I was a fish killer by Steve Hindi

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1996:

I first fished at age five, with my
brother Greg, who is one year younger.
Each of us caught a perch out of a lake in St.
Paul, Minnesota. Fascinated, we watched
the two perch swim around in a small bucket
until first one and then the other died. I don’t
remember what happened to their bodies, but
I know they were not large enough to eat.
Perch are plentiful, and easy to
hook, and are therefore considered to be a
good species for practice fishing.
Many members from both sides of
my family were fishers, as well as hunters,
trappers, and ranchers. A couple of dead
perch didn’t rate much concern. Like most
children, we learned what we were taught,
setting aside whatever qualms we may have
felt. Our mother raised us to care for cats and
dogs, and we regularly took in strays,
despite housing project rules which forbade
it. However, we were told that fish had no
feelings, and we killed them with abandon.

Our first decade or so were spent
pursuing panfish, as they were prevalent
around the lakes we were able to walk to.
Sometimes family members and friends
drove us to other lakes. On a good day we
would fill up buckets or stringers of sunfish,
crappies, bullheads and perch. Sometimes
they were eaten, and sometimes they were
simply thrown away. The most important
thing was the acquisition: the victory.
In our early teens we also fished for
carp. Although they are considered a “trash”
species, not recognized as “game,” they are
much larger and fight much harder. Carp
typically were left to suffocate on the shore.
We were told this was good for the other fish
in the lake, as carp supposedly turned the
bottom to mud. Sometimes I would give a
fleeting thought to whether these animals suffered
as they lay gasping on the shore. Like
catfish and bullheads, carp take a long time
to suffocate. After a while, we would hit
carps’ heads with rocks to kill them quickly.
Once we brought M-80 firecrackers
to the lake. We stuffed one into the gill of a
large carp, lit the waterproof fuse, and
released him. Seconds later the water erupted
in a red spray. When the muddy water
cleared, we saw the carp’s head, blasted
away from his body. I watched tentacles of
flesh sway back and forth in the current.
Small fish inspected them with curiosity. For
some reason we felt bad about this, although
no one said anything in particular. We did
not do that again. Looking back at it, however,
I guess that victim suffered far less
than those who suffocated.
In our late teens we got our own
cars, and turned our attention to different
lakes and larger game fish – trout, bass,
walleyes and northern pike. Of these, northerns
were my favorite, because of their
aggressive nature. Often we bought large
sucker minnows as bait. The suckers were
hooked just under and to the rear of the dorsal
fin, in a way that would allow as much
movement as possible, and would maximize
their survival time. Some fishers would run
the hook through their eyes. The suckers
were thrown out and suspended under a bobber,
or were held close to the bottom by a
lead sinker. The bobber was big enough to
prevent the minnow from pulling it underwater,
but small enough to be taken down by a
larger predator as it grabbed the minnow.
Although we were told, and wanted
to believe, that fish did not feel fear or pain,
we almost always knew when a predator
approached the sucker. The bobber would
begin to bounce and move; although the
sucker wasn’t big enough to sink the bobber,
his or her panic was obvious. The bobber
jerked, pulsed, and slowly dragged across
the water as the bigger fish approached.
Often the predator would only
strike the sucker and let go, probably sensing
that something was wrong. We would reel
the smaller fish in to find him, or her, often
still alive but ripped to shreds. At one point I
decided that live bait fishing was cruel and
not particularly “sporting,” and I pursued my
prey thereafter with artificial lures or dead
bait. This, I felt, would be more humane.
As time went on, we increasingly
often addressed matters of ethics and conservation,
at least superficially. Spokespeople
for fishing began talking of catch-andrelease.
This, they assured, would secure
both the future of our victims, and the tradition
of humans harassing and killing them. In
catch-and-release, we would hook our prey,
allow them to suffer as they fought for their
lives, and then release them, hoping they
would survive to endure this torture again.
