fish market

Have you ever stood at the seafood counter and wondered about that piece of fish you’re about to buy? Ever think about where he was swimming, or how long he lived before he ended up here?

No? Neither have I. Except – for the time my husband brought home the big one he’d caught at the seashore. That big guy became part of our family’s folklore.

(This story appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2004)

Writing the last chapter in a bass’ long biography
A thrilling catch is almost – almost – too good to eat.

By Judy Harch

Before me sat a culinary masterpiece.

The star of the show was a grilled-to-perfection striped bass steak. Fish doesn’t taste any finer than when it has been plucked fresh from the salty waters of the Shore and immediately prepared for consumption.

After relishing every bite, I washed it down with a major dose of guilt.

My husband, Chris, and a fishing buddy had arrived home brimming with excitement after a good day’s catch off the beaches of Ocean City. As they pulled into our driveway, the rumble of thunder gave way to cracks of lightning.

But they were on a mission. They lugged their prized catch, a 41-inch monster of a bass, to the backyard and with surgical precision performed the work of experienced butchers.

Well, sort of. The standard knife was not working on this baby. With a sense of urgency, they resorted to a hacksaw, as Mother Nature announced her ever-louder proclamation from the skies concerning who is really in charge.

As I anticipated a delicious meal, my delight became tainted. Chris excitedly explained that his big, fat fish had been quite an adventure. As he reeled in his catch, he had noticed something sticking out of the bass’ belly. It was a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracking tag.

While he inspected it, a crowd of children on a school day trip gathered around the fascinating find. One little boy asked to please have his picture taken with the fish and the guy who caught it. (Ah, your 15 minutes of fame. You never know when it will happen.)

Before placing the fish steaks on the hot coals of the grill, Chris decided to call the phone number on the tag to report his find.

The woman at the Wildlife Service asked my husband a litany of questions about where he had caught the fish, its length, girth and weight. She thanked him for the call and told him that he had won the reward of a hat or fish pin. He chose the hat. She promised to send him a report of the fish’s “tracking history.”

When Chris related the conversation to me, I began to feel a personal connection to the fish. It’s so much easier to eat an anonymous animal. But this bass had a history in which we had become a chapter. My husband was responsible for the fish’s final fight with his perpetual nemesis, the angler.

In my husband’s defense, I must tell you that he is basically a catch-and-release fisherman. But in late spring, when striped bass migrate into the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic surf, he always brings home a few. We eat them relatively guilt-free.

This big boy, unlike the others, had an identity. He was destined to become part of our family’s oral history, to be recounted to all those who listen to fish tales. When the bass’ personal history arrives from the Wildlife Service, the story can be further embellished.

Of course, on that stormy day, as the fish lay before us on our plates, it was a done deal. It would have been a travesty to not eat him after he had given up his life.

I can tell you, though, the next time Chris dons his new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hat, he won’t be keeping any fish that arrives at the end of a hook sporting a pink tag.

Guilt has a bitter aftertaste.


(P.S. My husband wouldn’t ordinarily keep a tagged fish, but this one was bleeding badly because it most likely had been previously tangled in a commercial fishing net.)

fisherman at sunrise

UPDATE: My husband still gets up at dawn, packs up his gear, and heads for his favorite fishing spots. He’s never brought home another tagged fish – thank goodness!

(Image of Fish Market Stock Photo courtesy of franky242 at freedigitalphotos.net)

(Image of Silhouette of Man Fishing Stock Photo courtesy of nuttakit at freedigitalphotos.net)

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