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.
In the seventh chapter of In Search of Monster Fish: Angling for a More Sustainable Planet, I flew to West Africa to fish in the Gambia for two specific grotesques. The first lunker on my list was tarpon, a boneheaded ballistic missile of a fish I’ve seen leap ten feet into the air and shudder like a demon child. I once supposedly caught a seven-foot 130-pounder, but since that tarpon broke away before I could touch it, it was hard to accept IGFA regulations that claim it’s caught if someone on board touches the leader. That’s what happened in Nicaragua, so my plan, this time, was to make a tarpon tangible.
The other fish I was going for was any kind of stingray or skate. I’d been trying for decades to land one of these bizarro batoids with graceful space-alien wings and a deadly stinger in the tail, but that didn’t happen this time. That’s okay, though, because not connecting with target fish assures that certain species remain enigmatic—or at least still out there providing me with a false sense of purpose.
Whoooaa!! Can I really say that? Sure I can. Because what I’m really chasing when I chase fish is beyond the text of what I catch. What I’m really chasing is in the subtext. It’s what I find along the way and what I make of discoveries—if they’re worth it.
So what did I catch in the Gambia that was worth it? Well, monsterfish-wise, I did get a four-foot forty-pound tarpon, which I wanted to release. My captains, however (of which there were two), needed to feed their families. But no, that’s not what I really caught.
So was it the groupers and snappers or that one weird humpbacked permit? Nope. Or was it the fish known as “doctor,” a funny-lipped dark brown fish with a neon tangerine oval near its tail where two spikes pop out like switchblades on both sides, skewering anyone unfortunate enough to grab it there? Nope again.
What I really caught in the Gambia that made everything fall into place was the hook. The hook of the book! Yep, it came to me after a morning of catching butterfish and pufferfish with a couple “bumsters” named Junior and Fabu. We were jigging with shrimp near a reef, using sparkplugs for weights, when the epiphany hit me like a runaway school bus. It was a revelation inspired by a quote from Thomas McGuane, and it provided direction. And it increased the stakes. And it made my ever-evolving monster-fish quests much more urgent and real.
So what did I catch, “stymied on the sand, gulls squawking in the sky”? Well, I can’t really say here because that’s the purpose of that chapter. But I can say that I grew way more accountable to myself as a citizen in that split-second than in any other time in my life. And conversely, you can discover what I discovered because it’s all right there: prepared for you, packaged for you, and ready to apply to your own situation.
So get In Search of Monster Fish as fast as you can because we only have one decade left to create the meaningful change that needs to happen or the whole planet goes to crap. Meanwhile, I’m not about to sit on the sidelines and watch all these fascinating fish—both actual and metaphorical—just vanish when we have a chance.