Halibut Surf Fishing

“Conservation of animals and plants was a burning, emotional, personal issue. A properly socialized individual had a powerful sense that the wild world was feeding him, and he ought to be as grateful and as anxious to act decently as he would to any human who fed him out of sheer kindness. Naturally, wanton killing was virtually tantamount to murder, and ungrateful murder at that.”

—E. N. Anderson, “Ecologies of the Heart: Emotion, Belief, and the Environment” (1996)

In late April I hooked my first keeper halibut of the season. The next day I threw back four more; two long shorts and two small shorts. The legal size is 22 inches and above.

I fished for two hours in the morning throwing lures from the beach at high tide. A week earlier I didn’t get a single bite. This time I hooked something small on my first cast, but it got off. Probably a small perch. Maybe a yellowfin croaker.

A short time later I hooked the halibut. The fish attacked the lure nearly as soon as it hit the water from the cast. The line pulled tight as if snagged on a rock, then came the tugging and the whine of the drag set loose as the fish took a little line.

I anxiously weaved the halibut around and through clumps of rocks in the rush and gush of the surging high tide, somehow managing to bring the beautiful creature to shore before the line snapped or the hook shook loose.

Or the knot unfurled. That’s happened. The fish at my feet on the beach in inches of water mere inches from the sand. To watch a big halibut slowly swim away. To lift the slack line and see the curly pig tail end where the knot in the monofilament failed and slipped open.

I never seem to remember the fish I keep quite as much as those I nearly caught.

I landed the April halibut, grateful and excited, yet calm and collect, without a show. Nobody was around anyway.

Sometimes, without thought of it, I must show no emotion whatsoever. I once threw back a halibut before remembering to measure it. Only afterward did it occur to me that it may have been of legal length.

Matters at work far larger than what little may be revealed on the surface, to a bystander or a casual onlooker.

I’m not telling you anything not already known when I say that not all fishing is for fish all the time.

That is the difference between fishing and angling, a fisherman and an angler.

The feeling of releasing a legal-sized halibut.

I’ve seen slipshod fools on the pier butchering live bat rays to death for fun in their mistaken idiotic belief that what they had hauled ashore was a stingray, hacking and slashing and slicing off fins and tails, quartering the wretched animal flopping about and quivering as they laugh and drink and smoke as though throwing darts in a pub.

Those ancient impulses and the ability to kill, born of necessity for survival of the species by tooth and claw in nature’s arena of evolution, that men could hunt and take by hand in a running assault with spears large deadly animals to provide for the clan, may be let loose to evil ends.

Some men enjoy assassinating animals for sport like serial killer Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” toys with humans. “I want to stab you to death and play around with your blood.”

Are these fishermen psychopaths of another variety? Maybe they just suffer from arrested development and immaturity.

They never grew beyond the “boyishness of killing things,” as John Muir put it to Teddy Roosevelt over a campfire one night in the woods.

In their actions we see symptoms of a troubled culture, which routinely produces such characters.

A tourist questioned me about the crude men we both witnessed on the pier, appalled at their behavior, but I stammered and didn’t know what to say to the man.

I don’t want to kill some idiot fisherman, but I was of a mind to tell those men that I’d like to do to them what they did to that innocent big fish.

Yellowfin croaker

“We came to Dummy’s fence and found a cow wedged in up against the wire. She was bloated and her skin was shiny-looking and gray. It was the first dead thing of any size I’d ever seen. I remember Orin took a stick and touched the open eyes.”

—Raymond Carver The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off

Whenever I brought a fish home my three young children were always quick to gather round, to get close to the animal and touch it and poke it.

In particular they liked to stab at the rubbery eyes with sticks and they’d run to the kitchen for forks and butter knives to poke at the fish and the guts were always a big attraction.

If allowed a sharp knife I am sure they would have attempted to slice and dice and hack the fish in pieces themselves and they would have found some form of delight in the blood of it all.

But the kids acted out of innate curiosity and wonder and not malicious intent. Children are naturally inquisitive.

In a properly socialized individual those ancient impulses are turned toward positive ends as guided within the bounds of a holistic ecologically conscious culture.

Poking the fish was the curious first explorations of young scientists, biologists, oceanographers or doctors to be.

How do people fall from the innocence and wondrous possibility of our beginnings to the horrors of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and the embarrassment of the butchers on the pier?

“The killing and eating of other beings is understood by most tribal peoples as part of a larger gift of life rather than a victory over nature.”

“What emerges from a million years of such study is much more than a practical knowledge for killing—it is a knowledge of the typical life cycle of each species, its details and peculiarities. This is natural history.”

—Paul Shepard The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game

Carefully guided, the child’s natural enthusiasm and interest about animals moves from the crude poking of eyes and guts to the thoughtful exploration of the animal’s anatomy, biology and natural history.

And, when possible, visceral interaction with the animal in the field in its own habitat on its own terms; experiences for which there exist no substitutes.

Yet also never to celebrate killing as a victory over nature rather than a life sustaining gift.

The sacred duty, to take care.

To not be the pirate plunderer of the commons, the barbarian with a grin out to get his and to hell with everything and everybody else.

I took the fish home to nourish family, deeply thankful for the bounty the sea afforded us one lucky morning on a Santa Barbara beach.

The children learned something about the give and take nature of life on this one and only planet Earth.

They learned something about the work and the knowledge and skills necessary to harvest and prepare their own food in a dignified manner, that they will not demean and degrade themselves by demeaning and abusing the land and its wild residents of which their lives necessarily depend.

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