I grew up fishing in Pennsylvania. My first fishing trip involved a journey to the banks of the Ohio River near the West End Bridge. I was five years old. The experience began with my father, two uncles and an older cousin scrambling down a rusty metal ladder onto a crumbling concrete slab carrying me, fishing gear, a Coleman stove, lantern and a big container of dough ball. The adults set up the rods, attaching the gooey mess of solidified cornmeal stew to our hooks. According to my uncle Nick, the concoction was guaranteed to lure in some carp, one of the few fish species lurking the Ohio in 1980. It was my cousin’s birthday. He held in his hands a brand new Abu Garcia rod and reel combo. I wielded a Zebco children’s model that was more of a toy than the tool of a mighty river angler. Nobody really expected me to catch anything anyway. I was terrified of falling off the concrete slab into the river, so I stood as far away from it as I could, holding my rod and sipping hot chocolate. My uncle warned everyone, “hold onto your rod!” but my cousin didn’t listen. He set his pole down and it was dragged into the river faster than you can say “catfish”. When I felt a tug at the end of my rod, I held on for dear life. My little hands turned red as I turned the crank on my reel and fought the mighty carp to the surface. My uncle netted the fish. Everyone laughed as he held up a fish that was nearly as big as me. My cousin wasn’t laughing. He lost interest in fishing completely after that day. I was hooked for life.
Fishing became a regular part of my life after that day. It was a way to get away from everyday hassles, to disappear, temporarily entering a world where nobody was watching. It gave me great satisfaction to be in a place where nobody could find me. Whether I caught something or not, it really didn’t matter. I enjoyed the total freedom of being in the wilderness.
Aside from the serenity that fishing offers, I have always appreciated the traditions involved with fishing in Pennsylvania. As an artist and complete fishing geek, I would rush to the tackle shop every year just to see what species of fish were being featured on the annual fishing license. I would fantasize about someday being the illustrator of the annual trout stamp, a full color illustration generally depicting one of the three common stream trout of Pennsylvania.
This week, as I was running errands across Pittsburgh, I decided to stop into a Kmart store to inquire about purchasing a fishing license. In a short half hour, all of my romantic visions of fishing in PA were shattered. I first inquired at the customer service counter, “Does your store happen to sell fishing licenses?” I asked. “Ya have to go back to electronics,” replied the sales associate. I thought about how weird it was to sell fishing licenses in an electronic section, but figured, hey, its Kmart. The store is probably on the verge of bankruptcy. They have to cut costs somewhere. (Merge sporting goods and electronics perhaps)?
When I found the electronics section, the associate managing that section informed me that they do sell licenses, but only if the thingamajig works. I was baffled for a moment, until I caught sight of the fish commission’s new POS license sales computer equipment. Straight out of the film Back to The Future, the system features a pull out keyboard just in case the four buttons located on the top of the machine fail to function. (The system is rendered completely useless if the associate waiting on you is incapable of typing.) According to the associate, the system is connected to a satellite and only works at certain times of the day, (Perhaps depending on cloud cover.)
At first I thought the whole thing was amusing. I laughed to myself after thinking about how stores were going to handle working with this piece of junk on the day before the trout season opener, when mobs of last minute anglers line up at the counters. The associate then asked me for my drivers license and swiped it through a card reader. The machine then connected to a state computer via satellite and moments later announced that my identity had been pre-approved. The next portion of the transaction required that my Social Security Number be entered into a touch pad for final validation. At that point I felt a little uncomfortable. Why do Kmart and The Pennsylvania Fish Commission need my Social Security Number? What kind of database is the state building on fishermen and why? Are they selling info to private companies? Am I going to get a free month’s subscription to Field & Stream? Is the state using this system to track down fugitives, people who have not paid their parking tickets, or kids with fake IDs? Would I have been detained if my license transaction had been declined? Who knows?
I asked the sales associate for a copy of the 2008 state fishing guidelines and after reviewing the section on the new POS system, I felt a bit more comfortable about entering my private information into the Kmart computer. My license request was soon approved and the machine printed out a yellow form that looked more like a UPS packing label than the familiar illustrated license with lick-and-stick trout stamp that I had always anticipated. “I wonder if there is a tracking device embedded in this label?” I said to the associate. “I really don’t know. It sounds like Big Brother to me,” he responded. As I walked out to my car, I wondered if fishing in Pennsylvania would ever be the same. Will fish commission officers be patrolling state waters in hovercrafts outfitted with laser barcode readers? Will I have to scan my license at a streamside computer kiosk before beginning a day of fishing? Only time will tell.