During the 70’s and 80’s, after getting connected to Southeast Asia by a tour of duty in Vietnam, I made several trips back for other reasons, and in the course of that got acquainted with some of the cadre at Thailand’s Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy in Nakornnayok. I didn’t speak Thai at all well but conversation turned eventually to fishing and we communicated effectively on that topic even without a common language. Grins and woohoos seem to be fairly universal in meaning. I was invited to go along with a few of these hardcore fishermen on several interesting outings along the Cambodian border, during the Pol Pot regime. Probably not the smartest time to fish in that area, but fish aren’t cognizant of politics.
What surprised me the most was not that people will risk death in a concentration camp to get to a good fishing hole, but that people over there had an entirely different approach to the sport. Most people fished with nets or spears — nets for the small fish and spears for the big ones — which actually makes perfectly good sense when you’re interested in fishing and not in fishing regulations. Rods and reels were extremely uncommon in Thailand at that time, although possibly they’re more familiar now that Thailand has become more industrialized and some people there have more spending money. I fished with an elite crew who owned actual rods and reels.
Rabeab Meeseema, a master sergeant and survival instructor at the academy, used the best casting technique I’ve ever seen. He favored a rod with enough flex to bend double on a cast, and had tackle perfectly weighted to cause that. His lures went out straight and flat, hitting the mark lightly and precisely, with the rod perfectly positioned for a quick reaction. He grinned ear to ear when I said, Woohoo! M-16! To outfit me we took a trip to Bangkok’s largest department store, where we found about half a display aisle filled with very expensive basic American-style fishing gear. I bought a pole and a spinning reel and some tackle and wondered how anyone in that country could afford to fish. Sadly, my casting technique was much more American, accurate but slow, and I did not bother to make the obvious comparison to artillery. My fishing friends politely ignored my failings. I blame the gear.
Well, people go fishing just fine in other places in the world, including Thailand, without all the expensive gear our anglers demand. People there fish for food and survival, that’s why there wasn’t much market for rods and reels. You can tie a fishing line to the end of a bamboo cane, rig a hook on the end, and you’re good. Here in America, fishing has become something else, a sport focused on gear, with fishing as an excuse to buy the best toys available. Catching a ten pound bass isn’t a good reason to own a $25,000 power boat. You should buy the boat because you want to own the boat. You can catch the fish in other, simpler ways. The boat’s a great thing to have for parties and tournament fishing, but completely unnecessary for food fishing or survival fishing. If you’re a fisherman in America, you probably care more about gear than about fish. Where people fish for food, it’s a whole different ball game, and one I personally enjoy much more.
My time in Thailand was my first real introduction to fishing simply. Even when I was growing up in the Ozarks, you had to own a good casting rod and a good reel and the right lures, or you got no respect from other fishermen. If fishing isn’t about the respect you receive for fishing “correctly” and isn’t about catching the biggest fish, fishing becomes something much more sensible. Very few people in the United States fish in that way; most go for expensive gear and big fish.
Today because so many dangerous chemicals are building up in the tissues of the larger game fish, the small fish are the most sensible catch, if you plan to include fish in your regular diet. Growing for fewer years and living farther down on the food chain makes small fish healthier to eat, and small fish do taste as good or better than large fish. Small species like perch qualify as an unexploited resource in many American lakes and streams. People avoid catching them. You have to use different cooking methods with small fish, otherwise you wind up with nothing. One summer I caught twenty pounds of bluegill fillets, very delicious but also very wasteful of fish. By the end of the summer I was ashamed of myself. I didn’t then have the equipment or the knowledge you need to use the entire fish. I do now, and I intend to use every part of the beast I can swallow, even if it’s a little bit disgusting.
I went shopping for fishing tackle a couple of weeks ago and spent far more than I actually had to, almost twenty dollars in fact. There’s very little I need to add to that, although later in the year I will probably spring for a spinning reel and rod, easier to use from the boat, but nothing fancy. You can get good gear very cheaply. For most of my fishing I don’t think I’ll need more than I have. A bank pole, some monofilament, some hooks and ecologically-sensitive non-lead sinkers will just about do it. I made my own stringer (saved about a dollar) and my own bobbers (saved two dollars) and I could have made my own pole from a willow branch (potential savings ten dollars). Instead I bought a collapsible panfish pole, twelve feet in extended length, that compacts to the length of a walking stick. Very convenient for hiking to your favorite spot, through the inevitable weeds and underbrush that entangle a long fishing pole. The most expensive thing in my kit will be the fishing license ($18 that I can’t quite escape paying).
An assortment of hooks cost me a couple of dollars, but in a pinch I could get by without them. Before metal hooks were common, people caught a lot of fish on other kinds of tackle. Looking at “aboriginal” fish hooks is a good way to develop respect for ancient technology. Some of the Inuit and Eskimo fish hooks are works of art, crafted from bent roots, bones, or combinations of both. Most people today are incapable of such exacting work, but nearly anyone could craft the simplest fish hook — the gorge hook.
