Shooting fish in a barrel

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A classic G. George Ostrom column from May, 2005

We’ve all heard that old expression, “Easy as shootin’ fish in a barrel.” From the way the cowboys and miners in my childhood used that descriptive statement, I learned early on that a guy who’d actually shoot fish in a barrel was considered on a par with men who still wore high button shoes.

However, as a little kid I remember wanting to secretly get some fish and put them in a barrel to see if shooting them really was easy. There were insurmountable obstacles. We only had three barrels – a wooden one on the back porch where the drinking water was stored, and two steel ones for hauling water from a spring six miles down the mountain.

I could also visualize what kind of spanking I’d get for shooting a hole in any of those vital containers. Besides, I was not allowed to use guns without supervision.

As the years rolled by, I established other goals in life so that intriguing expression and the curiosity it inspired faded. Once in awhile, I would wonder how it got started, or who was the first to say it.

Then in high school physics, when we studied refraction of light by water, I was flabbergasted to learn that if a guy was going to shoot a fish, he would need to know the angle of deflection and the depth of the target because the fish wasn’t where it appeared to be. This bending of light rays was an exciting new phenomenon to me, and it presented a challenge.

Pure desire for greater knowledge soon led to a remote body of water where suckers were spawning. The goal was unassigned physics class homework. I was accompanied by an equally scholarly buddy and we made highly technical observations and discoveries:

It is very difficult to figure the angle of refraction or depth when the fish is not near the top.

B) A .22 caliber is only good for shots very close to the surface.

C) With a 30.06 you can try for deeper stuff, and you don’t have to figure the exact angle because the larger bore and higher velocity compensates for faulty calculations by stunning anything in the near area.

D) Even a 30.06 slug gets slowed down fast in water.

From these observations, we determined shooting fish in a barrel could be quite difficult. Especially if you were sporting enough to try for a heart shot.

To avoid family embarrassment, public outcry and other nasty reactions from an unenlightened society, my fellow scientist and I agreed to never share our knowledge with the rest of the world. We felt satisfaction in knowing things others only wondered about.

Now these many years later, I feel a great let down in discovering that back in New England there are guys who have forgotten more than I’ll ever know about shooting fish … and they acquired the knowledge in a legal manner, not fearfully sneakin’ around in the dingweeds. It is legal to shoot fish in Vermont. In fact, those tricky devils have been doing it “for hundreds of years.”

An AP story told of a big fight going on between the fish shooters and the state fish and game department. By buying a hunting license, Vermonters can shoot at least eight species of fish, including northern pike, pickerel, shad and carp.

The Fish and Game boys claim the ancient practice is bad management as well as dangerous because of ricocheting bullets, but all the pickerel plinkers say it is a food gathering tradition handed down from their ancestors, and they’re going to keep on doing it like grandpa did.

A bill in the Legislature is trying to end the practice of fish shooting, but capitol observers bet on tradition. This might be called a “shad state of affairs.”

It seems only fitting to me, if those guys are basing their legal right to shoot fish on “tradition” then every darn one of ‘em should be forced to use old muzzle loaders and of course … wear high button shoes.

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