When I was a boy fishing the streams of Alabama the most renowned fisherman in our parts was a runty little man named Justin Wiggins. The only fish Justin considered worth catching were catfish; not just any old catfish, but the evil-tempered and battle-scarred creatures, locally called channel cats, that had staked out squatters' rights to potholes in the bottoms of most local rivers. The biggest of these cats ranged in size from 25 to 50 pounds, and on some nights, especially when there was no moon and the river was running fast and muddy, Justin Wiggins would haul in three or four.
Since Justin was too scrawny to stand up to a good-size Dominecker rooster in a fair fight, most people couldn't understand how he landed such monstrous cats until they examined his tackle. Justin used an old pool cue for a pole, a length of thin steel cable for a line and an enormous hook which he had hammered out of a section of brake rod from a Model T Ford. But the most important piece of equipment was Justin's own invention, and he was immensely proud of it. It was a four-foot-long shock absorber which he had made by braiding together broad rubber strips cut from an old inner tube and had fastened between his pole and line. When a cat struck, all Justin had to do was brace himself, hold on grimly, and let the cat beat itself to a frazzle with its own angry lunges against the elastic line.
One dark night Justin managed to become a local legend. He was drifting along the Black Warrior River in his small skiff when he hooked into a catfish that measured 5 feet 8 inches from the tip of its ugly bruised snout to the end of its lashing tail, weighed a shade under 190 pounds and possessed a temper which was all out of proportion even to its frightening size. It became the most epic battle to roil southern waters since the Merrimac tangled with the Monitor. All night long Justin and the enraged fish catapulted each other up and down and back and forth across a three-or four-mile stretch of river, menacing shipping and terrorizing dozens of innocent citizens who were out fishing, frog gigging or transporting illicit corn squeezings from local stills. One shaken native who was trapped in the line of fire told me about it later. "They slingshotted pas' me twicet afore I could even git mah anchor up."
Nobody knows how long the battle might have lasted if, at about mid-morning the next day, the catfish had not plowed into a mud bank. There it wallowed about fiercely for a couple of hours more before it finally choked to death on silt and, probably, indignation.
August 21, 1960
Justin by that time was an exhausted and spiritless man. When rescuers reached him and helped heave his mammoth prize into the boat, he looked at it a moment and then sadly turned his face away. "Hit's ruint mah life, boys," he said. "Nuthin' no smaller ain't never goin' t' please me—an' I jest ain't man enough t' hol' onto nuthin' bigger."
For years I thought this story merely funny, but now that I myself am a hopelessly confirmed fisherman, venturing into the shoals of middle age, I like to use the ordeal of Justin Wiggins to point out one of the historic fallacies of fishing. Although man has been fishing since the Euphrates was young, and over the centuries philosophers have worn their pens to nubs extolling their sport as promoting reflective contentment, fishermen are, in fact, a peculiarly discontented breed. Good fishermen are never satisfied. It is the only sport I know in which perfection breeds boredom. If a man fishes long enough, sooner or later, whether he likes it or not, his methods of fishing, his outlook toward fishing and, usually, his whole purpose in fishing will undergo more change than even his hairline or waistline.
More often than not the introduction of new equipment will cause the average fisherman to change his way of fishing. Ever since that far-off time when his forebears stampeded to exchange their gorges for new-fangled fishhooks, the fisherman has been a sucker for gadgets. Show me a dedicated fisherman and I will show you a man with the well-honed hoarding instincts of a pack rat. He doesn't seem to be aware of it, but in the short time since World War II the widespread use of the outboard motor and, more recently, the popularity of the spinning rod have almost completely revolutionized the habits of the weekend fisherman. The lofty fly-fisherman considers himself immune to these proletarian changes, of course. He simply struggles into a canvas-and-rubber costume that costs a minimum of, say, $75, drapes himself with accessories that cost almost as much, firmly grasps his mass-produced, customized $49.95 reinforced fiber-glass rod and ventures forth to commune with nature and practice his ancient art.
Money has a powerful influence on a man's fishing habits. I know a rising young Arizona contractor, for example, who was a cane-pole fisherman until he made enough money to give deep-sea fishing a whirl. He boated a marlin on his first trip, and now he flies out of Phoenix every weekend to fish off either Mexico or southern California. It costs him a small fortune but he doesn't seem to mind. In fact, he plans to go to New Zealand on his vacation to try for a black marlin.
Money, however, does not promote restlessness in a fisherman; it only permits him to indulge it. Without money, he still will find a way. I had an uncle, an accomplished bass killer, who was considered a sensible man until one day he happened to hook a sun perch about the size of a pocket watch. This set him off on a quest to see how small a fish he could catch on a rod and reel. He used the tip of a fly rod for a rod at first, but when this proved to be too big he began to make his own equipment. Finally, after more than a year, he was using a rod made from a shellacked stalk of Jimson weed, a reel made from the cogs of an ordinary casting reel, silk sewing thread for a line and a hook made from a piece of wire taken from a window screen. With this miniature tackle he finally snared a transparent top minnow about the size of his fingernail. This satisfied him. He had the minnow and his tackle mounted on a plaque and rejoined sane society.