What we never bothered to admit
was that any supposed quest for food, our
supposed primary objective as hunters,
played no part in our new ethic. Yet we
could not admit that the vast majority of us
were pulling hooks into the mouths, eyes,
tongues, throats and internal organs of animals
simply because we loved the feeling of
their struggle against our cruelty.
At about the same time catch-andrelease
became popular, there came another
move to make fish abuse more “sporting.”
This time the ethical gurus decided that fishers
should use lighter gear to fight our victims.
It was of course no accident that the
move spawned a whole new avenue for profit.
There were smaller reels, lighter lines,
and lighter rods made of new materials. New
record classifications were developed that
gave almost anyone a chance to hold a
“world record” because he or she killed a
weird-size fish with some weird-class line.
Fishing magazines taught anglers new methods
to use with ultra-light gear. For me,
ultra-light methods were a very successful
method of destroying many species of fish.
Of course, using ultra-light gear
condemned our victims to more suffering
than ever in the name of sportsmanship. We
thought it was great. A small fish could be
fought not for a couple minutes, but perhaps
for a quarter of an hour, half an hour, or
more. As someone who invested heavily in
ultra-light gear, I was able to in some cases
extend my victims’ misery for hours. I even
wrote articles on the subject that appeared in
local fishing magazines.
Coming of age
As I reached my early twenties, I
continued my quest for bigger fish. One goal
was to catch a fish over forty pounds. For a
midwestern freshwater fisher, this was not
easy. Few midwestern freshwater species
ever top forty pounds. I wanted either a
muskie or a chinook salmon, and for a few
years spent plenty of time, effort, and
money in both U.S. and Canadian waters,
searching for my trophy. When I wasn’t fishing,
I was either working to make the money
I needed to pursue fish, planning my next
expedition, or reading up on my obsession.
A library book about shark fishing almost
immediately convinced me to try it. Over the
next few months, I made ready for a trip to
the Atlantic Ocean.
At first, my conversion to shark
fishing seemed to quell a fairly quiet but nagging
voice suggesting that killing animals,
especially those much smaller than me, was
not completely defensible as a hobby. Many
fish species are under incredible pressure
from humans, but I told myself, as sport
fishers still tell themselves, that commercial
fishers do the real damage. Commercial fishers,
of course, claim the opposite. In truth,
there is a fine, often indistinguishable line
between the two factions. We are all guilty,
though few who still fish will admit it.
In the spring of 1985 I drove to
Montauk Point, Long Island, New York. I
immediately found that my preparations were
completely inadequate. Nevertheless, by a
stroke of luck and macho stupidity, I succeeded
in killing a seven-and-a-half foot,
230-pound mako shark, despite of my undersized
boat and equipment. My fish story
about the one who didn’t get away was written
up in the New York Daily News. For the
next few years I heard my story retold by
those who did not know I was the human participant,
and it was a real ego boost.
Fishermen love to tell stories, whether their
own or someone else’s. Every year, the fish
became larger and the boat became smaller.
In truth, I had ambushed a fish who was
merely seekingr a meal, and subjected him to
five hours of agony before killing him.
For some years the mounted shark
hung as a trophy on my office wall. At home
were other mounted animal bodies, testimony
to my insecurity, insensitivity, and willingness
to kill for fun. As I look back, the
whole thing seems quite macabre. Over the
next few years I went to the ocean at least
twice a year, for two or three weeks at a
time. I bought a new boat, made for ocean
fishing, and named it the One Resolve,
because of my determination to hunt and kill
a rare thousand-plus-pound great white shark.
I stole the lives of uncounted victims of many
species. But what should have been a killer’s
dream come true was somehow losing its luster
over time and death.
On occasion we would go night
fishing for tuna offshore. Tuna are large,
very strong fish, with rigid bodies. Once
pulled onto the deck of the boat, they beat
their tails incredibly fast and furiously. They
can break a fisherman’s foot. When the bite
was on, the deck could literally be full of
tuna struggling for life. In order to keep them
still, we simply put a cloth over their
exposed eye to block the light and calm them,
much as you would calm a horse. This was a
problem. Much like a horse? How much like
a horse? I wouldn’t do this to a horse. Why
was I doing this?
For years, I managed not to answer
that question.
There was also the time that sea
birds were bothering our lines in the chum
slick. A chum slick is a gooey mixture of
ground-up fish, dumped into the water to
attract sharks. It also attracts birds, who
swoop down to pick at bits and pieces of fish.
Sometimes birds would hit our lines, or temporarily
get their feet caught in the line. One
day when the sharks weren’t biting, that was
more than I was willing to tolerate. One bird
was particularly bold, and refused to react to
yells, waves or anything else I did to dissuade
him. So I shot him.
At that close range, he was dead
immediately. His body upended, and his legs
flailed. While my logical mind knew he was
gone, my conscience told me that I had done
something rotten, and to finish it. But the
shotgun jammed. The next thirty seconds
seemed like thirty minutes as the bird’s legs
kicked and “ran,” and slowly came to a halt.
It was almost half an hour before his body
floated out of sight. I watched almost the
entire time, knowing I was the world’s
biggest asshole, trying desperately and
unsuccessfully to convince myself that I had
a good reason to do it.
Then my brother and I encountered
a baby mako shark next to the boat, in our
chum slick. Mako sharks are fearsome-looking,
with large gnarly teeth and coal-black
eyes that make them look as if always
enraged. But this miniature version, of about
twenty pounds, was just plain cute, like a
lion cub trying to strutt his stuff with baby
growls and tiny hops, feigning attack.
My brother Greg asked if he could
catch the baby, and have him mounted. This
was a common practice, but one that I
abhorred. This was, after all, a baby. From
a fisher’s view, however, he was also a lot
cheaper to mount, and did not require the
room a large fish did to display. Initially I
refused to allow the capture, but when the
baby hung around to gorge on the chum, a
sorry version of brotherly love won out.
No effort at all was required to capture
the baby. Greg stuck a dead hooked
mackeral in front of him, he grabbed it, was
hooked, and Greg swung him into the boat,
into a fish hold. We did not shoot or even hit
the baby in the head: that would ruin the
mount. I don’t remember how long it took
him to die, but it was very long. Every now
and then I would open the hatch to see if he
was dead yet, and he would look at me.
Sharks can move their eyes to a point, and
they can and do follow activities around
them. I will never forget that baby watching
me as I waited for him to die. This was probably
the lowest I dropped in my long history
of killing.
Then came the day that a friend and
I hooked into the largest mako shark I ever
saw. She looked like an ICBM missile when
she jumped, and my friend and I were so
fearful that our legs shook. This was going to
be the trophy of our lives. For the next two
hours we fought and fought just to get the
huge animal close to the boat. But a short
time after the fish began the familiar circling
around the boat that indicated the start of
fatigue, the hook pulled out. Probably she
had been “foul hooked,” meaning hooked in
the body somewhere other than the mouth.
Our dreams of a “monster kill”
were shattered. We fished the area for the
rest of our trip, but without ever so much as
seeing our “trophy” again. When we were
ready to leave for home, we were still sulking
like scolded puppies. I moaned and groaned
my dissappointment to the marina manager,
with whom I had become good friends.
His response was not what I expected.
He looked me in the eye and said,
“Steve, I’m glad you didn’t kill that fish.” I
was so taken aback, I said nothing. He told
me that such a large mako was almost certainly
a female. He said he recently learned
that females had to attain many hundreds of
pounds before even reaching the age of giving
birth. With the mako population in serious
decline, he said, we had to stop killing
them. This made sense to me, even if I still
wanted that “trophy.” But then he said, “I’ll
tell you the truth, I just don’t know how
much more of this killing I can take.”
