“Every time I put my line in the water I said a Hail Mary, and every time I said a Hail Mary I caught a fish.” Fredo Corleone
Tommy called one evening last week, boasting about a monster largemouth bass he’d landed on the fly in one of our neighborhood’s retention ponds. I knew he was lying because smoldering clouds of nuclear envy were not yet consuming the core of my soul.
I put lyin’ Tom on speaker and double-checked my texts. This confirmed my initial instinct: no picture. I opened my Instagram app to look at the photo gallery on his profile, at tommyboyfishninja.
The last picture he had posted, underscored with “hashtag sunrise”, was from that same day. Social media-savvy anglers know that sunrise shots are code for getting shut out. They serve as a humble brag that one is out fishing while all the other suckers are at work.
This is a far cry from the fisherman’s gold-standard hashtag, fishbrag, which underscores pictures of fish that are considerably smaller and far less vibrant than they appear, courtesy of the appropriately termed fisheye effect and Instagram filters.
In today’s angler-beat-angler world, no fish picture equals no fish.
“Send me a pic,” I challenged Tommy.
“Oh, bro, my GoPro froze ,” he said, continuing to spin his deceitful web. “Turns out the SD card was full– 128 gigabytes of epic lip-rippin’ goodness!”
I would have been completely justified for immediately calling out his unsubstantiated fish tale. Any angler with a malfunctioning GoPro would naturally use his or her camera phone as back up.
But, I was struck with a provocative question. Does a fish story even bear repeating these days if there aren’t meticulously edited, high-definition digital captures to share with via social media?
This thought was immediately followed by a hashtag mind-equals-blown epiphany: most of the greatest moments in angling history happened without photo documentation. Can we trust the historic accounts of these events?
Perhaps in order to get a better perspective on answering my question, it is good to retrace some of this history to see what we can learn.
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Eastern Asia (~40,000 year ago): The first recording of man catching a fish. Wikipedia credits an undocumented Tianyuan man with this distinction.
Who is this Tianyuan man? In Chinese, tian represents heaven and yuan is currency.
Accordingly, we may surmise this was a man of heavenly currency, whose prayers for a fish were rewarded. For untold generations, fish prayers have been a go-to for pretty much every angler who ever sat staring at a hopelessly unproductive line in the water.
As Tianyuan man caught the first recorded fish in history, there is a high probability he spent most of his earthly yuan on gear. We have no photo evidence of this man’s fish-catching abilities, but we can speculate that were he alive today, he would own an array of rods and reels, an obscene collection of custom Yeti Ramblers and, if not a GoPro, certainly a water-resistant smart phone. Tianyuan man was undoubtedly a hero to the ladies of the village when he brought that fish back for BBQ.
Sure, this is all pure speculation. However, we can be confident of the fish brag that followed Tianyaun man’s monumental angling feat, as his fishing report has survived everything from the Ice Age and associated mass extinctions to the only slightly less significant daily activities of the Wikipedia editors who validate history for modern society.
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Egypt, 1700BC: First metal hooks with barbs; landing Nile River monsters.
Representations on ancient Egyptian scrolls convey the first instance of fishing being pursued as a pastime. Quite possibly, the most notorious Egyptian anglers– these archaic forerunners to Jeremy Wade– employed papyrus crews, who documented great feats of Egyptian angling prowess.
Behemoth fish, scantily clad dudes, aesthetically pleasing artistic presentation of the event: the only difference between the fishing scrolls from four millennia past and many of modern angler’s Instagram posts, seemingly, is the scantily clad men have been largely replaced by scantily clad women.
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Israel, 1AD: Post-resurrection Jesus puts his buddies onto a world-record haul of fish on the Sea of Galilee. We find this account in the Book of John.
Jesus: “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
Jesus: “Cast over there.”
What follows is the first literary instance of a leading cause of distrust among anglers: that of losing count of how many fish have been caught. If this happened today, John may have said: “We haven’t a GoPro! Better write this down. . .”
For followers of Jesus, this particular fish story has been universally accepted as gospel truth. For anglers of all belief systems, logic would inform that these guys would have sooner kept the story to themselves than admit they fished all night and couldn’t even catch a minnow.
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England, 1496: Shortly after Gutenberg rolled out the printing press, the first guide to angling, Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle, was published. It was written by a woman named Dame Juliana Berners. The publisher warned the treatise should be kept from those who were not gentlemen, since their lack of restraint in angling might “utterly destroy” recreational angling.
