On maybe my 5th time fishing in Florida, I hooked something hot. This fish tore off line and streaked off to my left, tearing line through the surface as it went. Just as it accelerated even more, it got off. After catching several lizardfish and other smaller fish, it was a wakeup. Even my snook hadn’t pulled with that kind of intensity. So what was it? I thought for several days that it was a super aggressive jack crevalle. It was a few more days until I hooked another fish that felt like that. The fish had that eager, panicked pull as it drove straight away from me. On maybe its third super fast surge the fish cleared the surface, jumping several feet into the air. It made another run and did it again. In all the fish jumped four times. It looked like a baby tarpon, but thinner. After several more runs I brought the fish in, and the back of my mind recognized it as a ladyfish, and my first. I had kind of forgotten about them. I was quite impressed with how that fish had fought. I took a photo, released it and noticed that my tippet had been severely abraided near the hook, just as with a snook. I cut off a few inches of tippet, re-tied and started fishing. I caught two more ladyfish that fought about the same before I called it. Well, that’s a pretty quality fish, I thought. Through various discussions, social media comments, and my own sneaking suspicion, I soon came to realize that ladyfish aren’t exactly held in high esteem amongst the Florida fishing crowd. When lines come tight, and ladyfish breach the surface, there is often a sigh of disappointment. But why is that? I’ve wondered for years why an aggressive, hard-fighting fish could ever be looked upon as a “trash fish.” If you put one of those leaping ladyfish in any trout stream and put a trout face mask on them, people would lose their minds. But ladyfish aren’t the only fish I’ve encountered that don’t get much respect. To varying degrees, the dolley varden, chum salmon, and even the jack crevalle don’t get the respect they deserve. But there are many more. Why some fish, like the permit and the steelhead, are held in maximum esteem, while other perfectly good fish are treated like chopped liver? In my opinion, so much of it has to do with societal norms.
Humans are extremely social animals. We take the opinions of others very seriously, and are influenced by those around us more than most of us realize. Various social psychological experiments have documented our susceptibility to peer pressure. I believe that this trait accounts for a significant percentage of our opinions on less than quality fish. That first time I felt the ladyfish, I was excited! It was the hottest fish I had felt in some time. The jumps were awesome. It was only upon learning a little bit about public opinion on the fish that I began to see them as undesirable.
The same thing is true of chum salmon. Where I guided in Alaska, the prestigious targets were the king salmon, rainbow trout and to a lesser extent, coho salmon. Kings took skill, and a lot of luck. Catching several or maybe even ten or more fish in a day was possible, but usually catch rates were five or less adults hooked per day. Chum salmon, however, were very abundant, and you could easily hook twenty or more in a day if you tried. Even if you weren’t trying, you would almost certainly catch more chums than kings in a day of swinging a fly. When I first got to Alaska, I was like a puppy let loose in a preschool classroom. My eyes were as big as dinner plates, and I wanted to catch salmon, any salmon, and as many as I could. Quickly, however, I learned that the other guides hardly even mentioned chums in reporting their day’s catch. The cool kids in camp were the ones that consistently caught kings. I believe that’s because chums are too easy to catch. A big part of fishing, especially fishing with artificials, is overcoming a challenge. Finding a fish, presenting a lure, fooling the fish, and fighting it successfully takes skill, and that’s where the satisfaction lies. But don’t we all want to catch a lot of fish? Isn’t the most common definition of a good day of fishing catching a bunch?
What if king salmon suddenly got so numerous as to allow consistent catches of twenty kings a day? And what if chums got really hard to catch at the same time? Would our perceptions of them change, all else being equal? I believe they would. Take it to saltwater, where in my neighborhood tarpon are the most prized fish. Getting a tarpon on an artificial takes a lot of skill, luck, and especially good lure placement. For the most part, these aren’t aggressive fish, at least during the day. They must be “fed,” with the lure placed right in front of their face. Well, what if tarpon suddenly started attacking every lure in sight? Would they still be such a big deal? If you just want to pull on something big you can always just chum in a bull shark, right?
I think that the real pinnacle game fish have several things going for them: challenge, fighting ability, beauty, and, I think least importantly, size. I think a fish needs at least two of those attributes for fishing society to grant it respect. Some fish, like the permit, the steelhead, the tarpon, the dorado, sailfish, giant trevally, king salmon, and others, have all four. But I don’t think this necessarily has to be the case. If a fish only has one of those, like the ladyfish (fighting ability), it’s not enough to earn widespread respect. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s all in our minds, and I say our minds, because nobody else’s opinion should matter but our own.
Take the dolley varden, one of the most numerous Alaskan fish, often outnumbering rainbow trout as much as 50:1. They’re beautiful and fight hard. At our lodge, you were literally guaranteed to catch multiple dolley varden even if it was your first time ever fishing. So what’s not to like? I believe they’re not given the respect they deserve because they’re too easy to catch. Non-fishers would probably look at me as if I were crazy, but it’s true. Most people I know would take one rainbow over ten dolley varden, despite the fact that the dolley is an incredibly gorgeous fish that you can often sight fish to! When fish are just too easy to catch, their desirability goes down. Well, I’m here to encourage you to change your mindset on these easy to catch species. To be honest, it’s going to take some effort for me to change my own perspective on ladyfish. But what are we really out there for? Relaxing, taking in the beauty of the outdoors, bettering ourselves as anglers? Shouldn’t we be happy to catch any scrappy fish? I think we should. I think that a big part of what gets in our way is ego, wanting to impress people with the socially desirable fish that we have caught.
Ultimately, peoples’ opinions on fish are their own. I’d just like to encourage people to think about what makes a fish fun to catch, and if being easy to catch is really a bad thing. Don’t let other peoples’ opinions spoil your own fishing. Don’t let them tell you your fish isn’t good enough. And above all, treat any fish with care, revive it and release it properly. No matter how glamorous a fish is, it’s a living thing and it deserves to be treated respectfully and released safely.