At the other extreme there is the case of Roy Martin, the well-known angler and fish authority of Panama City, Fla. Martin has set half a dozen international fishing records for various species of fish with various types of line. Among his more commonplace feats is his ability to land jewfish weighing up to 200 pounds while fishing from bridges. A few years ago Martin established another record for pure audacity. He harpooned a 45-foot whale shark that weighed about 25,000 pounds and attached the line to his rod and reel. Martin fought the fish for seven hours and was firmly determined to fight it out to a finish. Unfortunately, it grew dark; the boat from which Martin was fishing had been dragged miles from shore. Its owner grew afraid that the shark might turn and sink it. Reluctantly, under pressure, Martin finally cut the line. This experience has not dampened Martin's enthusiasm, and it seems safe to assume that the world will be hearing from him again.
Only people who don't fish are surprised to learn that dedicated fishermen are more apt to lay their rods aside when there is a surfeit of fish than when there are no fish at all. This is not a common occurrence, but it's not altogether rare either. In Florida at the moment there is a growing cult of fish watchers, ex-anglers who simply have grown tired of hauling fish out of the water but who like to observe them. Philip Wylie, the author, is a fish watcher. He maintains that it is much more exhilarating to observe and learn about the submarine world than to catch samples of it with a hook (SI, Aug. 1, 1955). Wylie, of course, is almost as skilled at fishing as he is at writing, and I don't pretend to know more than he or his fellow fish watchers when I point out that they probably really would not rather watch fish than catch them. More likely, Florida's teeming waters just simply don't challenge them any more. They probably will recover and go back to fishing when they encounter a place where fish are more difficult to catch.
Fishermen frequently also grow too skilled for their environment. At the present time I am watching with much sympathy the plight of a friend of mine, a writer, who consistently over a 10-year period killed more trout in Connecticut water than anyone I knew. Suddenly, two seasons ago, my friend changed his tactics completely. If trout showed a tendency to rise to the fly he offered, he would change to one which seemed deliberately calculated to drive them away. He managed to get through last season landing only three trout, obviously myopic ones. He hasn't caught any this year, and I don't think he will, for he is tying his own flies and making them in such outlandish sizes that I doubt if they would tempt a starving barracuda. He probably could be restored to normal health by a spot of fishing in Canada or one of the western states, though of course I wouldn't dare suggest this. But I do know he loves fishing too much to abandon it altogether, and since Connecticut's streams aren't conducive to fish watching, the worst that can happen is that he will become an Intellectual Fisherman.
An Intellectual Fisherman, as most people know, is a fisherman who doesn't necessarily associate fishing with catching fish. He is usually a dreamy, oftentimes poetic gentleman, but the keenness of his memory is astonishing and he can recall every last detail of the fight he has had with even the smallest fish. Those gentlemen have enriched literature with whole shelves of slim volumes proving that it is gauche to think that success in fishing comes from catching fish. Intellectual Fishermen prefer to catch fish the hard way when they catch them at all, using anything for a lure which might be normally expected to frighten an ordinary fish away. It is a harmless fancy and does no one any damage, least of all fish, so it is unkind not to bear with them. The only real disservice of which Intellectual Fishermen are guilty is promoting the canard that fish are man's mental equal. For an Intellectual Fisherman must always pretend that he outwits the fish he catches, usually after months, and sometimes years, of devising a clever campaign. Since fish are among the most stupid of all vertebrates, operating almost wholly on instinct and reflexes, and since any chuckle-headed farm boy knows that they strike only when they are hungry, curious or annoyed, it is difficult to understand how Intellectual Fishermen can perpetuate the myth that they must be outwitted. But they do.
An Intellectual Fisherman should not be confused with a Philosophical Fisherman. They are different types altogether. The Philosophical Fisherman has almost disappeared from the American scene, probably because we have grown accustomed to leisure in this country. If a man feels like lying on a creek bank and pulling his hat over his eyes and going to sleep, or simply lying there thinking his own long thoughts, he doesn't need an excuse. Thoreau described a Philosophical Fisherman perfectly when he wrote of an old man he remembered from his childhood: "His fishing was not a sport, nor solely a means of subsistence, but a sort of solemn sacrament and withdrawal from the world, just as the aged read their Bibles."
My own grandfather, bless him, was a Philosophical Fisherman and was well on the way to brainwashing me into becoming one until a three-pound black bass, obviously bent on suicide, impaled itself on my hook when I was 6 years old. My grandfather probably became a Philosophical Fisherman because he had nine children and his stern and dutiful Methodist conscience wouldn't allow him simply to leave the house to seek some peace and quiet when they became noisy. Instead he equipped himself with a couple of cane poles and started fishing. The poles were warped and brittle and cracked at the joints by the time I came along. Grandfather never took his own children fishing, but he didn't seem to mind having me along, probably because I was an impressionable child and believed him implicitly when he warned that if I didn't sit stone-still, not talking, not even breathing too hard, there was not the slightest chance of a fish coming near.
