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?”.
The Best Bycatch
Toward the end of In Search of Monster Fish: Angling for a More Sustainable Planet, I found myself catching psychedelic moray eels and alien octopi in Italy’s boot heel down on the Ionian Sea. These exotics were the bycatches of going after conger eels which had recently been scandalized as way more freakish than they actually are thanks to some trick photography coming out of the UK. But there were other bycatches experienced on that trip, particularly those of bluefish, goldblotch grouper, and the notorious weever, which I only described briefly in passing. The bluefish and grouper were noted for their monstrous jaws and razorific fangs, whereas the weever got a bit more attention for its etymology harking back to “the old French word ‘wivre,’ which comes from the Latin ‘vipera,’ meaning serpent.” That venomous little sucker was also noted for its “switchblade dorsal tucked in its nape which unfortunate swimmers have been stung with. The pain burns worse than stepping on a hornets’ nest and can lead to headaches, nausea, burning urination, tremors, severe heart rhythms, breathing problems, seizures, gangrene, tissue degeneration and unconsciousness.” The photos of these economy-sized bullies of the benthos never made it to print, but you can see them now with the weever on the far right, its dorsal clipped by my guide, who wasn’t about to take any chances of anyone getting stung with its toxic, flesh-eating bacteria.
Anyway, considering these bycatches recently led me to considering the concept of bycatches in general, which always play a pivotal role in these ichthyo-investigations. For me, epiphanies can count as bycatches—like the one that hit me when fishing for stingrays in the Gambia, then became central to the theme of the entire narration. Other bycatches in the book include an acceptance of death while deep-sea fishing in the Caribbean’s murderous surf, and a greater understanding of what’s wiping out world fisheries as in the chapter concerning sharks off Montauk. But in fishing down in Gallipoli, or even in the Amazon, or horsing in French mega-carp, I have to agree on a certain type of bycatch noted by traveling angler Luke Conson.
Luke and his buddy Daniel Balserak had just graduated high school, and rather than shooting off to college during a global pandemic only to be sequestered in dorm rooms for online classes, they decided to take a gap year and catch the state fish in all fifty states. The state that gave them the most guff was Arkansas, where the “state primitive fish,” the alligator gar, is often a once-in-a-lifetime catch if it’s ever caught at all. They fished those waters for weeks without results while I advised from New York State. In the summer, however, they returned and so did I, and I took them out as their guide.
They had a few blood-boiling runners, but mostly we just sat there. Waiting. For like two days. And somewhere into that second day, I asked them what their biggest discovery was during their adventures. Luke twisted his face into a question mark and chewed on that for a bit, then finally answered, “The people.”
He explained how pretty much everyone they had reached out to was glad to help them achieve their objectives. People put them up, fed them, gave them bait and took them out. They received expert support from across the continent, drank beers, immersed themselves in late-night conversations and were always amazed at what folks were willing to give in order for them to accomplish their missions.
That’s the kind of bycatch I’m talking about: the most important type there is! The kind that binds like imaginations, creates friendships and ultimately results in strangers helping strangers out for the most selfless reason that exists. Guides aside, who receive monetary compensation for their expertise, I’m talking about those who only receive the satisfaction of “helping a brother out.” Which I encountered a lot of myself in researching In Search of Monster Fish. I’m talking folks like Lee Merritt, champion British carp master, who went out of his way to make sure my tackle and knots were operating up to snuff. And IGFA garthority Bill Wilmert, who provided a fly-casting lesson specific to sportfishing gar solely in the spirit of passingon his passion. And fish writer Henry Hughes, who not only offered game-changing advice as a manuscript reader for the University of Nebraska Press but was psyched to correspond, which led to us establishing a strong camaraderie. And the list goes on. To the point that I gotta say that the human connections I made in pursuit of monster fish during the writing of this book are way more solid than any connections I’ve ever had with any fish.
By the way, we couldn’t seal the deal in Arkansas, but since those boys had the fever and just had to get themselves a gator gar, I hooked them up with Dawson Hefner of Texas Megafish Adventures, and he hooked them up as well. Meanwhile, their Arkansas state fish is still swimming around out there waiting for someone to step forward and pay it forward and help make their dream come true. The question being: could that someone be you or someone you know? If so, let me know, and I’ll pass that info on…