Skip to main content

It’s the fish we lose, not the fish we catch

The fish is there — it’s there! — and you just know it’s a good one. Maybe the best you’ve ever seen. You’ve finally put the brakes on what your gut tells you must be its last-ditch run. You’ve got her head turned; you’re gaining line, cranking slowly, babying the fish toward the boat. You’re extra-careful not to pump or otherwise jostle the rod and accidentally whip enough slack into the line that the hook simply falls out of a growing hole in the cartilage behind the jaw hinge.

You hear the knot that links topshot to running line — the 50-foot mark — tick softly over seven guides, then spot it on the spool. You shoot your deckmate the plaintive look that serves as your nonverbal call for the gaff, and note he’s already standing by with it, peering down into the murky water in search of the first blaze of color in the deep.

Gotta be close, you mutter. He nods.

You try not to speak at such moments, fearing the possibility of a jinx. You’ve got a couple of turns of mono on the spool now, and the fish starts thumping again. Must’ve seen the boat. Your steady progress stops cold as she drags your rod tip straight down again and your stomach somersaults up into the back of your throat. You’re just starting to panic about the drag setting as the line starts heading the wrong way and the splice you’d been so relieved to put back on the reel clicks back out through the composite guide-liners.

You know better than to start monkeying with the drag so late in the game. Just hang on and ride out the tantrum below. She’s still taking line, but not the way she was. A few more feet of line exits the rod, and she stops.

And then it happens. The unthinkable. Possibly the worst thing that has ever befallen mankind.

The line is dead.

You crank feverishly, hoping against all logic, reason or experience that she’s just decided to charge the boat. You’ll close that distance and everything will be fine. Really, though, you already know. Limp monofilament coils its way off the rod tip like a thin-gauge phone cord connecting you to the water. It’s over.

Your jaw hangs slack, legs wobble, and your lizard brain mines the archives for the right words. It wants a couple of prescription-grade expletives, words so vile you’d need permits and protective eyewear to utter them. Your deckmate hums nervously to break the 20,000-pound silence.

I’ve lost quite a few like that: a big yellowfin years ago in Veatch Canyon, striped bass and tautog I flat-out could not stop — some that dove into jagged stones despite my best efforts to the contrary, others that simply fell off after protracted stand-offs — monster fluke that dumped hooks a rod’s length too deep or performed wild evasive maneuvers when landing-net meshes appeared dead-ahead.

My preference, I think, is for the occasions when it all unravels quickly, at a good distance. Better to be put out of my misery fast than to twist in the freshening breeze for 10 minutes, see a fish three times before fate, hubris or my own ineptitude intervenes with unforgettable results. The worst have been close-range ordeals with fish I’ve been tethered to long enough that I’ve begun to rough out the acceptance speech I’ll deliver after the ticker-tape parade.

I’ve seen more than a few tournament crews lined up across the transoms of big sportfishermen, collectively looking like some “victim’s family” photo in a local newspaper — the image of that fateful split second when the $3 hook exited the six-figure bigeye now a permanent fixture in each man’s skull.

Honestly, when I start to run through all the milestone catches I’ve witnessed over 30-plus years, it always amazes me just how much detail has faded out of those fishing victories I swore I’d never forget. Timelines, weights, measurements, the way my 50-and-change bass looked when I ejected her from the net onto the deck, the rig I was using the day I cracked 12 pounds fluke fishing. So much has bled together — or bled right out. For me, it’s not the good fish I’ve landed, but the good fish I’ve lost that have held their charge, their color, their sharpness over the long haul, though that’s probably the case with so many of the things that might have been in any life, a testament to the power of our capacity to doubt.

Was it a knot? Did I sock that drag up too tight, lean too hard on the fish? Did I even get a good hook-set on that fish, or did I lose it because I never really had it in the first place? Perhaps different boat-handling would have changed the outcome — or a different rod. Was that hook too small? It’s endless, the second-guessing over fish we never land.

Then again, it’s the eternal possibility of losing fish — the gamble of it all — that holds most of the adrenaline, most of the challenge, most of the intrigue we find chasing fish with rod and reel. And it’s the battles we do not win that keep pulling us down to the docks and clear of the inlet jetties.

Zach Harvey is fishing editor for Soundings.

November 2014 issue