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Vol 49 | Num 3 | May 15, 2024

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Snarky Lines

Article by Capt. Mark Sampson

What We Know (Part 1)

Most folks will probably agree that when it comes to fish, there’s a whole lot we know, and a whole lot we don’t know about their biology, life history, populations and all that. Where so many of us often disagree is “who” knows more about any particular fish, in any particular place, at any particular time.
I mean, we’re all aware that the research scientists know a whole lot about fish, they should, they went to school to learn about them - it’s right there in the books they read. Then there’s the commercial fishermen... they know everything about fish because they’ve been working the waters since before they were born and have caught and sold every species known to modern man and a number of species that modern man will never know because, well - they caught and sold them “all”.

Then there’s the recreational fishermen, AKA “sport fishermen”, who figure they know everything there is to know about fish because each summer they go fishing every weekend they can as long as the weather is nice and they didn’t party it up too much the night before. A splinter group of sport fishermen are the “for-hire charter captain guys” who take people fishing for a living (when they’re not selling real estate, building homes, fixing teeth, etc. etc.) who are very quick to tell everyone they meet that they know everything there is to know about fish. Of course, since they’re “in the business” of taking people out to catch fish, what else would they say? “I don’t know anything about fish but if you give me your next month’s mortgage I’ll take you out to catch some.”

Let’s see, did I leave anyone out? Oh yeah, the animal rights people. Of course he or she, they or them, xe, xem, xyr, ze, hir, hirs, ey, em, eir or any other pronoun “du jour” all figure they know more than anyone on the planet about fish and anything that moves about this and probably every other celestial body in the universe.

Everyone knows so much, but where did we acquire all this knowledge? What scientists didn’t learn in their books they probably found in the bottom of their test tubes, commercial fishermen found it in their nets, sport fishermen either found it on the end of their line or online from some social media star who can not only tell them all about fish but also where to get the best deal on Bud Lite. And I expect the animal rights crew gets their knowledge about fish by interpreting the swirling patterns of foam on the top of their Starbucks coffee.

Yeah, we all know so much. Actually - we don’t. Nope, I really think that none of us know squat about the fish out there. We think we do - but we don’t. Our assumptions about fish come from our own experiences with them or from what a trusted source tells us. We know that if we drop our lines or nets in the water at this place and at this time of the year we should be able to catch this kind of fish. Therefore, that kind of fish prefers to be in that place at that time of year. If we know we’re in the right place at the right time (because the internet he/she told us it was) and don’t catch anything, well then, “Someone is to blame for catching all the fish before we got there and that’s not fair, we need some new regulations!”

Or maybe not. Perhaps our arrogant attitude about knowing so much about fish is actually holding us back from discovering new opportunities to catch fish and encounter other marine life in places other than where we normally look for them. It’s well documented that more than once or twice our back bay waters have been visited by whales, ocean sunfish, sea turtles, seals, big sharks, and who knows how many other ocean creatures that apparently didn’t understand “our” rules about not being allowed to pass through the inlet!

One August morning way back in 1978 a 14-year old boy was walking the beach up in Fenwick Island when he spotted a fish finning out in the breakers. He cast his Hopkins lure in that direction and proceeded to hook and land a 124-pound swordfish! True story, I did not make it up, dig out an old copy of the Coastal Fisherman if you want proof. So what I’m getting at here is that we all know what we know, but what we know is just from what we’ve experienced or been taught. If you could flip the calendar back 20-50-100 years and see how and where fishermen were catching what they caught back then you’d see how dramatically different it’s done today. This difference I’m referring to is not the obvious technological advances in boats and equipment, but the “when and where” people go to catch what they catch.

So if a kid was able to catch a swordfish in the surf early one morning on a Hopkins lure, is it possible that maybe that fish wasn’t there by some freaky accident but actually just one of many swordfish that inhabit the surf zone each summer? I mean, how would we know? Who fishes for swordfish in the surf? No one! So how do we know that there aren’t schools of hungry swordfish out there if the only baits and lures fishermen cast from the beach are bucktails, bloodworms, and bunker heads? I’m pretty sure that it’s a safe bet that no sport angler, commercial fisherman, biologist, or they/them has ever cast a bait, set a net, did any kind of hi-tech underwater acoustic carbon dating radioactive telemetry survey stuff, or held any all night sacrifices of acorn squash, bok-choy and sargassum “weed” to conjure up insight as to whether or not swordfish live in our surf zone. No one knows because no one has looked!

In just the last few years deep dropping for swordfish has become quite popular and quite successful off our coast. But wouldn’t it be a kick in the butt to those who have been running 80 miles out and sending baits two million feet down to hook one of those buggers if they found out that they’ve been overrunning the fish by 79.9 miles and they don’t need 100-pound sinkers to get the bait down or electric reels to get the fish up because they’re only fishing in 20-feet of water!

Ahhh, I know what you’re thinking! “If there were bunches of swordfish in the surfline wouldn’t we hear about swimmers getting sworded, speared, stuck, sliced, impaled, skewered, slashed, shishkabobbed, or at the very least “poked” by the nasty creatures?” Good point, but we know for a fact that they’re found farther out in the ocean, and yet we never hear about swimmers getting poked out there either, so maybe the fish are keen enough not to confuse the silhouette of a kid on a boogie-board with that of a squid. Or maybe, just maybe, swimmers are being slashed in the surf on a regular basis but our mayor and city council is keeping it hush-hush so it won’t scare away the summer tourists. Who knows, maybe somewhere down in the basement of City Hall is a stack of signs that read, “DANGER SWORDFISH SIGHTINGS BEACHES CLOSED!” just in case the carnage ever gets out of hand.

(Yikes, I’ve run out of space! Please tune in next week to learn more about what we don’t know about fish and surprising places where some might be waiting to be caught.) §

Coastal Fisherman Merch
CF Merch



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