I had from the beginning a vague feeling something was peculiar about my grandfather's fishing. Other people who went to the same little lake sometimes caught sun perch or even a bass or two. We never caught a fish and one day I thought I spotted the cause. My grandfather used enormous hooks, big enough to gag a tarpon, and for some reason he used biscuit dough for bait.
"I believe our hooks are too big, Grandfather," I said.
Grandfather looked at me reproachfully. "If a fish isn't big enough to swallow them," he said, "then it's not big enough to bother with."
My grandfather fished for 50 years, established a firm reputation as an enthusiastic fisherman with his family, neighbors and co-workers, but as far as I can determine, caught only two fish.
Although they are not going to like the classification, most fishermen are Meat Fishermen. I am a Meat Fisherman and proud of it. For being a Meat Fisherman does not mean that a man wantonly destroys fish, fishes for profit, or even necessarily eats his fish or confines his angling to those that are good to eat. It simply means that his primary purpose in fishing is to catch fish, which has always seemed to me to be as pleasurable a goal as it is a sensible one. No one can deny that there is a certain pleasure to be derived even from attempting to catch fish but, learned commentaries notwithstanding, the greatest thrill in fishing comes when a man succeeds. It is a mistake to assume that Meat Fishermen do not like to catch fish the hard way. Most fishing records are held by Meat Fishermen, because landing a fish is the only goal they consider worthwhile. Meat Fishermen usually are the best fishermen, for they are not taken in by the nonsense that fish have to be outwitted, although they realize that fish have to be catered to.
To be a truly happy Meat Fisherman, of course, one must find a place where there are plenty of fish. I was lucky enough to establish a record of sorts in this respect some seven years ago when my wife and I, looking for an isolated spot where I could finish a novel, took a house at Punta Rassa, Fla. Although we didn't know it at the time, this tiny little community on the west coast of Florida, at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, is surrounded by some of the finest fishing waters in the U.S.
Punta Rassa was for centuries the site of an Indian village; the Spanish established a fishery there in the 16th century, but contemporary history has since bypassed the place. It had its first short fling back in the 1850s when millionaire anglers flocked there from all parts of the country to stay at a sportsmen's hotel, the Tarpon House. Punta Rassa had, and still has, probably more tarpon per cubic foot of water than any place on earth.
Punta Rassa remained a sportsmen's paradise until well into this century. When the old Tarpon House burned in 1906 it was replaced by a new and grander one, but in 1913 that one, too, was destroyed by fire. After that, for some unaccountable reason, Punta Rassa's famed fishing waters seem to have been forgotten.
Punta Rassa is the finest place to fish I have ever known. I recently decided to keep a tally on the fish I encountered between 3 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. I had the joy of hooking into and fighting—but not landing—two large tarpon, of catching a 12-pound snook, two trout weighing slightly more than three pounds each, nine amberjacks and one flounder, hooking into one shark (size unknown, but obviously too large to hold on a six-pound test line, so I promptly sacrificed a leader) and laboriously landing a 40-pound ray. In addition, I had to duck on two occasions when schools of skittish pompano, frightened by my boat, showered around me. One little half-pounder struck me in the back and fell into the boat.
Except for the tarpon I hooked while trolling and using medium-weight tarpon tackle, all these fish were caught on a light spinning rod, six-pound test line and a No. 3 spoon. As the mixed bag indicates, I was moving about a great deal, trying to see what a variety of fish I could raise. I caught the snook cruising off an oyster bar, the rest while drifting over grass flats. Punta Rassa is pure heaven for a Meat Fisherman.
Not so long ago I was standing near the ferry slip at Punta Rassa, counting the snook lined up in the shade of the pilings like submarine formations, when a family that looked as if it had been dreamed up by Norman Rockwell arrived in a car with New Hampshire license plates. The mother and the father and a small boy of about 12 piled out with spinning rods and began casting at the foot of the slip while they waited for a ferry. After a while the boy wandered over near where I was standing. Like too many spinners, he had learned the technique of casting without really understanding what a lure was supposed to do. He obviously had the notion that getting it out and back was all there is to fishing.
Finally I said, "What are you trying to catch, son?"
"Anything," he said.
"I know where some fish are," I said, "but they'll break that gut leader for sure. You need a wire leader when you fish around pilings."
"This is more sporting," he said, obviously parroting someone who didn't know how to fish either.
I pointed to the opening between the first two pilings of the ferry slip. "See if you can put your spoon under there."
Almost immediately after the boy's cast I saw that tight and swift little swirl of water a snook makes when he takes something and heads away.
"Watch yourself," I warned. But the boy already was receiving the message. His rod was clutched tightly in both hands and his reel was whining softly as the line spun off. "Reel in," I said. The boy was frozen, mouth agape in wonder and awe. "Hey," he said, in protest.
"Your reel—wind your reel," I said.
"Hey," he said again, in that awed tone of protest.
I reached to help him but it already was too late. "Hey!" he shouted one more time. But the snook had wrapped the line around the piling as neatly as a butcher ties up a chop. It gave one lunge and the line parted.
I heard the boy talking to his mother later. "It was this long," he kept saying excitedly, holding his arms at full length. I don't know whether he'll make a fisherman or not, but he helped prove a point for me. Even an idiot child can hook fish in Punta Rassa.