During a recent conversation with a guy who is not a fisherman, I mentioned that I’d been fishing the morning prior and had caught a couple of small 15- to 18-inch snook. He replied with, “I read your columns sometimes and I have a question. You seem to be disappointed that those snook were so small, but in your columns you seem really happy when you catch an 8-inch bluegill. How can an 18-inch fish be small while an 8-inch fish is large? I think that’s kind of funny.”
Naturally, my first reaction was to bow up, get all indignant and launch into a self-righteous dissertation on the finer points of fishing. But the reality is that he was asking a really good question. His question concerns a point that might indeed be hard for a non-fisherman to understand. And even some experienced fishermen can struggle with it too.
On my first-ever trip to Alaska, I stayed with several other guys at a lodge on the Kenai River — a truly famous fishing destination. We had a choice while fishing there: We could stand on the bank right there at the lodge and stay busy catching lots of sockeye salmon in the 5- to 10-pound range, or we could go out in a small boat and fish for king salmon that weren’t as numerous but which were a lot bigger, in the 30- to 60-pound range.
My choice was to do both. I’d go king salmon fishing when the boat was available but spend hours on the bank catching sockeyes in between king salmon trips. You would think that no one could imagine a better setup for serious fishing, but then I heard a story about a somewhat remote stream up in the mountains where rainbow trout could be caught.
I managed to borrow a beater pickup truck for a day, stopped in town at a fly shop and bought a 5-weight Orvis travel fly rod, a reel, line, backing, leaders and an assortment of flies that the guys in the shop selected and then headed for this stream two hours away. I had a great day wading around up there. Once I got it figured out, I caught three or four rainbow trout about a foot long and broke off a few larger fish in the swift-moving water.
When I returned to the lodge, I was stoked. Part of the ritual at the lodge was to sit around a campfire in the evening and share stories about the day’s fishing while having drinks. I couldn’t wait to tell my stay-back-at-the-lodge buddies about the great adventure that they’d missed. I launched into my tale about catching the trout, but didn’t get the reaction I was expecting. It was actually kind of quiet when I finished.
Then one of the guys, a lifelong fisherman, finally said: “Did you really spend over $500 on a rod and drive two hours away from this great salmon fishing to catch a few foot-long trout, or are you making this up?” He was serious. And if you think about it, he was asking just about the same question as the guy who was was asking about snook and bluegill.
Why do tarpon guys get pissy when they hook a 100-pound shark, but shark guys fuss about it when they have to waste time with a 100-pound tarpon? Why does a guy who’s out stalking overslot redfish hate it when a 10-pound jack eats his redfish bait? That jack will pull harder, run faster and fight longer than a 10-pound redfish, and they’re both going to be released anyway. And how can a guy who has caught numerous large fish, including many weighing hundreds of pounds, ever enjoy catching panfish?
Really, the question is, “What makes a fish a desirable catch?” If we’re fishing strictly to put food on the table, the answer is fairly straightforward: The fish has to taste good and it has to be big enough to supply a reasonable amount of meat. Not many people target jacks or tarpon or bonita for their table quality, though all these fish are edible. Different people have remarkably variant tastes and widely differing opinions about which fish taste the best. Snook, grouper, snapper, sheepshead, triggerfish, walleye, striped bass and a host of other species are all someone’s favorite eating fish.
When we’re catch-and-release fishing, the judgment about what fish is desirable becomes much more subjective than when we’re fishing for groceries. Different factors come into play. If a fish is rare or particularly difficult to hook, then the angler’s attention might be so focused on besting that particular fish that catching anything else is secondary or unwanted.
And sometimes we simply take what we can get. If you’re fishing in a location where a one-pound fish is a big one, then you might be happy to have caught it — even though that same fish might be too small for bait on your next trip someplace else.
But I think this is the bottom line: Grocery trips aside, we mostly go fishing for fun. And different people are entertained by different things. It’s possible for people to have just as much fun catching palm-sized bluegill as it is when catching snook weighing in double digits or when tugging on triple-digit tarpon. Some anglers enjoy all of the above, but some don’t. Each to his own — and that’s OK.
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.