An Outdoor View: On fish hooks and danger

In 2005, “Forbes” editors, readers and a panel of experts made a list of the 20 most-important tools of all time, based upon the impact of the tool on civilization. One of my favorites, the fish hook, made the list.

About the fish hook, “Forbes” opined, “It’s one of the simplest items on our list — just a piece of bent wire, sometimes sporting a barb on the end. But throughout modern human history, the fish hook has proven to be one of our most dependable tools. Fishing allows us to eat, without the danger of hunting or the hard work of farming.”

When I read that part about fishing being “without the danger of hunting,” the movie of my life flashed back to the time — the only time — I went fishing with Jim and Rose Ralph.

It happened at the Potholes Reservoir, in Eastern Washington. The scene I remember best was when Rose, while winding up to cast, hooked my nose.

The nightcrawler on her hook was still alive, squirming in front of my left eye.

With my right eye, I could see that Rose was unaware that she had hooked me. I saw her looking around, as if confused, trying to figure out why her bait hadn’t gone where she had aimed it. I then saw that she was getting ready to try again.

“Stop!” I screamed. “Don’t cast! Don’t cast!”

She stopped. Lucky for me, the hook didn’t sink into my nose past the barb. Some people aren’t that lucky.

One time while I was waiting for a flight out of Pelican, a remote town in Southeast Alaska, I struck up a conversation with a halibut long-line fisherman. He was waiting to fly to Juneau to have a large “J” hook removed from one of his fingers, he said. Then he showed me the hook and finger. Ever since, I’ve been a lot more careful around fish hooks.

Every summer on the Kenai Peninsula, dozens of people have fish hooks removed at a medical clinic or hospital emergency room. Getting hooked is most likely if you fish in a “combat” area, where you’re fishing elbow to elbow. When the fishing is good, the odds of getting hooked also are good.

One time a few years back, I was at the confluence of the Russian and Kenai rivers when the fishing was very good. The Department of Fish and Game had opened what they call the sanctuary area a few minutes earlier. The sockeyes were stacked up like cordwood, and so were the anglers, who were standing three-deep on the bank. It was nearly impossible to cast without hooking a salmon.

I had arrived at the river much earlier. I had already caught my limit, but wanted to get some photos of what I hoped would become a spectacle of biblical proportions. I wasn’t disappointed. The mouth of the Russian River became bedlam. Attracted by the yelling, bent rods and splashing fish, more people joined the increasingly chaotic scene. The air was crowded with flying line, hooks and sinkers. People were yelling, cursing and laughing. A woman nearby quietly sobbed while trying to tie a knot with shaking hands. Actually landing a legally hooked fish seemed impossible, yet, it happened now and then.

Twice I was hooked, once in my hat, once in my jacket. I was ready to leave, feeling lucky to have survived relatively unscathed, when a young guy fishing nearby said, “Ow!” As he turned away from the water, I saw that he was holding a line, attached to which was a Coho fly, attached to which was his eyebrow. The hook had penetrated well past the barb. Just to look at it was painful.

The guy’s buddy tried to talk him into going into Soldotna to get the hook removed, but to no avail. The guy with the pierced eyebrow said it didn’t hurt that bad, he had his buddy snip the hair off the fly so he could see, and he kept on fishing.

That article in “Forbes” had it wrong. Anyone who thinks fishing isn’t as dangerous as hunting has never fished for sockeyes on the Kenai.

Les Palmer can be reached at

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