Who knew that centuries before environmental destruction and unregulated commercial fishing began to wreck havoc on fish stocks, the specter of ungentlemanly anglers threatened to shut down the golden age of fishing before it was fully ramped up.
We should keep in mind this advice was proffered by people who wore full dress suits and fancy hats while fishing. These folks boldly risked the demise of their passionate pursuit in order to brag on their superior mastery of the art of angling.
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Massachusetts, 1850: Thoureau describes a fish on Walden as: “possessing a quite dazzling and transcendent beauty. . .not green like the pines, nor gray like the stones, nor blue like the sky; but they have, to my eyes, if possible, yet rarer colors, like flowers and precious stones, as if they were the pearls, the animalized nuclei or crystals of the Walden water. They, of course, are Walden all over and all through; are themselves small Waldens in the animal kingdom. . .”
Everything about Thoreau is epic. His literature is epic. His pond is epic. Therefore, it is only natural that his fish descriptions are also larger-than-life.
The fish so effusively described here, these small Waldens, are what the modern angler would know, but likely not recognize, as chain pickeral. They are a blast to catch, but are they also transcendently beautiful? Sometimes, fish beauty is only in the eyes of the fish holder.
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Somewhere in the Gulfstream, 1936: In an article for Esquire, Hemingway reported of an exhausting, two days-long fight to land a giant blue marlin. Not surprisingly, by the time the fish had finally been defeated and was nearing the boat, it was consumed by circling sharks.
Perhaps no person in history had his picture taken with more large dead fish than Hemingway. This is certainly strong evidence against the author fabricating the report, which would later be fictionalized in Hemingway’s Nobel Prize-winning novella, The Old Man in the Sea.
Furthermore, it was around this time that Hemingway began to carry a machine gun on his fishing trips in order to defend his catch from sharks.
For someone who famously disavowed utilizing a fighting harness to land a fish, it may seem contradictory to use a machine gun to aid in bringing a catch into the boat. Yet Hemingway once shot himself in the leg trying to fend off a circling shark, which may possibly be the most sporting gesture anyone has ever offered to a fish on the line.
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Undisclosed location, 2017: A fishing guide poles his skiff ever closer to a tailing redfish, it’s nose buried deep in the flooded spartina grass. An angler crouches low atop the casting platform of the skiff’s bow, fly rod pushed ahead like a thin spear.
The angler’s heart pounds like a kick drum, sending burning pulses into his eardrums. Having already missed two casts at the fish– one far too long for his skillset, an attempt he was advised against making; another within his range, but woefully inaccurate– this man faces down far more than a fish.
The angler knows at this range the guide could accurately serve the fish a fly from his position at the stern’s polling platform. The anxiety that builds in anticipation of the next cast informs the man that his dignity is now on the line coiled loosely between his bare feet.
“Just slam it down, he’s right in front of you,” the guide implores in a harsh whisper. The angler reacts without seeing his target, whipping the fly line smack-dab across the fish’s nose.
“He gone,” laments the guide as both men stare at an impossibly big wake trail left behind by the spooked fish.
A wave of embarrassment and agony washes over the lonely man in the front of the boat. It is a moment of dead silence.
Suddenly, the butt of the rod nearly leaps from his hand. A call from the governor of sorts.
“Set it!” shouted the guide.
“Fish on!” shrieks the marsh warrior, as line screams off the reel in mists of salty dew. “Please, please stay on,” he prays to himself.
Minutes later, the fish is pulled tail first into the boat. The two men make an awkward, adrenaline-spiked attempt at a high five.
“Want a picture?” asks the captain.
“Oh, yes! My buddies will never believe the size of this one.”
“All right, sit on the platform,” said the guide-turned-photographer, gently handing the fish over, which his proud client received like a first-time Oscar winner.
What follows is a set of instructions sufficiently detailed to warrant a manual. “Hold it out from your body. . . not too far. . .turn its head away from you a bit. . .fingers under the fish. . .
“She’s a beaut, but this is how you make her look really big.”
Hashtag Catch22 (or was it 23?)
If anglers with a fish story but no picture are not to be trusted, but those with pictures can’t be trusted to refrain from meticulous framing and editing, are all anglers to be considered suspect of telling the truth?
It’s an SAT question straight out of my nightmares. Perhaps, the greatest fishing conundrum of our time. . .
Are all fishermen born liars? Or, like Thoreau, do we see so much beauty in the pursuit of our passions that we frame our storytelling and pictures in glorious ways that optimize the oral and visual representation of our shared experience on the water?
I’m going with the latter and I hope you will, too. Time to call at tommyboyfishninja and show him some love.