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State of Mind: Lunkers

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“Lunker” is a word I learned when I was about 10 or 12 years old. By the time I had reached that age my grandfather had ruined me and turned me into a fisherman, which is to say a congenital liar about the size of fish I caught.

I ran across the term lunker while reading a Field and Stream magazine. I had to look it up in Webster’s. But once I was aware of its meaning, I wanted to apply it to any fish I caught. 

My grandfather also taught me the trick of holding a fish at arm’s length directly in front of you for photos. That way a six-inch yellow perch will appear large enough to eat a Volkswagen Beetle. 

He taught me that trick on a fishing trip to Manitoba. The problem was that the northern pike we were trying to photograph literally could have eaten a Volkswagen Beetle, and being only six or seven, I couldn’t hold the fish up off the ground at arm’s length. 

Maybe it’s because it’s summer, but lately I’ve been seeing a lot of stories on the internet about record-sized fish. You may have noticed them too. It seems everyone is catching record-breaking big-game fish, be it bluefin tuna, swordfish, or sharks. 

One recent story reported that charter boat captain Chip Michalove of Hilton Head, South Carolina released a hammerhead shark that, by his own estimation, would have “demolished” the current state record for the species (of course!). But because claiming the state record would have meant killing the shark, he chose to forego the record and released the fish instead. He did, however, post a photo of the shark on social media. But we’re dealing with a fisherman here – was he holding the hammerhead in front of him at arm’s length?

Another story reported that a 12-year-old girl caught a pending world-record blue marlin off the coast of West Africa. In this instance, Elizabeth Arn and her father traveled from Florida with an all-American crew to West Africa purposefully for a shot at an International Game Fish Association Junior Angler world record. Somehow, it seems to me, setting out to catch a record-sized marlin is a set up for a tall tale about the one that got away, in much the same way as claiming months before an election that if the election is lost it must have been stolen.

Everyone wants to catch a record, so much so that if you can’t catch a record-sized fish of a popular species, say, a large-mouth bass, you catch a big version of whatever you can (for example, a red-eared sunfish) and then submit it for consideration as a record for that species. 

That has led to claims of records for some pretty obscure species of fish. For example, a headline read “Maryland Bass Fisherman Sets New State Record With a 49-Pound Common Carp.” Now I’ve heard carp is a popular eating fish in central Europe, especially around Christmastime. In fact, Poles and Slovaks are known to keep live carp in their bathtubs for a few days around the holiday. But I don’t remember carp, which are bottom feeders, being popular in the U.S. at any time of the year. In fact, it is considered a junk fish and an invasive species. Still, I guess a 49-pound fish is a big fish.

Or how about “North Dakota Bow Fisherman Shoots Record Big-mouth Buffalo.” They aren’t talking here about some smack-talking bison that roams Yellowstone National Park and gores tourists. No sir. Apparently a big-mouth buffalo is a species of fish in the sucker family. 

What about an asp? This is a fish, not the snake that killed Cleopatra, and there is a record one. Or a tautog, also known as a blackfish?

It also appears there are not enough species of large fish to satisfy our hunger for records. Lately, people have been proposing record sizes for very small fish. Such is the case of 15-year-old Sam Grisak of Great Falls, Montana. Using a dry fly as a lure, Grisak managed to muscle in a golden shiner that tipped the scale at a whopping 0.03 of a pound. The lunker was over 4 inches long and had a girth of more than 2.5 inches. One can only wonder what that would weigh out to if filleted.

Still, according to the news story, the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Department heralded the catch as the first golden shiner submitted to the state’s record book. Unfortunately, Grisak had to settle for third place in the Smallest Record Fish in Montana category. Back in 2010 Joe Hagengruber landed a 3-inch-long, 0.02-pound spottail shiner, and, in 2006, still-record-holder Ike Braaten landed a 3.4-inch, 0.01-pound emerald shiner. Those Montanans certainly are experts in landing record fish on light tackle!

I’m sure, however, that Grisak’s accomplishment has not gone unnoticed by the folks at Gemmy Industries. Gemmy is the outfit that brought us Big-Mouth Billy Bass, a wall plaque featuring a motion-activated audio-animatronic large-mouth bass that wiggles its tail and sings songs such as “Take Me to the River” by Al Green. Big-Mouth Billy Bass was all the rage back in the early 2000s, so popular, in fact, it is said a Big-Mouth Billy Bass resides on the grand piano in Queen Elizabeth’s Balmoral Castle.

Right now engineers at Gemmy are probably feverishly working on something like Sam the Golden Shiner, which, because of its diminutive size, will regale us with a heart-felt version of “Ol’ Man River” voiced not by bass-baritone Paul Robeson but by Alvin the Chipmunk.