I Can Explain

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Two five-pointers.

It’s a guy thing. We turn everything into a no-holds-barred, winner-take-all affair. Even our favorite pastimes become competitions. We demand winners and losers. Except when we are one of the losers. Then, we demand explanations.

Take, for example, our annual trip to Lake Champlain. Every year, we spend the last week in June fishing from a base in North Hero, Vt. You’d be hard pressed to find a better place to experience the joys of fishing. There are dozens of catchable species: everything from northern pike to bass, to trout to more exotic fish like bowfin and sheepshead. Bass exceeding three pounds are common, and fifty-fish-catch days are generally limited only by how long you break for lunch. In the last two years alone, we have landed at least four fish that qualified for Vermont’s trophy fish program.

Sounds awesome, right? If you’re a group of guys that enjoy fishing and each other’s company, what more could you want? The answer, of course, is the right to claim superiority over your buddies. So, years ago, before anyone made a single cast, we decided the trip should double as a tournament. It would be more fun, and more interesting, the thinking went, if we competed for bragging rights.

The first order of business was to agree on a set of rules. This took a good deal of thought and negotiation. We needed something that contemplated: 1) the wide variety of species that Lake Champlain has to offer; 2) the relative scarcity/difficulty in catching each species; 3) the real and perceived strengths, weaknesses and preferences of each fisherman (Dave believes, for example, that panfish are unworthy of tournament status, while I’m happy to target them all day long); and 4) the unspoken desire to have something to argue about.

The result was a detailed, but sufficiently ambiguous, point system with as many as 20 categories, including: catfish-10 points; smallmouth bass-5 points; largemouth bass-3 points; panfish, other than listed-1 point; sea lamprey-25 points; sea lamprey, when attached to another fish-50 points; and other-10 points. Every year, on the drive to North Hero, we review, modify and reapprove the rules. And yet, we always have some controversy to resolve, which we do by majority vote of the participants. Some examples:

*Does a foul-hooked fish count? This mattered because the fish in question was the largest bass caught and, therefore, worth 10 bonus points. Dave, who landed the bass with his hook imbedded in its side, argued it should count. I, who had the second largest bass, argued it should not. Ruling: look to the relevant state fishing regulations. In Vermont, it turns out, you can keep a foul-hooked fish, so long as you didn’t snag it intentionally. Dave won the tournament that year by seven points.

**Does a freshwater clam count? Now, before you go saying “of course not, it’s a fishing tournament and clams aren’t fish,” let me repeat the arguments I made at the time. First, the rule says “other,” not “other fish.” Second, clams are a type of shellfish. And finally, on a previous trip (during an especially slow period of fishing), we had decided that, although no one had ever caught one, turtles would count as “other.” If turtles count, why wouldn’t clams? Ruling: although there was some sympathy for my arguments, it was determined, on a split vote, that clams don’t count. I lost that year, to Dave, by eight points.

The clam that didn’t count. Submitted photos

***Do bullheads count as “catfish” or “panfish?” This was mostly an academic question; we have never caught a bullhead at Lake Champlain. I posed it because I wanted Dave to worry about me targeting them. Under the right conditions, you can catch a lot of bullheads in a short amount of time. Ruling: nothing for Dave to worry about. While, scientifically, bullheads are part of the catfish family, most states, including Vermont, treat them as panfish for purposes of determining how many you can keep. With me dissenting, we voted to count them as panfish. As a result, I lost both an opportunity to close a substantial point gap and to get under Dave’s skin. Dave won that year by 12.

****If you catch a sea lamprey attached to another fish, do you get points for both fish? This was also mostly academic because sea lampreys are not generally known to inhabit the areas where we fish. But one year we noticed a number of bass and pike scarred with perfectly circular bite marks, and we knew we better clarify the rule. Sea lampreys are bizarre. They are long, eel-shaped and have dozens of sharp, horned teeth, arranged in concentric circles inside a suction-cup mouth. They attach themselves to a host fish, carve a hole in it with their tongues, and slowly eat it alive, feeding on its blood and bodily fluids. They are well worth the points assigned to them. But what if, heaven forbid, Dave caught one attached to a smallmouth bass and I one attached to a largemouth? Ruling: both fish count. So, even in my hypothetical, I lost. Dave’s sea lamprey would beat mine, 55-53.

I think you see where I’m going with this. Four interpretations, four rulings that favored Dave’s position. It’s no wonder Dave has won more tournaments than me. He’s better at swaying votes. What other explanation can there be?