Mark Spitzer is an associate professor of writing at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of more than twenty-five books, including Season of the Gar: Adventures in Pursuit of America’s Most Misunderstood Fish, Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West (Bison Books, 2017) and In Search of Monster Fish: Angling for a More Sustainable Planet (Nebraska, 2019). Spitzer has consulted for Nat Geo’s Monster Fish and appeared on Animal Planet’s River Monsters. Spitzer’s previous guest posts can be found under the heading “Where in the West is Mark Spitzer?”.
In all my fish books, there’s usually one aquatic grotesque that manages to give me the slip, and In Search of Monster Fish: Angling for a More Sustainable Planet is no exception. Chapter 4, “Sportfishing Gar: An Old Dog’s Failure Proves a Point” documents how I went after gar through a highly unconventional tactic that’s becoming more conventional: fly fishing. It’s a method I know little about but something I try every few years. And though I did catch a spotted gar in Arkansas on a rope fly designed especially for gar, I have yet to seal the deal with a fly rod.
That’s because I got hoodwinked! Yep, up in Vermont, I went out on Lake Champlain, but even with expert guidance, I couldn’t hook any of the half-dozen longnose I saw swimming around that day (in, I should mention, a place that’s been hoodwinking folks since the 1600s with alleged sightings of a Nessie-type crypto-creature). Still, what I did catch was a new respect for a ye olde monster fish that’s been around since way before the dinosaurs.
Coincidentally or not, a strange mythical monster-fish of classical Hoodwinkery has just appeared in sunny Southern California: the legendary Mola tecta. Aka, the hoodwinker: a type of massive ocean sunfish that weighs thousands of pounds, has vertical fins, has virtually no tail at all, and basically looks like a ginormous, disembodied human head.
In reporting on this bizarro fish, USA Today even went and publicized a medieval illustration of a hybrid monstrosity associated with hoodwinking. I’m no expert at reading Latin, but the first sentence of the accompanying text includes the words “MONSTRVM marinum,” “Pan uel Satyrus marinus,” “Ichthyocentaurus” and “Dæmon marinus,” which aren’t too difficult to translate. My point being: it’s just part of our psychology and the history of psychology for humans to hoodwink themselves with monster-fish narratives and monster-fish iconography that have been recycled for centuries by word of mouth and the mass media.
More importantly, there are new messages now encoded in what’s been washing up on our shores, which pertain to the question of where that baffling, non-native hoodwinker in California came from. And it seems pretty clear to me that the answer to that question can be seen in a host of other questions. Like where did all these freaky Humboldt squid come from that have been working their way up the Pacific Coast and chowing down on salmon? And where did that mysterious mass of warm seawater known as “the Blob” come from in 2014, which led to an exodus of halibut from the Bering Sea? A blob, by the way, which dumped a slough of displaced weirdo deep-sea creatures off the coast of Alaska, thereby disrupting entire ecosystems. A blob which also killed a million seabirds in the last twelve months and still exists to this day.
Again, the answer is obvious, and has to do with the intentions of the real monsters in our midst, blinded by ignorance. But that, of course, is nothing new. The implications, however, of what we are facing now… that is something new. And it’s something to pay close attention to if continuing to muse upon the concept of monster fish is a value we feel is worth passing on to future imaginations.
Meanwhile, I’m not giving up on fly fishing for gar, which is a tactic on my bucket list happening at a time when we are all accelerating toward our own buckets to kick faster than the warming oceans and changing currents are registering in the communal consciousness. And as we’re doing this, the monster fish are informing us that we’d be destruction-loving idiots not to heed the signals they are constantly sending us.
So the next question is… is that who we really are?