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Shocking stories

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By Matt Dickerson

Different sports have their own specialized lingos and vocabularies. 

Take the word “redd,” for example. A redd is a place where fish “spawn,” or lay eggs. The term usually refers to a spawning “nest” made specifically by trout or salmon — an area of gravel swept clean of muck and debris by the powerful action of their tails and fins. It may derive from an Old Norse word meaning “to clean up an area.”

The word also happens to be one of those specialized fishing vocabulary words that doesn’t even appear in some dictionaries. For example, it isn’t in the dictionary and spell-checker for my own word processor, so every time I type “redd” on my computer it shows up underlined in red (an appropriate color, I suppose) as a misspelled word.

At the previous winter Olympics, I enjoyed watching several snowboarding events, including the half-pipe. I probably would have enjoyed it even more except that I couldn’t understand a word of what the commentators were telling me; the commentary was so full of specialized lingo it was incomprehensible to the average non-snowboarder.

Often specialized lingo is natural and perhaps even necessary and unavoidable — though sometimes I can’t help but think that the speakers of the “in” vocabulary take special pride in not being understandable except by others who are also in the in crowd. In any case, whether the customized vocabulary is helpful or convenient, it can end up making people feel excluded. And so I try to avoid specialized vocabulary in my outdoor columns.

I don’t always succeed in this attempt, however. In my column four weeks ago, I mentioned the reproductive success of trout in certain Tennessee rivers, enabling them to be managed as wild trout streams rather than hatchery-supported fisheries. In my submitted version of the column, I mentioned the “redds” of brown trout, without any explanation of just what a redd is.

Fortunately, my editors at the Independent were more sensitive than I. Which is to say, they, like my dictionary and most newspaper readers, didn’t know what redds were. (Were they another type of trout, like goldens, browns, rainbows, and bluebacks?) So they edited my paragraph to convey the meaning without actually using specialized lingo.

The on-the-ball editor also “corrected” another word. I spoke of a state biologist who shocked a 41-inch trout. Since the article was about various management strategies for trout streams, including a contrast between stocking fish and protecting them so that they could reproduce in the wild, the word “shocked” was alertly changed to “stocked.”

Except in this case, the word really should have been shocked. Or, more specifically, “electro-shocked.”

Electro-shocking is an approach to surveying the population of a river, and measuring the number and size of fish present. Fish biologists will put a screen or sieve net at the bottom end of a stretch of river, and then send a jolt of electrical current into the water. This electro-shocking momentarily stuns the fish, which float to the surface, and drift downstream into the net, where they are quickly counted and perhaps measured, before they get over the temporary shock and swim away.

The biologists can then report on the number of fish in the river and base future management decisions on this information.

More often than anglers expect, this shocking will reveal fish that are, well, shockingly big — monstrous fish hiding out in sections of river that dozens of anglers have fished through without ever guessing the presence of those fish. 

In this case, I was speaking with a fisheries biologist in Tennessee who was illustrating the quality of trout in a river I had just fished in three days earlier: the South Holston in Bristol, Tennessee. His electro-shocking had turned up a 41-inch brown trout. My jaw dropped when he showed me the picture of the fish and I realized I had just been fishing where they found and released it.

“What do you do when you see a fish like that?” I asked him.

“Not much,” he said. “Measure him, take a picture, and let him go back into the river.” Then he paused for a moment. “And then, when we’re done surveying, I go back to my car, get out my fly rod, and try to catch him.”

Anyway, I’ve been thinking lately that maybe it’s time to become a cold-water fisheries biologist.  I wonder if I’ll have to learn any special lingo.

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