Why I respect women #36: a real fish story

I had occasion this week to tell friends the story of my maternal grandmother. She was born in 1906 in an eastern Pennsylvania coal mining town. Her family was so poor that she was sent at age 16 to northern New Jersey to clean houses for wealthy families. She gave me pictures of her from the late 1940s as the only woman in a machine shop and, later, continued to shop for her own groceries three-quarters of a mile away well into her late 80s. Although she drove my mother crazy (my Mom is a fantastic story of achievement for another day), I suspect that grandma had undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder that was no doubt nucleated by her adolescent labors. She was, put simply, tougher than a boiled owl.

Yesterday's post on the chocolate valentine bass and trout combined with my thinking about PharmMom and PharmGram to realize that I never posted about this great story I found just before Christmas. It's a perfect example of how the sensible, reverent, and respectful reflection of a woman plays out in a male-dominated, testosterone-fueled sport.

I should mention, at the outset, that my Dad took both my sister and I fishing when we were kids and instilled in us a great respect for the natural world and the sanctity of life. So, I acknowledge that many women are elite fisherspersons and that many men might do the same as Gwen Frazier. Regardless, this is a great story by Mike Zlotnicki from the 11 Dec 2008 News & Observer:

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Long story made short was that Raleigh, NC, resident, Gwen Frazier, was doing a little ocean surf-casting at Topsail Beach, barely a three hour drive from the state capital. (I learned early on that it is not, as one might think, pronounced TOP-say-ull but rather TOPS-ull.) Her day there became stuff of local legend.

As an aside - my love for the Carolina coast goes back to the summer before college when I was invited down by my aunt and uncle (then a IBM RTP'er) for two weeks with my cousin at Emerald Isle. The experience was a far cry from my days drinking beer in the Sumner Ave parking lot at overbuilt, rundown, now somewhat rebuilt Seaside Heights, New Jersey. While I don't fish anymore, I am still struck 27 (gulp!) years later that this area of North Carolina has huge areas of beautiful, protected oceanfront despite the encroachment of real estate developers and now-MIA stock market proceeds.

So, no surprise to me that Ms Frazier wanted to spend at day at the surf the weekend before Thanksgiving:

On Nov. 23, Frazier was surf-fishing on the south end of Topsail Island when she hooked a huge black drum. What ensued will have some anglers shaking their heads and some anglers shaking her hand. . .

. . .Frazier was relaxing with friend Kim France of Raleigh on the beach with her rod in a surf spike (a tubular rod holder) when France saw the rod bend and told Frazier she might have something.

"It was heavy, and I thought it was a skate," said Frazier, referring to a raylike fish common to anglers this time of the year. "It wasn't moving fast; a smaller fish would have zipped out to the sea."

Frazier is not an avid surf angler, but she's no Jennie-come-lately to fishing, either. She has an 18-foot Grady-White boat that she uses to fish for dolphin (mahi-mahi) and king mackerel beyond sight of the beach.

Many anglers cut their lines if they suspect a skate or ray is on the other end, but Frazier, a marketing director for The Redwoods Group, played the unknown adversary as other anglers passed, assuring her it was a skate or ray.

After 45 minutes, it appears that it was not a skate or ray but rather a black drum (Pogonias cromis):

Dennis Fronk of Wilmington, said, "That's the biggest fish I've ever seen."

It might have been the biggest black drum anyone has ever seen.

"I'm 5 foot 4 [inches]," Frazier said, "and the fish was exactly my height."

If that's accurate -- and we'll never know for sure -- the fish probably would have been a state record and perhaps a world record, said Randy Gregory, a fisheries biologist with the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries.

But keeping the fish, gutting it, and mounting it was not in Frazier's plans:

Frazier said she downloaded a picture of the fish (which she named Black Beauty) into her computer, measured the reel seat (where the reel attaches) on her surf rod and used a computer program to estimate the length of the fish. That, and her height comparison, is how she derived the estimated length.

It's a moot point.

After landing the fish and taking pictures, Frazier got help moving the fish back to the cold surf, and then spent 20 minutes in the cold water stroking the fish, reviving it and helping it back to deeper water.

I can tell you there's no way my Dad or my uncle would've done this.

"The lady should be commended for releasing this fish," he said. "She should be applauded. There are very few of these really big fish. They're incredibly important to the stock. That fish is probably 60 to 75 years old."

Of course, the comments to the story are full of pissing and moaning about how catch-and-release is still evil, how an old large fish would no longer be contributing to the stock, blah, blah, blah.

But, to me, it was the gesture of returning the fish to the ocean that separated Ms Frazier from many of the rest of us. While a man might have done the same, I submit that a fisherwoman would have a higher probability of doing so.

I like to come across these little vignettes that remind me of how the increased representation of women in traditionally male-dominated fields of all sorts has tended to - I don't know - humanize them.

But even without delving too much into philosophy or gender relations, I share this story with you because it just made me feel plain good.

More like this

You bet a fisherwoman is more likely to let a fish go... Reminds me of a conversation I had a long time ago with an elderly fisherman in Nova Scotia. We were looking out across a rocky beach, when a large blue Heron landed not far from us to fish in a tidal pool.

Dr. Val: Wow! Just look at that beautiful bird. Isn't it amazing?
Fisherman: [Long thoughtful pause]Well... There ain't enough meat on that bird to make a hamburger.

Need I say more? :)

That's some fish! I think its awesome that she released that guy... I always hated having to keep the fish I caught with my dad (that were legal size). First fish I ever caught was off the coast of Cape Hattaras (mahi mahi). My sister caught a whopper of a wahoo once (~50lbs).

Good for Ms. Frazier! And it's likely that an "old large fish" could still contribute to the stock; our own decline in gamete quality and reproductive function with age does not necessarily apply to all vertebrates.

Speaking of fisherwomen, in her book The Decorated Journal, Gwen Diehn describes the fishing diary kept by an Englishwoman, Muriel Foster, between 1913 and 1949. The book was a standard fly-fishing diary with columns for location, flies used, types of fish caught, etc., and Ms. Foster, like any serious fly-fishing devotee, dutifully recorded these details. However, she also included charming sketches and watercolors of the fishing flies, ducks, fish, sea otters, a nearby lodge, etc., with a complete disregard of the lines and columns printed in the diary.

Boiled owl, indeed! *sniff* ;-)

I would agree that a woman would be more likely to release a fish like that,though I am happy to say that I think my dad,who is an avid fisher,would also do so.He releases most of the fish he catches,and gets a bit annoyed with the local fishermen who tell him he should kill them.
My dad took my brother and I fishing once.I felt very bad about catching the one little fish that took my bait(a steel hook through the mouth?!Ow,ow,ow!),and my brother just stared off into space and didn't notice that the fly had disappeared until the rod snapped.Neither of us are really fisherperson material.

By A. Willow (not verified) on 16 Feb 2009 #permalink

This is a WONDERFUL story! I have only caught one fish in my life, and I wish that I had thrown 'im back.

Actually, that's not quite true-- when I was a kid, I was shockingly good at catching guppies at lake shores in paper dixie cups. I kept a few in fish tanks, and they lived for many years.

What I love about this story is its double entendre. Gwen, as a woman has humanized a male dominated sport. Black Beauty, in its ripe old age, is still contributing to the stock.

I like it, and I agree with you. I think women can be very good at making others feel good, at being nurturing, and I see no need to exclude that from either science OR fishing.