Thursday, June 19, 2008

What's a Catch?

In my first post, I mentioned I lost a brookie when I hoisted him out of the water. There's no way I'd call this a catch; it fits the description of what I recently heard termed a "jack fish," as in you jack it out of the water if you set the hook with any force (sorry I can't credit whoever's writing I read this in). It did get me thinking about what constitutes a fish being officially "caught".

We all like to pretend that it doesn't matter whether or not we catch fish, and to a point, at least on certain days, that's true. But at the same time, when you get back and someone asks you how many you caught, it's nice to have an honest answer. Sometimes it's hard to say.

When I was in high school, I learned two things that changed how I thought about a catch. The first was that some saltwater anglers -- and I don't know if this was simply for tournaments or not -- consider a fish caught if they can reach down and grab the leader, partly because it wasn't practical to lift big fish out of the water. Second, I read in one of my magazines, almost certainly Field & Stream or Outdoor Life, that if you reel in a little fish, you can often release it by simply holding onto the eye of the hook. The fish gives one wriggle and he's free. It lets you release your catch with virtually no handling. [Note: this is a far cry from Tom Waits's "catch, put it in your pants, and release" program.]

My fishing buddies and I always had contests. "Most Fish" was the key category, but we'd also break it down into whatever categories favored the person behind: "Biggest Fish," "Most Bass," "Most Unusual Fish," "Most Unusual Way to Catch a Fish," etc. Integral to all categories was determining what was and what wasn't a catch. We finally came to the conclusion that if you touched the last six inches of line with the fish under control, it counted. This made everyone, including the fish, happy, and I don't think count totals went up any because of it.

But it's not always so clear, and here's my real story: I was trout fishing alone in a special regulation stream in PA. I had usually caught a few fish there, but nothing huge, although I had seen some big fish. This day I was in a run that I always knew held fish, but had never had so much as a hit, when something big grabbed my nymph. The trout took me up and down the river, and my skills then (and probably now) weren't up to it. I was trying to keep tension on my line and making it up as I went along. When he ran past me just a few feet away, I was sure I would lose him, but I didn't.

Eventually I tired him and brought him in. An enormous rainbow, bigger at that time than any fish I had ever caught (and still bigger than any trout), finned at my feet. I bent down to pick him up, and discovered he was so thick I couldn't get my hand around him. He launched himself back into the river. I got him back under control and tried -- with a horrible tactic -- to net him. He was longer than the opening of my net, I bungled it, and one of the flies became tangled in the net, breaking the line as the fish drifted away. I lunged for him, but he was just out of reach. I still feel bad that I didn't have the chance to revive him.

I crawled up onto the bank and sat down. It's one of only a few times I've been so excited that afterwards my hands were shaking and my heart was pounding and I don't know that I could have moved. Eventually I tied back on and started half-heartedly fishing again, more stuck in that moment than in what I was doing. I felt exhilarated, but a little disconcerted by the ending of the encounter.

I ran into a young angler about my age on the way back to the car. We chatted a few minutes and I told him my story, hesitant to say exactly that I "caught" the fish. He felt bad about it and consoled me for losing a big one, but that didn't feel quite right either. Landing a fish is part of the deal, but the fact that I had picked the fish up out of the water and just couldn't hold him still to unhook him seemed to count for something. At this point, I can't say I'm entirely concerned with what the officially ruling would be on it, but it would be nice to feel confident in saying that this trout was the biggest one I ever caught.

[Note: Yes, we'll eventually start having pictures here.]

No comments: