bass.

The sky was a beautiful blue dome that day with the summer sun shining brightly. I had just lathered up with sunscreen when something hit my diving plug. After an unremarkable battle, I landed a foot-long fallfish. I grabbed it behind the head and began working the hooks free like I had done countless times before.

The rear treble hook was caught in the fish's upper jaw, while the front hook dangled freely. These particular hooks were "chemically sharpened," according to the package. Though I still don't know exactly what that means, I can attest that they were almost dangerously sharp. They would catch on fingers and knuckles whenever I tied the plug on or even reached into my tackle box to grab it.

The fallfish, which up to this point lay limply in my hand, now suddenly began to struggle. As it writhed and wriggled, its slime coat conspired with the greasy sunscreen on my hands to make it feel like a wet bar of soap.

Uh-oh.

One last wiggle and I felt the fish squirt out of my grip followed by the sharp pain of treble hooks burying deeply into flesh. The fallfish continued thrashing about, driving the hooks in even deeper.

When the fish stopped, I could see that the front treble had indeed found home. One of its three hooks was buried into the tip of my thumb; another was deep into the tip of my middle finger fusing them together into a strange O shape. The fallfish still dangled from the rear treble. My 9-year-old son saw the carnage and yelled, "Oh no, blood!" and looked away in horror.

So I decided to head for the shore to fully assess the damage. But when I reached for my canoe paddle I realized I could no longer hold anything in my encumbered right hand. So I calmly told my son to paddle as best he could. He did, and I managed to grab onto some tall grass with my free hand to keep us from drifting farther downstream.

I called to my friends in another canoe and told them what happened. One of them yelled back that he had a pair of pliers and began paddling over. As I waited, I sighed and gazed upward to the fishing gods. Again? Really? I have been fishing obsessively for nearly 35 years. I taught myself how to fly fish, how to read a beach, and how to surfcast for stripers at midnight. I can tie my own flies that actually catch trout. I have fished in exotic locations for some of the world's great gamefish.

And this is what it's come to? A sh***y fallfish dangling from my fingers now painfully contorted into an OK symbol?

My friend handed me his pliers. Luckily, I had previously de-barbed the treble hooks — wisdom that comes from too many emergency room visits and fishing trips cut short. Once hooked, twice de-barbed is my credo.

The first thing I did was remove the fallfish and toss it back into the river (I was briefly tempted to fling it into the bushes). Then came careful probing of the entry wound as hook number one was eventually eased out of my middle finger. A few minutes later, hook number two slid out of my thumb.

Later that day, when I got home, I soaked my hand in hot water then swabbed it with antibiotic cream and bandaged it up. In a few days it would feel just a little sore.

So was it worth it, this ill-fated trip?

I retold the story the other night to a few fishing buddies over dinner who guffawed at my ridiculous predicament — my hand stuck in an OK symbol, me helplessly drifting downriver and my son not bearing to look.

Of course, this was followed by a flurry of additional "the time I got hooked" stories. I learned about the time John's friend hooked him in the scalp with a huge striper plug — and they both kept fishing ("We just got there," John explained to us matter-of-factly). Then it was Dave's turn, recalling a terrifying story of hooking his brother in the eyelid while fly-casting for landlocked salmon on Lake George. Luckily it turned out to be a superficial wound with the fly falling out on the way to the emergency room. But it earned him legendary status among a group of Lake George regulars who would recognize Dave each season and ask: "Are you the guy who hooked your brother in the eyeball?" And then Rob got to retell his harrowing salmon-fly-in-the-neck tale.

Worth it? As we laughed over beers on a warm summer's evening, telling and retelling our hapless stories of lost fish and bad luck, I knew that absolutely and definitely, it damn well was. 

An excerpt from Stephen Sautner's book Fish On, Fish Off: The misadventures and odd encounters of the self-taught angler. Lyons Press; $22.95; rowman.com

— Published: June/July 2017


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