EDMONDS, Wash. — Picture the weirdest fish you can think of. Nope. Weirder.
The spotted ratfish, Hydrolagus colliei, tops my list.
I first saw this cartilaginous monstrosity as a teen. Though ratfish tend to live in very deep water, after a fall storm, one had washed up on the southern Oregon beach to become a popular curiosity.
It is a fish difficult to describe. Part shark, part sturgeon, part Lovecraftian nightmare, it looks like it was constructed with half a dozen major parts from entirely separate and unrelated fish then painted one color. The oversized green eye, the teeth at once humanoid and rodent-like, scaleless skin, fins with completely asymmetrical shapes and the long, thin tail that gives the ratfish its name are surreal.
Add in the fact that its Latin name means, in part, “sea rabbit,” and the poor fish is bound to struggle with an identity crisis much like what millions of Americans are going through right now.
Former baristas, former waiters and even former columnists such as myself are now faced with a loss of a career that once formed part of their identity.
How to deal with this loss is too personal and varied for me to answer. I can only offer you advice on three things: how to catch fish, how to stay single and how to hurt yourself along the way toward accomplishing the first two. For self-realization, ask Dear Abby.
Not long before this apocalypse of now, I took a trip up to the Puget Sound. I’d been to Seattle plenty of times and even took a salmon charter out of Seattle once, but I hadn’t spent much time fishing the Puget Sound.
Learning from my mistakes, I decided to see what else was available. On my most recent trip, I had every intention of chasing new fish and dedicating an appropriate time to fishing, so that’s exactly what I did. I had visions of catching surfperch and rockfish and sculpins and sole, releasing each fish along with the pent-up angst of a long, cold winter.
I fished from Tacoma to Everett, trying a dozen piers, landings, beaches and points along the way, breaking only to grab dinner with my old friends Tony Maddalena and Christopher Puckett in Seattle one evening. They’d actually been with me on the trip years before when I’d first seen a ratfish, so that seemed significant.
Though I caught many of my target species, the ratfish had eluded me to the final day of my trip.
Researching catches via Fishbrain Pro, an app that lets you see what fish have been caught and where, I settled on the Edmonds Public Fishing Pier as the final stop in my rat race. Several ratfish had been caught and logged on Fishbrain that week alone.
Painfully, I witnessed another angler catch and release the fish, saying “Those are poisonous!” to a band of horrified onlookers. They’re not. Despite a mildly venomous dorsal spine, the fish is edible, though what little meat the ratfish carries allegedly leaves a strong, unpleasant aftertaste.
Despite rain gear, the barrage of rain from above, the heavy liquid fog and the high winds blowing water into my face had chilled me. I broke for coffee and a sandwich, returning with just a few hours before I had to return home.
As an angler, I often say, “One more cast,” but never really mean it. This time I did, and it was all the more miraculous when something chomped down on my shrimp, and I pulled in a ratfish. It was at once the ugliest and most beautiful thing I’d seen all trip.
This tale of the ratfish, like the tail of the ratfish, does have a point: there’s beauty in everything.
Go find it.