The Fish Whisperer
by Larry Fogel
She was beautiful, with a black back and a greenish-white belly heavy with eggs. It was mid-May and her time. She was looking for a small creek, remembered from so many years before. As I held her, I thought I could feel her heart beating, even pounding, in my hand; as I looked into her black eyes, she flexed a little, then stilled herself.
What was she seeing? Was she seeing me?
The hook came right out, without a problem. This was a big fish, big for her kind. Measuring her was simple. I always had a ruler written with magic marker on each side of my boat, a center console I fish the Bay with.
She looked to be 14 inches. I measured again, sure enough, 14 inches exactly. Fourteen is impossible I thought. The book says 12.7 inches is as big as Morone Americana in the Chesapeake can get. Maybe that record has been broken, I don’t really know. But this was the largest white perch I had ever seen.
She must be old, very old. Seventeen years is max. How had she survived for so long, when so many were out to catch her?
Still holding her in my hand, I thought I could see something in the inky blackness of her lidless eyes. I thought there must be fear in there. The breathing was all wrong for her, and the early morning sunlight must hurt her eyes. She got very still as I put my eye inches from hers and told her, I’m gonna let you go this time, but if I ever see you again, I’m gonna eat you.
She flexed a little at that, and I swear I could feel her heart beat even faster.
Without thinking it’s not the right way to release a fish I flipped her over the side. But before she hit the water, I heard her laugh and say, Works every time.
I looked over the side and caught a shimmer of greenish white disappearing into the deep. I had to laugh out loud at myself, but it felt good to see so many of the next generation safely on their way, and I knew 14 would survive. To take a fish loaded with roe is just plain dumb.
Fortunately I was alone that day. Talking to a fish like that will get you a room somewhere upstate with soft walls.
• • •
That was a long time ago, and I’ve caught, cleaned and eaten many perch since that day. My wife has a great recipe, and eating them with my family, on my deck after a full day of fishing on the Bay is the Chesapeake at its finest.
Some day in the not-too-distant future, they won’t be as plentiful as they are now. We will have limits as we do with other fishes of the Bay. In the 1950s, they were so abundant they were a nuisance to some fishermen. I have seen trash cans filled with dead and rotting perch and other fish at cleaning stations around the Bay.
Or some will take them home and will be too tired to clean them or find somebody to take them. They just wind up in a different trash can. It’s a bad habit, or attitude, that needs fixing. We shouldn’t take more than we need. But it seems we overfish everything in the Bay.
To this day, though, whenever I’m in my boat fishing for perch and the tip of my rod goes down hard, I hope it might be her. Just to see 14 again would be good for me maybe good for all of us.
Semi-retired Washington Post graphic artist Larry Fogel has caught the bug. “After 65 years of fishing, boating, beach combing and Naval service my mind is flooding with images and stories,” he says. This, his second Bay Weekly story, he calls “a true story, sort of.” His first “Uncommon Courtesies: Helping Fellow Fishers Out of Trouble,” appeared on May 19.