Notable Quotables

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My best fishing buddies also happen to be my closest friends. We’ve known each other for years and are comfortable sharing our innermost thoughts. About fishing, I mean.

There’s nothing like spending lots of sunburned, fishless hours together on a boat to get a group of guys to really open up.

Consequently, we say some pretty funny and entertaining things. Someday, I hope to have enough material to write about our quips, but an article is slow in the making. Mostly for two reasons: first, I’m not very good at timely recording what gets said; and second, most of it is not fit for general audiences.

Plus, entertaining quips aside, we rarely say anything of literary value. Which is why, a few years back, I bought the book The Quotable Fisherman. I figured that, while I’m collecting enough quotes from my group to withstand the sensibilities of the Drummer editors, I would borrow a few from more esteemed sources.

What follows are several quotations I took from The Quotable Fisherman, with some commentary on how they relate to my own experiences.

“Every day I see the head of the largest trout I ever hooked, but did not land.” Theodore Gordon (1914)

Mr. Gordon is, of course, talking about the “one that got away,” and about how we spend so much more time contemplating the fish we lost than the ones we have actually caught. I suspect his point is this: a great deal of the joy of fishing comes from having no choice but to use our imagination about what’s out there and how close we came to catching it.

This is ultimately true, but in my experience, it takes some time to formulate such poetic thoughts. In the group that I fish with, the initial reaction is usually a profanity-laced tirade, followed by slump-shouldered silence, and completed by the “Laying of The Blame.”

Here is a recent text exchange between me and two buddies that illustrates what I’m talking about.

Mark (from a local lake): “I had a BIG ONE hooked. Peeled off some line before he broke it. Line broke inside the [closed-faced] reel, so I think that nasty, percent#2*–* percent$ cottonwood pollen got me. I need to change the line.”

Dave #1: “That’s terrible. It’s the ones you miss that you’ll remember.”

Dave #2: “To your point…last year on a charter I battled a fish for 20 minutes only to have the mate tighten my drag and the line immediately snapped. That fish still haunts me.”

Mark: “Lawsuit!”

Dave #2: “Right?”

Mark: “Are you suffering mental pain and anguish?”

Dave #2: “Yes, indeed.”

Mark: “Besides the normal, I mean.”

There was no further comment from either Dave #1 or Dave #2. That could be for any number of reasons, including that I left no room for intelligent retort, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume each was lost in his own thoughts about other fish that got away.

“Fishermen are born honest, but they get over it.” Ed Zern (1945)

I’m sure Mr. Zern meant to add: “especially fishermen who try to write about their experiences.”

Have I ever been dishonest about fishing? I guess it depends on how you define “honesty.” Does providing an educated guess to fill in an unknown detail count? Like, when I say, “based on my experience, the bass that broke my line was well over six pounds.”

Or how about a good faith effort to make a story more interesting without knowingly making a false statement. Compare the following two versions and I think you’ll see what I’m getting at.

1. “I’m not sure how long I fought that fish, but it seemed like a long time.”

2. “Back and forth the fish went, taking and giving line. The battle was epic. How much time elapsed, I could not say, but in the end, I had only hopelessly stretched line and aching arms to show for it.”

Embellishment, I’m sure you will agree, is different than dishonesty. But there’s definitely a line you can cross. To wit (I’ve got to stop reading books like The Quotable Fisherman), I recently asked a man who was sitting in his boat at the dock after a long day of fishing: “How did you do today?”

His response:

“Not well, but I did avoid losing one of my best rods. This one here. I was sorta daydreaming when a fish hit my line so hard it jerked the rod out of my hand. It went sailing into the water, and before I could grab it, the fish pulled it under. I thought it was a goner. But then a remarkable thing happened. The fish jumped out of the water, bringing my rod with it. He was close enough to the boat that I was able to get a hold of the rod before he went under again.”

“Did you land the fish,” I asked.

“Nope, the fish got away.”

That’s where I think the man crossed the line. Not, in his case, by embellishing, but rather, by failing to embellish. I might have actually believed a story in which he both got his rod back and (at least) fought an epic battle with the fish before he failed to land it.

“When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad I’m better.” Mae West (1933)

Mae West was right. Sometimes bad is better. Photo by Mark Fiorentino

Okay. You got me. This quote isn’t in the book. And I’m pretty sure Ms. West wasn’t talking about fishing.

But she could have been. You can absolutely catch more fish by being good. That is, by practicing and by obtaining and learning how to use the right tackle in the right conditions.

Take, for example, a recent success I had while fishing a favorite section of the Farmington River. I was using a “rising crankbait,” a lure designed to wobble when you retrieve it and to rise in the water column, nose down, when you pause. It’s supposed to simulate baitfish struggling to swim into the current.

It works best when you time your pause so that the lure rises right in front of where you expect fish to be. In rivers, especially during the summer, that is often on the upstream side of rocks. The rocks create a break in the flow that predators use to conserve energy as they wait to ambush their prey.

Even though I have used this particular lure a lot, it took me three casts to get the line at the right angle above the rock, and two more to properly time my pause. “Being good” worked. On that fifth cast, a feisty smallmouth darted out and took the lure.

But “being bad” can also lead to remarkable results. Some of my most memorable fish were caught despite me doing every conceivable thing wrong. Case in point: an eighteen-inch largemouth bass I caught a few years ago.

Fishing was extremely slow, and I was bored. I switched from my typical bass lures to a thin wire hook. Hoping to catch a few bluegills to break the monotony, I baited the hook with a tiny nub of worm. No self-respecting bass would give the nub a second look, and even if one did, the wire hook would surely bend open under the pressure of any fish of even marginal size. In short, I was utterly unprepared for a bass to strike.

In fact, I was unprepared to hook any fish. Even the bluegills weren’t biting, so I had set my pole down to grab a snack. When it doubled over, I thought I had snagged something on the bottom. I grabbed the rod with one hand and yanked, hoping to break free from the snag without having to set down my snack. Oddly, there was some slight give in the line, then a slight tug.

“Hmm,” I thought, “not a snag.”

Anxious to get my first bluegill on board, I proceeded to do precisely what you shouldn’t do when you you’ve hooked a big fish, especially on light tackle like a thin wire hook: I dropped my snack and reeled furiously.

Then, the coup de grace. Even when I got the fish close enough to see that it was a large bass, I did the inexplicable. Rather than landing it in the net, I hoisted it, wire hook and all, over the railing.

Short of immediately cutting the line when I thought it was snagged, I could not have done a better job of being bad. And yet, at my feet lay one of my top ten bass of all time.

So, yeah, if they ever publish a second volume to The Quotable Fisherman, I think Mae West ought to be in it.