There are aspects of each fish species helping create a unique experience: pike are ferocious, pumpkinseed sport bright colors and largemouth bass produce bass thumb.
Fish don’t have handles, so we often resort to using landing tools. A net is a classical solution. But a net says to the fish, “I’ll fight you up to a point, then I’ll spring this trap on you.”
We use various fish grips. They seem to be perfect for dropping overboard. A gaff is medieval and not conducive for catch and release. Conservation-minded anglers use a cradle to release giant pike and musky without removing the fish from the water.
On a kayak, these tools can lead to a disjointed, unsatisfactory landing experience. Nets are always tangled. Try grabbing a fish flopping boat side with a lip gripper. And a cradle requires another angler to operate.
Kayak anglers often have to land fish with their bare hands. But where do you grab the fish? Luckily, each fish actually does have a handle. For largemouth bass, the best handle is the fish’s big mouth.
Grabbing a bass by the jaw secures the fish and opens the mouth for hook removal. Never hang the fish by its jaw, always place your hand under its belly and hold it horizontally.
The bass’s mouth is even equipped with sandpaper-like teeth for extra grip. By the end of the day, if I’ve caught enough bass, those teeth will rub my thumb raw.
Dripping wet, glistening, glorious greens and blacks, lifting the fish allows me to feel its heft. What else is lifted for the sheer pleasure of its weight? While momentarily distracted by girth calculations, the thumb becomes a palette being sculpted, chiseled in a few uneasy seconds by hundreds of perforating little teeth.
The result is an injury similar to rubbing the thumb on an extremely fine cheese grater. I should put a Band-Aid over the rough spot, but that would deny me the joys of bass thumb.
For a few days after a great bass trip, each time I use the opposable appendage, the pain creates a tingly reminder of time much better spent. Simple, routine activities such as brushing teeth, picking up a coffee cup or signing my name, may trigger the sweet pang of bass thumb.
A warped pleasure, for sure, this transitory scar usually goes unnoticed. Most people do not go around examining other people’s thumbs. To bring the recognition my thumb deserves, I have to show off.
After I spent a day bailing big bass from a private pond in Texas, my thumb was a shredded, pulpy mess. The next couple days, I became the Fonz. “Ayy,” I’d say showing off the classic double thumbs-up.
My masochistic souvenir keeps me grinning while I am back in the office. I put my thumb out for the world to see. People might think I’ve taken up hitchhiking. Every movie gets two thumbs up.
I want to be fingerprinted. This is the thumb I want to be remembered by. The police inspector would say, “Looks like the work of ‘Bass Thumb McDoogle.’”
Other sports injuries do not bring the satisfaction of bass thumb. There is nothing pleasant about ringing ears from skeet shooting, hiking blisters, swimming sunburn, biking’s scraped elbows, or rolled ankles in basketball.
Bass thumb is different. It allows a type of “closure” in a brief turbulent relationship. Closure without puncture. This is one of the reasons bass fishing is so popular.
A day of fishing will be over too quickly. The battles only last a couple of minutes. Then, I will slip the bass back in the water and watch the ripples as it slides off into the depths. But my encounter will leave lasting impressions.
Featured Illustration: Lorenzo Del Bianco