Father fishing with their young one

Fishing…catch, and release?

It’s summer, and it seems everywhere I turn around people are fishing. Or talking about fishing. Either way, the rivers and lakes in Minnesota are teeming with both kids and adults fishing (have you seen the Guide Outdoors trophy gallery?). Yet when talking about “what you fish” and “what do you do”, the one issue that seems to get everyone going is…throw it back, or keep it? American poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote about this in her poem “The Fish”.


The poem sure starts off with every fisher’s dream:


I caught a tremendous fish

and held him beside the boat

half out of water, with my hook

fast in a corner of his mouth.

He didn’t fight.

He hadn’t fought at all.


Tremendous, right? I’ll bet you get that all the time? Even better, this one didn’t put up a fight! Easy trophy fishing! Well maybe that is a bit of a downer…some of you probably DO like a challenge?


Here and there

his brown skin hung in strips

like ancient wallpaper…


stained and lost through age.

I looked into his eyes


Looks like this one’s been around a while. Notice the use of simile—a comparison using “like” or “as”—with the word “ancient” to show that the fish is quite old. And then there is more of a personal connection developing as the speaker looks into the fish’s eyes.

What to do…what to do...
What to do…what to do…


and then I saw

that from his lower lip

—if you could call it a lip—

grim, wet, and weaponlike,

hung five old pieces of fish-line,

or four and a wire leader

with the swivel still attached,

with all their five big hooks

grown firmly in his mouth.

A green line, frayed at the end

where he broke it, two heavier lines,

and a fine black thread

still crimped from the strain and snap

when it broke and he got away.


Yep, this one was a trooper. Sure did battle, and in the past, win. All the different types of equipment used to snare him didn’t work. So I wonder why he didn’t put up a fight this time, as stated in earlier in the poem?


Like medals with their ribbons

frayed and wavering,

a five-haired beard of wisdom

trailing from his aching jaw.


Notice another use of simile to describe how the fish wears them, like prized ribbons. And then wisdom, usually associated with age. Again, this fish has been around.


I stared and stared

and victory filled up

the little rented boat,


YES! Not only has the speaker won but won over what seems to be a valiant foe! I always wonder if it’s extra special for the speaker, since I feel this is a novice fisher (the boat is rented…doesn’t fish that much???)


Nevertheless, caught up in the beauty and majesty of the fish, the speaker responds…


And I let the fish go.


WHAT? After all this, you let it go??? Well, it’s almost mythical, this magical creature of the deep. Is that why the speaker lets it go? First published in her book North and South in 1946, a quick internet search will bring up the entire poem if you’d like to see it all for yourself, and more by the author.


So if you do keep or throw it back, what is your criteria? Do you go into fishing KNOWING you will catch or release? Does size matter? Are there any other factors that play a role?

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