Paul handed me the rod. Fresh off shoulder surgery, he was getting worked over by what we assumed was either a large Chinook or lingcod. Whatever it is, I thought as I leaned into the rod, it’s huge and dear Lord can it pull.
Then the line went slack. I reeled fast as I could to regain tension, catching up to a belly of line still slicing through the water.
“It’s coming up!” I shouted.
“Must be a salmon!” Paul responded, going for the net.
We expected a chrome rocket to smash the surface; instead we were greeted by the bobbing teddy bear face and doe eyes of a baby harbor seal. “Ooorf?” it exclaimed in a pathetic tone, Paul’s Point Wilson Dart hanging from its flank.
I reeled tight as I could, pointed the rod tip to Paul, and he sliced the line with his pocket knife. We looked at each other and shouted “Shit!” in unison.
Even at 16, we knew the best course of action in such situations. The summer before we’d been fly fishing a small, Central Washington creek for cutthroat at dusk. On a backcast, I hooked what I first thought was a tree branch—until the snag started dancing around and taking line. We spent the better part of a half hour getting back to camp, locating leather gloves, pinning down the bat (pictured), and unhooking and untangling it from the fly and tippet to let it fly away.
Suffice it to say, we knew better than to get hands-on when we snagged the seal pup.
Since those middle school days, I’ve accidentally hooked numerous diving sea birds, a sea gull, a blue-footed booby, an alligator, a red-eared slider turtle, a muskrat, crabs, sea anemones and several other non-fish species on sport fishing gear—not to mention the myriad weird things that wound up in our net during my commercial fishing days (the dead black bear cub was the weirdest).
It was all pretty entertaining and novel as a kid, but I’ve since learned to avoid such aquatic animals at all costs with hook and line. It rarely goes well for the angler or the angled.
There are a few notable exceptions to this rule, however: edible sea creatures. My dad cranked up a 5-pound octopus in Alaska one time and I was able to club it before it slipped through the scuppers on deck. I’ve never thrown back an opalescent squid, coonstripe shrimp or legal-sized Dungeness crab from my home waters of Washington, either.
“I’ve snagged all manner of non-fish things while fishing, from bicycles to t-shirts to other people’s fishing rods,” said Steve Rinella. “My favorite, though, is when you snag something that’s good to eat. I’ve caught sea cucumbers and scallops on my fishing rod; both of those take a lot of effort to catch on purpose. To catch one on accident feels like cheating, but sometimes cheating doesn’t feel all that bad.”
I asked the rest of the MeatEater crew if they’ve had any such interesting experiences while fishing. Turns out, they have.
Kevin Sloan told me about the time he was bass fishing outside Augusta, Georgia and a 3-foot alligator came up and smashed his buzzbait off the surface.
“We also had water moccasins chase the buzzbaits, which I thought was funny until I was corrected,” Kevin said. “Apparently the guys didn’t want the moccasins to get lured too close to their low-side johnboats because they might decide to crawl in. Then you’d have to go in the water with the gators and other moccasins.”
Brody Henderson had his own run-in with reptiles too. On vacation in Virginia Beach, he and his son caught a pile of channel and bullhead catfish then set out the filleted carcasses for crab bait.
“The next morning, we went fishing again and I spent the whole time unhooking one painted turtle and snapping turtle after another,” Brody said. “They’d been attracted by the carcasses.”
April Vokey also strongly recommends against reptilian wrangling.
“I was bass fishing in Australia, casting onto the rocks and then stripping my fly to look like a frog jumping in the water,” April said. “From out of nowhere, a large water dragon leapt onto my fly, hooking himself and leaving me to pull the barbless hook out. The damn thing bit me before it took off.”
Marine mammals have messed with many of us as well. Josh Prestin once encountered a pod of sneaky bottlenose dolphins when fishing for false albacore off Jupiter, Florida.
“The first time, the dolphin grabbed an albie [that was on my line], took off, stripped line then there was a big thump. We just got the head back,” Josh said. “The second time, the dolphin made an errant maneuver and the hook ended up in the side of its face. It swam and swam and swam before we were finally were able to break the leader.”
Joe Ferronato had to pull a similar move on the other coast.
“One time, fly-lining live sardines for yellowtail off San Diego, I hooked into a big sea lion weighing probably 500 pounds,” Joe said. “This quickly became a fight to either break or cut the line before the reel was completely spooled. I ended with about half the line that I’d started with.”
Some accidental catches have happy endings, though. Spencer Neuharth was reminded of how he acquired his favorite snagging rod.
“When paddlefishing, you inadvertently snag all kinds of stuff that aren’t paddlefish—most of it bad,” Neuharth said. “One snag that we welcomed to the boat was someone else’s snagging rod that had been resting at the bottom of the river for a few seasons. My dad cleaned it up, and we’ve caught a number of paddlefish with it since.”
The worst non-fish catch story among the staff, however, didn’t involve living things either.
“In Baja one time, my brother and I decided to see if we could catch anything surf casting,” said Annie Banks Raser. “Something snagged. We thought it might be a turtle, but as it got closer we realized it was just a big, ol’ soggy diaper.”
Feature image via Paul Lumsden.