A gorge hook consists of a short slender rod of hardwood or bone, tapered to a point on each end. Some people carve a notch in the center, or carve a shallow ring entirely around the center, to make sure the fishing line doesn’t slip. The line ties off to the center of the “hook.” You skewer a piece of bait with the straight hook, running the line parallel to the gorge hook. If the right size and type of fish swallows the bait, the hook slides down lengthwise. A tug on the line drives one end of the hook into the fish’s throat, pulling the hook horizontal and lodging both ends in the gullet. This kills the fish whether you land it or not, so it isn’t an approach you should take unless you’re in a survival situation. It’s not a catch-and-release technology. It’s handy to know if you are in a survival situation, because you don’t need to depend on the one or two hooks provided by your handy pocket survival kit. The fishing line is lots more important. Making a gorge hook is simple if you have a sharp pocket knife. Making fishing line is lots harder to do.
Aboriginal gorge hooks lacked the central groove, because people back then knew how to tie knots. If you cut a groove or a notch to anchor the fishing line to the gorge hook, you weaken the hook. The knot is actually the trickiest part of the system and unless you get it right, you’ll have trouble making the hook work. A lark’s head hitch drawn tight and finished with a blood knot works well with monofilament line, applying symmetrical pressure that shifts the gorge hook solidly into the horizontal plane. The trilene knot holds well but doesn’t apply that orienting force. With a line made of rustic materials you don’t need more than the lark’s head hitch and fisherman’s luck.
Lots of common items make good gorge hooks. Ink pens have little metal tubes inside them, and short sections will turn into fishing gear strong enough to land a small fish. A piece of a safety pin used as a gorge hook makes a better piece of tackle than an entire safety pin. The biggest challenge in a survival situation is finding bait big enough to cover the hook. Aside from these little problems, you’re about as likely to catch a fish with a gorge hook as with anything else. Fish don’t always cooperate. Fishing requires lots more than dropping a baited hook in the water in a randomly chosen area.
A simple fishing pole shouldn’t take any explanation, but today it often does because almost nobody here has used one. There’s no reel. A basic bank pole is just a long lightweight rod with a line tied to the end. Bamboo canes work extremely well for this, and you can still buy them in the sporting section of any large retail store. Bamboo grows wild in many parts of the U.S. and if you know where a stand is, you can cut your own. A collapsible bank-fishing pole has a bracket at the hilt for winding extra line, and you can feed out as much as you want through the single eye at the rod tip. Attach a hook and sinker and the optional float and you’re good. You don’t actually cast with this sort of rod, although if you have plenty of room you can toss the rig out a little farther with a horizontal swing. With a bank rig, you’re fishing close to shore. When you catch a fish, you don’t reel. If you need to play the fish before landing it, you use the flexibility of the pole to add that shock-absorbing resistance. Works well for small fish, but unless you have a stout rig you won’t land any big ones this way. For less than twenty bucks you can get a telescoping bank pole with a twenty foot reach. That’s better than any cane pole.
It’s not as convenient as a bank pole, but you can fish with just a hand line wound around something convenient like a soft drink bottle. Tie one end of the fishing line to the bottle neck and wrap layers of line around the container. Snap a couple of rubber bands around the bottom end and tuck a bend of the line underneath to keep it all from slipping off the “reel.” Tie on your hook and clamp down a sinker. Pull the line free when you’re ready to cast and keep finger pressure on the line to hold it in place against the reel. With your free hand swing the weighted end out and release the line from the reel with the other hand. Point the end of the reel at the target of the cast so the line spools out freely. If you catch a fish, you wind the line back on the reel and play the fish with hand pressure.
Tying a wrist lanyard to the neck of the bottle keeps the whole thing from being pulled completely out of your grasp by a large fish. This rig can work pretty well from a boat, but if you fish from shore the tackle tends to catch on every available piece of debris as you pull it in. You can’t reel fast enough to keep the gear above the bottom and you have no pole leverage to help lift snagged lines free. Playing a fish with this rig is like something out of the Hemingway story The Old Man and the Sea, so be ready to learn how to fish all over again. No drag, no high-speed crank, and no pole — land anything of reasonable size and you’ll be very proud of yourself.
I learned some good fishing lessons in Thailand, and am looking forward to the snakehead invasion. So far they’re only in Florida in large numbers. I bet there’ll be some good fishing when they do move north, and those snakehead fish are delicious.
My method of tying the gorge hook rig, a combination of Lark’s Head Hitch and Blood Knot:
- Hold the gorge hook horizontally.
- Lay the line end over the hook and drop it to the right of the main strand.
- Pass the end over the main strand and up behind the gorge hook on the left of the main strand.
- Drop the end down through the loop and pull tight.
- Make a half hitch around the main strand and keep the hitch loop open.
- Make a half dozen extra turns around the upper bend of the loop.
- Pull the turns tight with the end of the line and snug the knot down against the gorge hook.
- National Museum of the American Indian — http://www.americanindian.si.edu/searchcollections/item.aspx?irn=233673&objtype=Hunting/Fishing/Warfare&objid=Fish%20hook
- Smithsonian Institution Alaska Native Collections — http://www.alaska.si.edu/search_results.asp?keywords=fish%20hook&page=3
- Muralee’s Page (Sport fishing seen from the other side of the mirror) — http://www.muraleethummarukudy.com/blog/?p=189