A lot has changed in this world since 1955, some of it explainable, much of it not.
In the latter category is the safe release, now widely practiced, of fish that in years gone by would have been swung from meat hooks on boat docks — trophies whose flaunting was intended to speak less of the day’s fortunes than of the skills, real or imagined, of the conquering anglers.
Obviously this practice continues today, and in many circles with great fanfare. From Florida to Alaska, brag boards overhang guide boats that routinely tie up with tourists’ finned souvenirs filleted and splayed, over ice.
And why not? In many cases — think halibut — these fish are but a representative handful of a plentiful species, and a tasty one.
That said, more and more anglers today safely release fish of the species they prize most, and spend the most time and money pursuing.
These aren’t average size fish being freed. Releasing middling catches is ego-neutral because little or no pride was assigned to their acquisition.
At issue instead is the release, now occurring more often, of monster-sized fish, in some cases potential world records.
Instead of killing these behemoths and parading them up and down Main Street (if not an actual avenue, then a virtual one, online), this new breed of big-fish angler releases the prized quarry to swim another day.
No species more exemplifies this evolution of angling ethos than the muskie, a fish that not many years ago was summarily dispatched every time it was boated.
“Chin Whiskers,” the alleged world record muskie allegedly caught by Louie Spray allegedly in 1949 allegedly near Hayward, Wis., was plugged with a .22 revolver while boatside.
Gunning down these big fish — a common practice once — reduced the chance they’d tip the small boats used by anglers a half-century ago.
Consider also that during a two-week period in July 1955, Leech Lake muskies on a feeding “rampage” inexplicably whacked anglers’ lures.
“Muskie Catch Shatters All Records,” blared the Grand Rapids Herald-Review newspaper on July 25, 1955:
“Records are not well established for muskie fishing, but there is little doubt this two-day catch establishes a new world record,” the newspaper boasted. “Fishing authorities here have never heard of such luck, and the catch at Federal Dam is almost certain to go down as the all-time record catch for two days …
“[This] is an unheard-of record and one which will qualify Federal Dam, on the north end of Leech Lake, as one of the greatest muskie fishing areas of the world. Even the so-called muskie fishing ‘capitals’ of other areas can’t match this record-breaking catch.”
Whether this feeding orgy was prompted by a tullibee die-off, as some believe, or was the result of a hot, dry spell that left Leech Lake mirror-like and near boiling for two weeks is uncertain.
What is known is that all, or virtually all, of the muskies caught during that bloody spectacle were killed, then hung through the gills on long pipes, and photographed.
Fast forward to recent dates, Nov. 9 and Nov. 25.
On the former, Robert Hawkins of the Twin Cities boated what might yet prove to be a world record muskie caught on a fly, a 57-inch-long trophy with a 26.5-inch girth estimated to weigh more than 50 pounds.
It never occurred to Hawkins to kill the fish, caught on Mille Lacs.
Or even harm it.
“Once she was in the net, we left her in the water and were extremely cautious how we handled her,” Hawkins said. “Our goal was to have her out of the water only briefly. And we did. We measured her girth and length quickly and took a couple of quick photos before reviving her in the water and letting her go.”
Dominic Hoyos of Stillwater did Hawkins one better on Nov. 25.
Fishing also on Mille Lacs with partner Dean Block of Ramsey, Hoyos boated a 55-inch muskie with a 30-inch girth — quite possibly a Minnesota record and a world record.
Hoyos took great pride that the fish swam away “like a rocket” when he released it.
Muskies grow about 4 inches a year before age 10, and closer to 1 inch annually after that.
So a muskie needs about 18 years to reach 50 inches long.
Muskies’ slow growth rate is one reason anglers who specialize in their catching release them.
Casual anglers, on the other hand — those who put little effort and less thinking into fishing — are, paradoxically, the most likely to kill a bragging-size fish if they stumble upon one.
Serious anglers mourn such losses. For them, watching a weekender stuff a 20-inch brown trout into a creel or drag a steelhead mercilessly onto a river’s rocky shore warrants at least harsh words, if not fisticuffs.
Ditto for a muskie — even though biology doesn’t always support the release of these large fish.
Often these bad boys (and girls) are beyond their peak breeding ages and, in some instances, their continued survival might stunt the advancement of lesser fish.
What is known is that the voluntary catch-and-release ethic promoted initially by Muskies Inc., the conservation group now in its 50th year, and more recently by state fisheries agencies is producing evermore big muskies in evermore lakes.
Only to be caught — and released.
What’s afoot exactly with the freeing of fish that once were proudly hung over mantels isn’t clear.
But it’s apparent the more knowledgeable a person is about the natural world, the greater the person’s empathy for that world, or a slice of it, even a single fish species.
And the less his desire to conquer it.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org