Oh shit. Now that nagging voice I
was hearing for years wasn’t just in the back
of my mind any more. It was being voiced
right in front me, by a friend. I didn’t know
what to say, except to murmur that I respected
his right to his opinion. I didn’t say that I
was having a tougher and tougher time trying
to deny this feeling in myself.
One of the last straws occurred at a
most odd time. I was fishing with a friend
and working companion named Rick, with
whom I had taken a number of successful
fishing trips in the past. We hooked a 200-
pound mako shark right at the end of the day.
The fish jumped repeatedly and fought hard,
all of which we should have enjoyed
immensely. Having brought the victim to the
side of the boat, I made a good shot with my
.357 magnum revolver, right on top of his
head, resulting in an instant kill. Rick and I
brought our victim right up next to the boat,
and as was customary, I sank my hunting
knife right behind his head to sever the spinal
cord. This insured that sharks, who are very
tenacious of life, were truly dead.
As the beautiful luminescent blue of
the mako began to turn to turn gray with
death, I turned to Rick and said, “You know,
I just don’t enjoy this the way I used to.”
There. I had said it. That nagging
feeling that had dogged me for so long now
had a voice, and was my own. But things got
stranger when Rick, his smile disappearing,
said, “You know, I feel the same way.”
What was my world coming to?
I don’t know how long I might have
been able to ignore my observance that I was
doing something indefensible. It might have
gone on for years. Fortunately, Hegins,
Pennsylvania lay close to the route I took
from Chicago to Montauk. On the way to my
boat in 1989, I chose to stop and see the infamous
Hegins Labor Day pigeon shoot.
After witnessing my first pigeon
shoot, my perception of my animal trophies
was never the same. But I did not quit killing
easily. Initially, it never crossed my mind
that I would actually stop doing what I had
done for three decades. My intention was to
stop these vile pigeon shoots, and then go on
with the vile things I was doing. I
approached many of my hunting and fishing
friends for help in fighting pigeon shoots,
which as I explained, were not only unethical,
but cast all of us “legitimate sportsmen”
in a bad light. With the exception of my
brother, none of the great hunting “conservationists”
were willing to take any time away
from killing to actually try to help animals.
It was about a year before I gave up
blood sports. God knows how I fought to
continue to kill. Leaving blood sports meant
accepting a whole new set of values, and
eventually coming to terms with owing a debt
I could never repay. But after Hegins, it
became clear that I would have to try.
Greg and I buried our “trophy” victims,
including my first shark and the baby
mako, in a grave on our family property,
next to the graves of beloved nonhuman family
members. I donated the One Resolve t o
the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. As I
tearfully bade her good-bye, I renamed her
the New Resolve, for she would now be used
to save lives instead of taking them, to rescue
marine animals in trouble, and to patrol
for poachers. A few years later, we would
even be briefly reunited on the coast of
California, while trying to stop Chicago’s
Shedd Aquarium from capturing dolphins.
When I first talked to activists
about fishing, at Hegins in 1989, one person
asked me, “Would you still fish if they had
vocal cords?”
I believe the answer in most cases
would be no. Fishing is as popular as it is
precisely because fish do not have the ability
to communicate suffering as readily as cats,
dogs, cows, or other mammals. But I know
they suffer tremendously, just as we would if
subjected to such horrendous treatment.
While many people may at first be
taken aback at the mere suggestion that fish
can suffer, I believe society can grasp the
concept. And if we can make people feel for
those who cannot cry out their suffering, how
much more will they feel for those who can?
The Chicago Animal Rights
Coalition has a plan to fight fishing. But our
workload, lack of budget, and limited numbers
will not allow us to do it right for probably
a couple of years. So call us, at 708-552-
7872, and we will happily tell you our ideas,
which you can add to and improve. But in
any case, please begin the long process of
winning consideration for these silent, long
forgotten victims.
In the process you might bring some
relief and peace of mind to a repentant killer.
(Steve Hindi founded CHARC in
August 1992.)

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