Fight to the Death - The Fisherman

Fight to the Death

A “quiet guy,” is how Ron Ziolkowski at Julian’s Bait and Tackle in Atlantic Highlands described Pennsylvania surfcaster John Callahan, a guy who regularly makes the hour-plus drive to the Jersey Shore to fish, mostly by himself. Callahan is no different than literally tens of thousands of other anglers who hit the beaches every day; he might not share every rig change on Facebook nor is he likely to stand around the buggy to size up gear choices with the known regulars, but just because you never stopped to talk to that guy doesn’t mean you haven’t seen him on the beach countless times.

But then John Callahan did something few surfcasters will ever do; he beached a 58.1-pound striped bass and instantly became this year’s striped bass anti-hero. Ziolkowski said it was the first time Callahan had weighed a fish at the shop. He apparently wasn’t even on Facebook until that day, when through some morbid curiosity he created an account to read what social media trolls & bloggers were saying. Even if it was the first striped bass he’d killed in 15 years of fishing, it wasn’t going to stem the online attacks by those with sharp future focus on what they’d do after beaching their first 58.1-pound striper.

The problem Callahan faced was that after a 30-minute battle, the fish was spent. A solid 10 minutes trying to revive her would do nothing to change that. For the first 20 minutes of the fight the lip-hooked fish refused to budge from deeper water, running back and forth, parallel to the marshy shoreline. Then the fish seemed to go limp, with Callahan cranking another 10 minutes against dead weight, slowly and deliberately pumping the heavy striper into the shallows. He told Ziolkowski he tried swimming the fish back to health but found very little life left in the old girl, its fins flat and gills barely moving. When he laid the fish down along the sand one last time, there wasn’t a single stroke of the tail.

According to noted striped bass expert Dr. John A. Tiedemann, Assistant Dean with the School of Science at Monmouth University, literally fighting a large striped bass to death is not only possible, it’s also quite feasible when surfcasting along estuarine areas. “For example, if this fish was caught in lower salinity areas of the Raritan it likely experienced some environmental-related stress as research has shown that environmental stress is potentially higher in stripers caught in freshwater ecosystems.”

Aside from physical injury, Dr. Tiedemann said there’s also the physiological stress. “If the fish struggled intensely and was fought for a prolonged period of time it may have been angled to exhaustion,” Tiedemann said, explaining how fish angled to exhaustion will have lactic acid build up in the tissues from muscle function. “Increased levels of lactic acid can lead to a situation known as acidosis, and the exhausted fish may reach a point that results in physiological imbalance, muscle failure, or even death,” Tiedemann explained.

Callahan drove back to Pennsylvania with the latest dead striped bass to break the Internet, sharing filets with his mother, his neighbors and a couple of co-workers. He went so far as to “Google” a recipe for fish head soup to make use of the giant cranium, which he described as “good” while stopping by Julian’s to pick up more bunker a little later in the week. There he described for Ziolkowski the texture and color of the eggs found inside the monster bass as mushy and brown, almost “caramel” colored. It was another subject that spurned massive debate amongst the known online experts of the striper world in terms of whether Callahan’s fish had good eggs or not.

According Dr. Tiedemann, that might depend if you’re talking this season’s spawn or next.

“According to the literature it is generally believed that development of eggs in striped bass ovaries occurs slowly during summer and into the fall and then accelerates as the spawning season approaches,” Tiedemann said, explaining that studies have also identified eggs in various stages of development in mature female striped bass ovaries. “This latter fact has led to speculation that females may actually carry eggs that will be spawned over a few consecutive years within a single ovary.”

In other words, while mature striped bass eggs are typically transparent and bright green to golden green in color, the color of less developed eggs are actually cream or creamy yellow and only green as they ripen. “This factor, combined with the fact that there is evidence of skipped spawning in mature females would lead me to believe that the eggs described in the fish in question were likely not ripe and ready for this spawning season,” Tiedemann added. While Callahan’s fish may produce a lot of eggs, she might have only deposited them every two to three years.

In the weeks following Callahan’s catch, I read the most vile and vicious social media commentary about the angler and his fish, ultimately blocking those that bordered on violent, hateful or simply profane. I refused several email requests to “go look at this link” to avoid getting my Irish up in some web washroom someplace, but did go so far as to exchange emails with a Columbia grad turned muckraking blogger on the topic of journalistic integrity. Not being an Ivy League progressive myself, I quickly learned of my own social class status, and was brought to realize I had no right to point out the obvious to school-certified elite.

I probably have no right nor class to point out the obvious to my fellow anglers either, but before circling up around the stoning pit with the rest of the ideologues from the world wide web of whack’a’moles, perhaps in the future we should consider hurling questions before turning to rocks and insults. Hell, I’ve often said that my first ‘50’ will be released, but those are empty words until that day comes, if it ever does. But what if my first ‘50’ turns out to be a near ‘60’ that fights to the death? Do I drag her back to the truck before my own surfcasting anonymity is blown, or should I leave it there to rot so as to avoid the consternation of the online experts and Ivy League social consciousness warriors?

“I told him he was going to make the cover of The Fisherman,” Ziolkowski told me just days before we ran that photo in both the New Jersey and Long Island editions. He said Callahan didn’t seem that impressed. “‘Cool’ was all he said,” Ziolkowski added. “He really just stopped by for some more bait.”
In other words, Callahan couldn’t care less. He just wanted to keep fishing, like he’s always done, in peace and relative anonymity. Just like tens of thousands of other local surfcasters who fish every day in hopes of catching that fish of a lifetime.


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