Monday, July 24, 2006

The Thought Provoking Mudfish

Jack London despised the domestic dog, naturalist Ed Abbey urinated on ant hills and Mark Twain had only poison for the French. These eminent literary outdoorsman scorned three widely diverse creatures innocently born into what they are. For sure they had one sentiment in common though.: a deep and abiding loathing of the bowfin.

Yes, the blameless bowfin, finning gaily here and there, opening his toothy mouth occasionally to briefly thrill an angler thinking he has hooked something else, anything else. The bowfin has been more kinds of fish initially than any other and is never himself until the evidence is undeniable, for no one fishes who is not an optimist.

Its identity is so tenuous in fact, that it is never called by its given name. Bowfin is not spoken - only written. Generally any amount of swearing will locate one. Recently I chanced upon Andy Rooney sitting under a frayed straw hat, cane poling in a roadside ditch. I inquired about the fishing.

“I don’t know why,” he whined, “you can’t just ask me how many mudfish I’ve caught. That’s more to the point, isn’t it?”

“Alright. How many bowfins have you caught?”

“You know, I’ve never cared for the name. It doesn’t tell you what you want to know, does it? Is it half mud and half fish or is it three quarters mud? Some people think they’re completely mud. I like that.”

How the Mudfish might have got its Name

Two old gents were angling down in the old slough. One of them pulled up a bowfin. “Whatchew got there?” said the other.

“I don’t rightly know,” said the first. “I think it’s a fish.”

“No, look to me you jus’ caught a gob o’mud.”

“It’s a fish.”

The other leaned over squinting. After a time he concluded, “Nope. That’s jist the durndest gob o’ mud I ever did see.”

“It’s a fish.”

“Mud.”

“Fish.”

“Mud.”

Then they looked at each other and smiled. “It’s a fishmud, ain’t it?” said the first.

“Durned if it ain’t.”

Does the bowfin deserve all this ill will? The name “mudfish” always seemed unjust. Although they can inhabit muddy water, I have not found one in solid mud, seeing them often in clear, flowing streams. It’s true they do not suit the palate. After throwing them back for years, it occurred to me to be open minded and try one. I can report that the very filleting of a bowfin is disgusting, the flesh slimy and putrid. Not one to be put off by trifles, I sauteed a small piece and upon eating it learned the origin of its name. The rest was offered to the cat who instantly ran away from home, proving that this ancient fish does have a useful application.

In Florida the conversation often reaches another of Mother Nature’s children who obliviously inhabit human thoughts, the manatee. The vast majority of opinions emanate from compassion and appreciation. The rare empty headed view is always the same: “I hate manatees.”

It is hard to imagine anything less hateable than a manatee but here it is again - the general slander of an innocent race. Perhaps these individuals are all eminent literary outdoorsmen. On hearing it the first time, I thought, horrified, “Oh, man. Her family must have been slaughtered by manatees.” Loathe to learn the truth yet spurred by morbid fascination, I asked why.

“They’re so ugly.”

The answers can be classified by gender. Women who hate manatees always give this reason. Based simply on looks, one would expect women to love the manatee, as it gives them all a favorable comparison. But perhaps they can’t stomach someone going around looking like that without doing something about it. The men are likely to hold against them the government regulations instituted for their protection, which sometimes interfere with high speed motorboating.

“Pardon me for being protected,” I heard a manatee mumbubble once in passing.

“Excuse me for being endangered,” another apologized.

Ever the scientist I continue to ask why when I hear it and finally was rewarded with that invaluable aid to research, the anomaly. I swear that the following quote is absolutely true and that it came from the proprietor of an investment firm in New Smyrna Beach. We were in his office and I never will forget it because I wrote it down. I said, “Please can I have a sheet of paper and a pen? I wish to record those words you have said.”

Pleased as punch he handed them over. The following is a word for word transcription. I never would tamper with such a pure example of whatever this is: “Well, you know - all the government red tape and bullshit. Manatees are dinosaurs. If you had elephants walking on I-4, do you think they’d close that? No way.”

After recovering the facility of speech and requesting writing tools, I said, “Thank you very much. Everyone I meet from now on will seem quite sensible because I will compare them to you. Let me further congratulate you, a financial advisor. I have heard many stupid things said about manatees, but yours is the undisputed champion. You are indeed a rare individual to volunteer such damning evidence about yourself. If knuckleheaded remarks about endangered species becomes an Olympic event, and it wouldn’t surprise me, then you, sir, are the horse I will back. For training I will find a spot on the bank of Blue Springs Run where you can sit and constantly be reviled by these monsters and inspired to your greatest elocutionary heights.”

I am not so sure of the accuracy of my comment because I wrote it down much later. However, the spirit is intact.

While the bowfin is despised universally by fishermen only, the manatee is despised only by knuckleheads. If there is some kind of a connection here, it escapes me. I chanced to spy Mr. Rooney again, on a bank of the St. John’s River and asked if he had spotted any manatees. He turned to look at me, then his shoulders slumped as he sighed in apparent exasperation.

“Why does everybody have to call them “manatees”? Sea cow was good enough when we used to grill them. Everybody knew what you were talking about and it’s certainly a more picturesque name. Maybe I’ll just go to the movies and see a matinee. I think I like that.”

We all have our little prejudices. Mr. London and the manatee haters occupy small, bitter minorities. We are left to wonder if he hated manatees also, because they have the quizzical, friendly look of the domestic dog. And the manatee is the rare wild animal that will seek us out and accept food and a scratch on the belly, the very behavior he seemed to detest so in the dog. Mr. Abbey persecuted the pismire for its neurosis and Mr. Clemens loathed the French for their cruelty. If there is a common thread among the ant, the Frenchman and the bowfin, it is too fine for me to see. Perhaps there is a little mudfish in everybody.

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