When you really think about it, fishing is a lot like painting. Both are art forms with multiple disciplines and methods. While there are distinct disciplines, mediums can be mixed to create something new, like when fishing with live bait or lures on a fly rod. Both also require dedication and different skills to master. There are your basic paint-by-numbers fishing methods, like fishing for panfish with a worm and a bobber. Then there’s your more advanced still-life and landscape work, such as fishing for bass with lures and trolling for walleye. And then there are masterpieces that take years of devotion to the craft to master: swinging flies for winter steelhead or hunting the flats for permit, the Mona Lisa and Sistine Chapels of the fishing world.
Yet there are certain parts of the art world that don’t quite fit this mold. There are painting methods and styles out there that are quite frankly, bizarre. The funky, strange, abstract art realm where artists do things like hurling entire cans of house paint onto their work and then bellyflopping naked onto the canvas. This doesn’t necessarily line up with the conventional and is not really considered to be art by those who paint “normally.” Yet when you look into it, there are also a lot of fishing methods out there that go beyond the traditional hook and line we’re used to seeing. Fishing methods that most of the rest of the angling world considers just a little bit weird.
We’ve all seen the opening scene of Crocodile Dundee II (and if you haven’t you should because it’s a fantastic film), where Dundee casually chucks a stick of dynamite into New York Bay and blasts up a bunch of bluefish. He gets busted by the cops and when questioned he casually shrugs and says, “It’s these New York fish, Sarge. They weren’t taking bait.” While a humorous and seemingly ludicrous scene, this piece of cinematic magic is actually a real fishing technique called blast fishing.
As Crocodile Dundee found out, blast fishing is illegal in the United States but remains a popular fishing method in other parts of the world. Originating in Peru where extensive mining practices gave anglers plenty of access to dynamite and popularized in WWII by grenade and dynamite-wielding soldiers looking to feed their regiments, blast fishing works by tossing a large, weighted explosive into the water so that it explodes beneath the surface. The resulting explosion creates a concussive underwater shockwave which quite literally knocks out any fish within the blast radius, allowing the pyromaniac angler to pick the fish up when they float to the surface.
While there are a variety of different fishing rods, lines, lures, and other equipment out there, in certain parts of the world, many anglers consider it all to be unnecessary. These fishermen don’t believe in all that fancy schmancy stuff and instead, go out and catch their dinner using only the equipment they were born with—their hands.
Hand fishing is a popular and successful technique all over the world for a variety of fish species but has most notably been used for two in particular, catfish and salmon. Across the southern part of the United States, the art of catching catfish with your hands is known as noodling. This popular fishing technique consists of sticking your hand or arm into an underwater hole that likely contains a spawning catfish. Ideally, the aggressive fish will then attack your hand, allowing you to grab ahold of the fish and bring it to the surface where it can be subsequently released into a pan of hot oil. Originally practiced by Native American tribes, the technique was quickly picked up and popularized by many 18th-century Scottish, Irish, and English immigrants who found the technique quite similar to one of their own hand-fishing techniques used across the pond—salmon tickling.
Salmon and trout tickling or “guddling” as it is popularly known, is the art of reaching beneath the surface of the water to “tickle” or gently rub the underbelly of a salmon or trout until the fish goes into a trance. When done properly, tickling will eventually completely immobilize a fish allowing the guddler to grab the salmonid and throw it onto the bank. The technique was a common fishing method for peasants and poachers who had no access to fishing equipment during the 14th century. Though it is currently illegal in Britain today, it remained a popular salmon and trout catching technique well into the late-1930s when it put a lot of fish onto the table for hungry families during the economic depression.
The act of poisoning fish has been used for centuries in South America, Africa, and even the United States. Like blast fishing, the technique isn’t used to necessarily target one fish in particular but rather to stun a large amount of fish at once, allowing the angler to pick them up at their leisure. It usually is done by pulverizing or milking the toxic sap from certain plants and then dumping said liquid into the river where it will be filtered through the gills of a fish, stunning or occasionally killing the fish as a result.
