Smallmouths and F-Bombs

They'd caught nothing so far and complained about this in voices that carried across the cove...

  • By: Seth Norman
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Smallmouths came up into the marina three weeks ago, at the big lake down the hill. I’d almost despaired of their arrival—such whacked-out weather—so had gone down to match two new rods to lines when I saw four bronzeback males skirmishing beside the dock gangway. One or more, or all, had fanned a nest there; but ultimate ownership depended upon the battle each now joined with the others.

Clear water, polarized sunglasses, a convenient railing to lean over: we’re talking front row seats for a sunfish gang-bang, red-eyed mean-mugging proceeding into smack-down bouts fought for something that counts.

I presumed size mattered—one warrior was half again as large as his challengers—but hard to tell. No quarter offered: whenever a combatant tired the others bore in on him, united for a coup de gras. Inevitably, however, before a concerted attack drove the weary fellow away, one of the aggressing allies would divert to bully his buddy of the instant before. Instant confusion—and time enough to rest for the object of collective disaffection. Revived, he’d quickly join a new assault.

Clearly“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is true in boy bass world. But as with us, not for long.

I watched for 20 minutes what I suspect had gone on for hours or days and could continue quite a while. By then I’d reminded myself, repeatedly, that this seemingly wasteful fracas served a larger purpose. Yes, even if sparring prevented eating…suggested a reason, rightly or wrongly, why males rarely get big as females—or seldom live as long, I bet…also why triploid trout, lacking any sexual organs, grow so big so fast.

Meanwhile, back at the dock…

I watched my pal Sal paddle his float tube out from behind the northern point of the cove. He waved and headed toward me, casting a popper along the shore. I watched him pick up a small fish, which he held up for my nod of applause.“About a pound,” he called.

Like the bully-boy bass, however, Sal and I were also distracted.

Also by a thuggish trio, as it happened, this one of anglers who occupied the marina’s southern point. They’d been there when I arrived. I’d seen them throw bait, hardware and baited hardware straight out from shore, hitting the same water over and over, working beds, pausing occasionally to pop a brew. They’d caught nothing so far and complained about this in voices that carried across the cove loudly enough during“casual,” non-stop conversation, but reached a cacophony when one at last landed a small fish.

Mea culpa maxima, but about the 20th time one or another of them had dropped the“f-bomb” a nasty descriptive lunged into my mind. They’d reached that milestone the first minute, so by now, with the f-count soaring into the high, high hundreds, that same dirty phrase was playing a loop in my head, kind of like dumber but even more addictive line than the chorus of“Louie Louie.” Seriously: as verb they used F—, as noun, as adjective and adverb; also a punctuation—comma, period, exclamation mark and even ellipse….

All this, in a conversation morally unworthy of a feral dog pack, and too mundane to entertain, say, a colony of blowfly larvae.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t the f-bombing that annoyed me most. Nor was it the suspicion they were trespassing on private property, though that should have been the issue. No, what galled me, foolish man, was how casually they spread this pointless filth in front of a woman I guessed was one of their wives; and, far worse, all over a quiet boy of six or eight whom I heard call one offal-mouth“Dad.”

So…

I doubt I’m allowed to write“white trash.” So Sal said it. That’s my story, though not his real name. Sal said it aloud, the phrase that might have been vaguely similar to the one bothering me, then he shook his head and grimaced as he approached the gangway

Sal’s like that, I can tell you. A foolish man even more prone than I am to provoking the less savory types we often find in these parts.

Way too often.

While allegedly illegal, wasteful, unutterably stupid variations on“politically correct” commercial fishing are oft-criticized“entitlements” of gill-netting tribes in the Pacific Northwest, it's also true that poaching is endemic among some groups most violently hostile to them. (Last month in my lake, officers reported two locals seen gillnetting protected cutthroat trout.) Indeed,“Indians steal our fish!” is the common rationalization for the rampant salmon snagging enjoyed by a spawn of emigrants who arrived in the last two hundred years. Naturally, many of these folks worship these predatory ancestors, pretending not to grasp the havoc their very own wreaked on woods and rivers, and which a few continue to visit via clear-cutting, dumping and dirty development.

Instead, they blame the lack of fish on First Nation exploitation. Also on government regs imposed by liberal“enviros” whom they suspect are homosexuals, probably from“mud races”; and, possibly, public defenders of pesky Mexican gangs now carving into meth-making profits.

It’s a cultural thing, this blaming. The Klan was once common here, and militias still are, east into Idaho and beyond. But here’s the irony: urbanites will recognize the sound they make. No, really—the angry whine of aggressive parasites, already familier: Like other cultures, our regional WT has a dialect. But it's not original any more. In fact, it sounds like a kind of back woods Ebonics as done by Alabama.

“Tell you what,” I said to Sal, no doubt after chastising him severely for inappropriate stereotyping.“I haven’t heard f— so many times since I left Oakland.”

“I hope not,” he said, then grimaced again as we watched and heard one club the fish he’d landed.“You think they're really going to eat that thing?”

“Yep.”

“That’s crazy.”

Yes it is. Smallmouth in this lake have the highest concentration of mercury of any in the state. High enough that our game-and-fish department is obliged to post warnings against anybody, male or female, adult or child, mud race or Master, eating any at all.

And, by gosh, you might even find one of their small cautions if you look very hard, near one or two of the public launches.

Why so obscurely?

Ask a city ranger and he’ll just hum. Now ask a few of the realtors and developers hereabouts—the folks who sell our area’s clean air and clear water to Los Angeleno retirees, help position us on“best” lists, and sponsor the campaigns of elected officials that have, I’ve just heard, kept the lid on a pair of 20 year old reports identifying where the mercury in those bass came from—report somebody emailed me just last week.

Hey, you can ask.

Sal snorts loudly. His eyes narrow as he smiles. And when he speaks again to me, even more loudly, the words are intended for our fellow sports.“Hell,” he half-bellows,“I guess it don’t matter how many toxic fish you eat, if you can’t read anyway. You know, if the heavy metal sh*t has already rotted your genes so bad that your kids don't have a chance from birth.”

I’m caught between two impulses: to laugh; also to calculate the distance to my car, where I keep tools appropriate for any various encounters.

“I mean," Sal continues,“if incest is a family tradition, you’re probably passing down toxics through—Christ! how many generations?”

Ahh…that Sal.

We watch and wait. Too bad, of course, but luckily the wind’s all wrong for this cross-cultural interchange. Otherwise, I’m sure we’d all have ended a thoughtful discussion by celebrating our diversity.

Sal and I are still talking half an hour later when the trio plus wife and son drive past us in a beaten white cargo van surely stolen from a pedophile, unless. Surprisingly, the woman smiles at us from behind a rolled up window. A genuine smile, it appears to me, not entirely obscured when she waves a hand clenching a lit cigarette.

Sal and I look at each other, share shrugs.

The lake got weather the next day. Real weather—first day of a cold front that would soon make this June the coolest in 25 years.

I haven’t seen smallmouths on that bed since then. Not once. I’ve got to think their efforts were, in the short term, futile—that none met a female to bed on the redd they fought over so long.

I keep checking. And, inevitably these days, my eyes stray to F-bomb Point; where I’ve never seen that trio of anglers again. The two scenes meld in my mind, echoing in a way I can’t quite pin down. Maybe it’s just the obvious lesson, that our species is in no position to disdain the foibles of another.

How did that go?“Mama says‘Stupid is as stupid does.’”

Yeah. Well, f-bomb that.

Seth Norman lives in Washington State. He’s the Books columnist for Fly Rod& Reel, and has written a few of his own, including Meanderings of a Fly Fisherman.