Back when I was still fishing, the best trick I learned for how to catch big fish was to hold the fish under the gills and then extend my arm as far in front of me as possible. The second best lesson I learned was to smile for the camera. Amazing how much bigger my fish became. Memory helps too. They've all gained a pound or two since then.
I thought about this a few weeks ago as I was looking through files and happened upon a folder of fish pictures, some of my last fish photos before I had the existential moment that ended my lifelong passion for fishing. It was over a decade ago, at a time when I loved fishing so much that I built a house on a bass lake so I could fish every day before work. Then, one morning, I had some serious f2f experience with a dying fish who lay passively in the bottom of my canoe. I swear he looked at me with empathy as I sweated over removing a so-called barbless hook that was caught too deep within his gullet: we both knew he was going to die. I finally unhooked him and released him into the water. I can still see the slimy sliver of fish blood trailing behind as he slowly swam away from me. I canoed back to shore, put away my poles, and have never fished again. But that was a lesson of a different kind.
The lessons from the photos in my file drawer were learned at a less sensitive or introspective time when I spent any spare moment I could in the wilderness pursuing large mouth lunkers, walleyes, pike, or--amen--native cutthroat trout in beaver dams just below the timber line in the mountains in Alberta. Sometimes we rode in on horseback. In winter, we sometimes cross-country skied with our ice auger and poles in a backpack, then dug a hole in the ice, fished bare-handed (the only way to feel the gentle tug of a cutthroat trout) and then put our catch in our packs and skied out again to cook the freshest imaginable winter fish dinner. There really is a media component in here. Oh, yes. Usually, especially on horseback or skis, we traveled light. I was a purist and wouldn't even wear bug spray or suntan lotion because I was convinced the wily native trout could smell it. So there was rarely documentation for the enormous fish we caught or those ever bigger ones that got away. But, oddly, there was a camera handy the day, this was in upstate New York, that I happened to land a bass that, someone later told me, tied the NY state record that year for largemouth. Someone snapped the picture.
It appeared in a few fishing magazines. The editor of one, though, sent me a caustic note: didn't I know that, with a largemouth, you were always supposed to pose it with its Large Mouth gaping open, its prominent belly slung down? (Who knew you posed fish like porn stars?) Sure, I had witnesses who certified the official weight, but, since everyone else in fishing magazines knew the formula for how to pose a fish properly, mine didn?t look as big as it should. The editor chided me for this disservice to the fishing profession because it?s news when a lunker comes out of a new lake no one has thought to trophy fish before, but my photo didn?t look like news. "You should always hold out your arm so the fish is as close to the camera lens as possible. And you always--always!--smile."
Apparently the look of triumph adds a pound or two.
Or maybe it helps prevent anyone thinking too deeply about fish sentience (we are learning, by the way, that fish do feel pain and, in fact, have feelings of loss, protectiveness, and other emotions--see my previous posting on catfish noodling: http://www.hastac.org/node/1078. The reason you have to catch catfish by putting your fist right into their nests is they have us figured out pretty well and aren't about to bite on some stupid dough ball we dangle before them. They lash out at an intruding fist in order to protect their nest.) But I didn?t think sentimental thoughts like that back then. Instead, I learned my lesson.
Here?s a photo of a rainbow trout I caught two months after the trophy bass. This one is not a trophy fish, actually, but it looks like one, doesn?t it? Camera-ready. My sullen-faced shrunken bass photo (the one that appeared in the fishing mags) was faded beyond recognition or I'd post it here too so you could see the "before" and "after." But here is the triumphant fish, the media representation of an afternoon in Alberta before I thought much about what the fish was thinking and was more concerned about what the editors of fish magazines thought. I also hasten to add that this is a digital photo, unretouched, of a photo taken with an old 35 mm camera, also unretouched. No manipulation of the medium except for the extended arm and the smile. A friend of mine later told me he perfected the trick of tying his fish to a clothesline, stepping back from it, extending his arm as if he were holding the fish, and, in the photo, a bluegill could look like a marlin.
Media madness. That?s the lesson. Cozy up to the camera and smile.