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Monday, June 18, 2007

FISHING for SHAD: Instinct, Cultural Transmission or Therapy?

I don’t spend a great deal of time imagining why extraterrestrials might be interested in visiting Earth. But if they did somehow manage to visit, even though they would be piloting advanced ships that bend space/time, probably the first thing they would want to do once they finished with their obligatory survey is to try driving our cars, boats and planes.

Our vehicles are wonderful examples of evolving form following function. We’ve developed cars that are excellent at hauling families, going very fast around oval tracks, and even some that compensate for tiny genitalia.

Boats fill niches in transportation, entertainment, research, defense, and also fill a critical role in harvesting food from the ocean. In each case, the function of the vehicle has much to do with its final shape and appearance. For example, over the course of history, the sportsman’s fishing boat has evolved to hold enough beer to satiate two, sometimes three fishermen during the course of an entire afternoon.

I’m not an extraterrestrial, but I am kind of an alien when it comes to the body of knowledge required to fit in with fishermen. Though my grandpa was in the Navy, he died when my father was just a boy, and so it seems the long chain of passing on fishing secrets from father to son was interrupted.

Traditional route for cultural transmission of fishing lore

There are some migratory birds that instinctively know what country to fly to and what time to go there, even though their mother and father migratory birds never showed them how to do it. As an animal that depends on a relatively big brain for symbol manipulation and an extended juvenile stage to facilitate learning, I often feel gypped about not having obvious fishing instincts.

River deltas, falls and lakes provide a rich interface between land and water – places where land dwelling creatures can tap into the aquatic food chain. Perhaps humans have been drawn to such environments since before the first cities sprung up around the Fertile Crescent. I often wonder if it is only a coincidence that I find such places beautiful. Even now, there are many who insist on building luxury homes on obvious flood plains.

Willamette Falls at Oregon City

Though there are not many sports fishermen I know whose reproductive success depends on how many fish they catch, vestiges of the evolutionary process are seemingly still in play. The process of selection starts almost immediately at the boat ramp, an obstacle which subjects would-be fishermen to several unforgiving physics tests. Provided truck and trailer don’t accompany one’s boat into the river, the would-be fisherman next faces a delicate but important quest for prime fishing territory. Incidentally, prime fishing territory isn’t something that is immediately obvious. Fishermen seem to rely heavily on their own experience to determine where fish may be found, but often attempt to glean helpful data from other experienced fishermen. Verbal information from other fisherman may or may not be true, so the ability to detect deceptive behavior in others is another critical skill set. Often it seems that much information is acquired simply through careful observation of those who are actually catching fish. A simple innocuous statement like, “We have nothing but green jigs in this boat.” from a fisherman who has just reeled in five fish in as many minutes should cause the attentive would-be fisherman to question whether one should really continue using white jigs.

The fishermen I observed use a strategy of collaboration. They pool their individual experiences thereby improving their chances at fishing success. To keep each other sharp, they often tend to teach each other lessons through adversarial play fighting. One tends to think of the impressive play-fighting displays of elephant seals and/or silverback gorillas. However, just like their ferocious counterparts, fishermen rarely inflict serious damage upon each other since the infliction of such injuries would be prohibitively costly in terms of survival.

Sitting on a boat in a slow moving river on a clear warm day is peaceful and relaxing and conducive to meditation. Once, when I was trying to learn how to put a roof on a house, an old contractor told me that the secret to doing it right was simply to be smarter than a raindrop. The process of extrapolating this idea to the act of fishing results in the assumption that successful fishing depends on being able to out-think a fish. Presumably this process is enhanced by learning to drink like a fish.

The skill-sets required for successful fishing are varied and complicated and include everything from piloting a boat on moving water to setting up fishing poles with fish-specific rigging to keeping focused on the task at hand while in an altered state. Eventually, all of these elements meld together at the right place and time, and the fisherman experiences the transition from ‘fishing’ to ‘catching’.

These fish were all released without complications.

As alien as I am to the process of fishing, I never-the-less took exceptional pleasure in hooking and reeling in these surprisingly spirited fighters. The flash of silver, the splash of their tails, the play of line all contribute to a sense of excitement and … familiarity… and perhaps some small consolation that I am at least, with the help of my friends, able to out-think shad.

Fish are probably another one of those animals that must rely primarily on their instincts. It is unlikely that Mom and Dad fish hung around to teach survival tactics. When I consider that it is instinct that causes a fish to strike at a phony plastic insect looking thingy that is obviously dangling from a string, I don’t feel so gypped after-all.

I-205 bridge across the Willamette River

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