This May Pinch a Little

by Jim Austin

Summer had officially begun, and the time honored tradition of frog catching was being practiced by little boys all over New England. My eight-year-old son Shorty became frustrated at the vigilance of two bullfrogs in our tiny pond, which is located about 30 yards from our back door. No matter how ninja-like his approach, these wary amphibians always seemed to know when his strike was imminent.

Fortunately he laid his problem at the feet of his dear old dad, who possesses the coveted "green belt" in frog snaring. My strategy was to attach a trout fishing fly to a three foot length of monofilament and append that from a seven foot cane pole. The idea of course, is to dangle the fly in front of the frog's little green nose and entice him to strike. We were set to go when the phone rang and I sprinted to the house. In mid-conversation I froze as a blood curdling shriek rang out from the pond area. As I flew through the screen door I had visions of Shorty with the hook embedded up to the hilt in his eyeball.

What I saw was the Short guy with the pole in one hand and his other raised to full extension while his feet were tippy tippy-toeing furiously in a circular pattern trying desperately to get some slack in the line. I could see the Royal Coachman embedded in the hapless lad's finger and took a moment to recall the Austin family motto which Shorty was so graphically acting out: "When in trouble or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout."

The boy was eventually convinced that death by fishhook was extremely rare and the tiny hook was removed with only one drop of blood to mark the event. Nothing is so comforting, when a person is experiencing distress, than to hear a tale about some poor schmuck who had it twice as bad. Still sniffling, Shorty was invited into the patriarchal lap to hear the strange but true story of his weird Uncle Chris and the New Guinea fishhook.

Before moving to Vermont, my wife and I had lived and worked in Papua New Guinea for several years. In the last two years of our stay we lived on the province of New Ireland, a long skinny island off the east coast of PNG. To me the bonus of island life was the salt-water fishing. The waters around the provincial capital of Kavieng are dotted with islands, straits and reefs which are teeming with game fish. There is no sport fishing pressure whatsoever in these waters.

I have often remarked in a gloating, self-congratulatory manner that fishing around New Ireland was what fishing must have been like off the coast of Florida before Columbus. It only took one picture of myself and several chums holding up a large mahi-mahi and a wahoo the size of a midget submarine to have my yuppie dentist younger brother knocking on my door. Chris arrived from Los Angeles at 3:00 p.m. and by 4:00 we were on the water in a 16 foot open aluminum boat with a 25 hp Suzuki on the back.

We rigged up two medium-sized baitcasters with 20 lb. line and headed out toward a patchwork of islands. On the way we passed hoards of seabirds diving into water boiling with panicky baitfish who had been driven to the surface by packs of voracious skipjack tuna. We could have trolled along the edge of this dinner party and picked up skipjack by the dozen but I had different fish to fry.

After twenty minutes we arrived at a likely location between uninhabited Bishop's Island and an unnamed atoll with two palm trees and some sand to mark its presence. The current in this locale was strong enough that we had no trouble getting large weighted spoons to wobble convincingly while we drifted. Shortly the drift took us over a school of ravenous giant trevally which swallowed our 12 inch salt water spoons with enthusiasm. Once hooked, these deep-bodied fish, which are built like New York City manhole covers, give a furious account of themselves; they fight hard and deep and never give up. By the time we landed our double-hookup of twin trevallys it was time to reposition the boat for another drift over our trevally convention center.

Like most bone-headed younger brothers, Chris refused to heed my command to remain seated for relocation. The choice was his and I allowed him to suffer the consequences of a high speed 180 degree turn. I may have gunned our 25 horse power Suzuki a little too vigorously in order to prove a point, but I was loathe to deprive my brother of this learning experience. Predictably Chris flopped into the bottom of the boat like a sack of turnips and when he resurfaced he had one of the treble hooks from our ridiculously large lures buried in his ankle. "Ah ha," I said with brotherly sympathy, "what an opportunity".

Opportune was indeed the correct word for that moment. Allow me to digress for a bit of historical clarification which will explain the events to follow. Consider the cost of dentistry these days and then consider having a dentist in the family. We have literally saved thousands of dollars by taking advantage of my brother's largesse and skill with upper root forceps. Plenty of drilling and filling, but no billing, so to speak.

The problem with Chris was that, before proceeding, he liked to remind me of sibling squabbles which took place years ago. Just before an extraction he would recall the time I fed his GI Joe action figures to Zeke, our dog. Poised to grind a rotten tooth in preparation for a crown he reminded me of a certain spin he took in the clothes dryer courtesy of myself. While my dental bro would never do anything to actually increase my agony I always thought that he experienced a fiendish moment of unprofessional pleasure when applying burr to enamel. And I really hated that little Count Dracula grin he always gave when injecting the Novocain. "This may pinch a bit," he would say snickering.

Now it was my turn. I had always wanted to try out the hook removal technique that Field and Stream Magazine printed every year in their survival section. The idea is to take some pliers, grasp the shank of the hook and with a twisting motion continue its journey through the flesh so that the barb is exposed through a second hole. You then snip the barb off, withdraw the remainder of the hook and "Voila." Fortunately our craft was equipped with the finest in surgical tools. While Chris pondered the wisdom of minor surgery while bobbing up and down in the Bismarck Sea, I was Choosing from our selection of instruments. "Linoleum knife? No, maybe in post op. Vice grips? Yes, in case I have to clamp an artery. Hack saw, claw hammer? No, not unless the bone needed paring." Then I laid my hand on the perfect tool: a pair of rusty channel locks. Channel locks are large pliers which have angled jaws perfect for hook removal.

Amid much bellyaching and entreaties to be gentle from the patient, I grasped the shaft of the embedded hook. After a lot of reefing and twisting, two things were accomplished. I managed to make a tent of skin where I wanted the hook to come through, and was causing Chris considerable pain. I have to say that operating conditions were difficult - what with the rocking of the boat, the dull hook point and Mr. Wussy squealing about nerve damage.

I needed another instrument. There it was, a 2-foot piece of one and one half inch plumbing pipe used to render the more obstreperous trevallys unconscious. "This may pinch a bit", I chuckled, as I borrowed a phrase from Count Dracula's lexicon of comforting dental phrases. Before he could object, I tented up the skin and gave the top of the tent pole a sharp rap with my steel billy. Christian Barnard could not have performed the operation any better. There emerged about a pint of Chris's vital bodily fluids along with that nasty barb which was snipped off and withdrawn without further ado. I must say that Chris was no trooper when the tables were turned and he was the one under the knife. He even whined when I tied a perfectly good bilge rag around his ankle to staunch the flow of blood. Bleating about infections and pouting about gangrene was sure to have a deleterious effect on the fishing and so I wisely ignored his whimpering. Chris has never really thanked me for saving him that day. I guess I can comfort myself in that my selfless act made a great life lesson for my son, who has now learned to respect the fishhook.

Jim Austin writes a column for the Brattleboro, Vermont Reformer and has published fishing stories in both US and Australian publications.