PAT NEAL: Fish are getting smarter

It was the American author John Steinbeck who said, “It has always been my private conviction that any man who puts his intelligence up against a fish had it coming.”

He should know. Steinbeck spent much of the Great Depression fishing and crabbing out of a small boat in order to get enough food for him and his wife to survive.

There is nothing on earth like subsistence fishing to humble a person into realizing that, on any given day, the fish can be smarter than they are. Over the years, Steinbeck’s observations evolved into some of the earliest notions of the environmental movement.

A lot of this realization occurred to Steinbeck when he was hiding out from what he described as “land owners, bankers and death threats” after writing his 1939 masterpiece, “The Grapes of Wrath.”

The book was banned for being obscene and misrepresentative.

In 1940, Steinbeck decided to get out of town. He and his marine biologist buddy Ed Ricketts went to the Gulf of California in the seiner, Western Flyer, to collect biological specimens.

Once there, Steinbeck watched trawlers dragging their nets across the sea bed, a destructive practice that continues to this day, which illustrated the interconnection of humans and the environment.

The resulting book, “Sea of Cortez,” was not a best seller. However, the “Western Flyer” still survives to this day in Port Townsend, where it has been in the process of being restored since 2015. But I digress.

This is about the intelligence of fish, which can be greater than a human’s intellect on any given day. It only makes sense.

Research has indicated the intelligence of fish matches or exceeds those of the higher vertebrates, including non-human primates and some fishing guides. This should come as no surprise.

Fish appeared in the fossil record about 530 million years ago. The first modern humans may have appeared a scant 300,000 years ago. In the evolutionary scheme of things, if the history of the fish was the length of the Hood Canal Bridge, the history of humans would be a speed bump at the end of the bridge.

Many believe that the intelligence of fish is evolving at the precise rate that humans are getting dumber.

Olympic Peninsula salmon and steelhead routinely navigate many thousands of miles across the ocean to the Aleutian Islands, returning years later to the precise stream where they were born.

I get lost in parking lots.

Once in their home river, fish use rocks to break the speed of the current to navigate upstream without fighting the main force of the river.

I hit the rocks going downstream.

Fish use rocks to break fishing lines and dislodge any lures they’re hooked on.

I had to go to the emergency room at the Forks Community Hospital to get a hook removed.

Fish use gravel in the bottom of the rivers to build nests across the stream beds that once stretched from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

The last time I made a nest in the gravel, I was drunk.

Recently, we witnessed a quantum leap in fish intelligence when a large steelhead was hooked. The line went slack. The fish was lost.

The unfortunate angler reeled in his line to find a pig-tail looking piece at the end.

To the untrained eye, it looked like the knot on the lure came undone. That’s impossible since I tied that knot myself. That would never happen.

There was only one explanation — fish are getting smarter. Now they can untie knots, underwater, with no hands!

Fishing is bound to get a whole lot tougher.

_________

Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patnealwildlife@gmail.com.

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