As demonstrated in Meat Eater Season 5, fish poisoning is usually done on small streams or tributaries where the toxins can be easily distributed throughout the entire water column and not just in one easily avoidable area. Doing it in small streams also prevents the toxins in the plants from being diluted by larger amounts of water. While a controversial technique in many parts of the world, fish poisoning is still a widely popular practice in countries where certain tribes or groups of people live a subsistence lifestyle. These people find that gathering large amounts of fish at once with poison rather than one at a time with a hook and line is a much more efficient use of their limited food gathering time.
There is perhaps no more thrilling practice in the outdoor world than calling an animal into range. A popular hunting technique for turkey, elk, and even whitetail, the act of animal calling can actually be done in the fishing world as well. Now while this may sound ridiculous at first, putting us in mind of those crazy anglers, we know who repeatedly chirp “Here fishy, fishy, fishy!” when having a slow day (admit it…you’ve tried it), it’s actually quite an effective fishing technique when done right.
We modern anglers generally rely on lures and baits that act on a fish’s senses of sight and smell to get them to react, completely forgetting that fish can also hear as well. However, in certain parts of the world or in certain water conditions, calling in fish has become all the rage. On the East Coast, striped bass anglers have been calling in fish for years by repeatedly smacking their rod tips on the surface of the water and even bashing the sides of their boats with a rubber mallet to imitate the sounds of a striper feeding frenzy.
Catfish anglers who chase flatheads and blues in dark and extremely stained water often use a technique called “clonking.” With a specifically designed tool called a clonker, these anglers can make small air bubbles in the water that splash and plop in a certain way, producing a precise sound beneath the surface of the water that triggers aggression in catfish and makes them easier to catch.
While this may sound new and radical to you, calling fish is actually an ancient and well-practiced art in many parts of the world, most notably in New Guinea. Here, the art of shark calling has been practiced for hundreds of years with specially built shark calls made from coconuts being handed down from father to son for generations. New Guinea shark callers use the calls by splashing them in certain ways on the surface of the water from their canoes, calling sharks to the sides of the boat where they can be subsequently lassoed and brought to shore, which I’ve got to say is about the most badass fishing method I've ever heard.
From sending falcons after pheasants and rabbits to using dogs to tree bears and retrieve ducks, to using horses and mules to get us into the backcountry, sportsmen have been using animals to help them with hunting for thousands of years. However, very few of us even know that there are many cultures around the world that use animals to help them with fishing.
In Asia, fish-catching animals like cormorants and otters have been trained to catch and retrieve fish for anglers as well as to drive fish toward waiting nets for centuries. These techniques were so successful that in the 16th-century European sailors actually captured otters and waterbirds and brought them home to train and fish with themselves, though the use of the animals was eventually made obsolete with the advent of modern netting techniques.
Of course, man’s best friend has also gotten in on the act with dogs being used to catch and retrieve salmon in places like Alaska and Russia. Additionally, in Portugal, an entire dog breed called the Portuguese Water Dog (duh) was bred specifically for fishing. While these dogs were trained to retrieve fishing gear and even to tow boats and rescue swimmers, they were also trained to herd schools of fish towards waiting anglers on shore.
Fishing has long been thought of as an art form which is no wonder with the graceful casts, intricate and complicated knots, and beautiful flies and lures created by anglers over the years. The sport has always attracted people with not only a desire to catch and eat fish but with creative minds wishing to connect with the natural world.
Even these admittedly strange fishing techniques can be thought of as a form of art when looked at in the right light, which is one of the most wonderful things about fishing—it’s always open to interpretation. So long as it’s legal, you can fish any way you want no matter how weird people may think you are. Because like painting a great work of art, the results are all in the eye of the beholder—though I’d hate to think what would have happened if Picasso had ever decided to pick up a fishing rod.