How to subdue a fish

While watching “Swamp People” on the National Geographic channel the other day, I was reminded of how not to subdue a fish.


This TV series is typical of reality TV: short on substance, long on hype. In short, it’s about alligator hunting during Louisiana’s 30-day season. As for dialogue, if you can remember “Choot ‘em!” you can be a TV star.

To “hunt” gators, you bait a hook with a smelly hunk of beef, chicken or whatever is laying around, and hang it from a tree, a few inches above the water in a likely place in a swamp. When a gator takes a bait, the line is strong enough to prevent most gators from escaping. When you see a line in the water, it usually means a gator is on the other end. Hunters are usually two-to-a-boat, with one pulling in the gator and the other shooting it.

What made me think about subduing fish was the way these TV-show hunters bring the alligators under control, if you can call it that. Instead of slowly pulling the animal to the surface, they pull its head out of the water. Of course, this makes great television, what with all the splashing, yelling, jaw-snapping and dubbed background music, but I don’t think it’s what most gator hunters do when they’re not on TV. Those gators are worth money, so the hunters are going to kill them the surest way possible. What’s more, if you yank on a gut-hooked, alligator often enough, you’ll get bitten. For these reasons, I suspect that most of the violence is unnecessary, and that it’s all about getting good “footage” for the show.

When you’re dealing with an animal, a sure way to make it fight for its life is to frighten it. We see this most often in sport fishing, where anglers consider how well a fish fights to be a mark in its favor. The fight is everything. Regardless of how difficult a fish is to catch, if it doesn’t put up a good fight, it’s not considered a “sport” fish. In the extreme, some fish are never eaten, but only fought and released.

Because the fight means so much, some fishermen never learn how to subdue a fish without making a production of it. They never learn that “setting the hook” doesn’t mean to yank the fish from the water. They never catch on that the way they “pump” in a fish has much to do with how it struggles to escape. They can’t seem to figure out that fish breathe water, and that being on or near the surface frightens them. A rainbow trout jumping on the end of your line may be great fun for you, but its a life-or-death deal for the fish.

I fished for more than 50 years before fully realizing that the “fight” in my fishing was mainly of my own making. My first clue came when my father, with a flimsy, light-action rod, hooked a 45-pound Kenai River king. That fish continued swimming upstream as if it had never been hooked. In my boat, we followed that fish from Falling-in Hole to Big Eddy. The old man, not knowing that he had to set the hook and pump on the rod, just sat there, grinning and cranking steadily on the reel. By the time the fish realized something was amiss, it was too tired to do anything but be pulled into the net on its side.

Watching some German anglers catch sockeyes without the fish ever breaking the water’s surface was another eye-opener. Instead of keeping the tip up — how many times have you heard “keep your tip up”? — they kept their rod tips low, even dipping them into the water. Feeling safe, the fish came to the net with little struggle and no panicky jumping. Once in the net, which was kept below the surface, the fish could be unhooked without anyone seeing where it was hooked.

Ask a fishing guide whether men or women are the “best” fishermen, and they’ll usually say women. The male ego apparently gets in the way, causing men to jerk and pull to strongly on fish. If the goal is to boat the fish, a gentle, steady touch is usually more productive, which explains a lot of women’s “luck.”

I think the realization that so much of fishing is about the fight causes many people to stop fishing simply for “sport.” As for myself, I’ve evolved over the years to where, if I don’t want to eat a fish, I won’t fish for it, which is why I no longer fish for trout. I’ll eat trout when I catch one, but I no longer fish for them just for fun.

It’s sad, in a way, that I no longer get my kicks by “playing” fish. Sometimes I long for the days before I thought about why they fought, and why I enjoyed it.

Les Palmer can be reached at