How Many Fish Make a Mess?

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I went fishing almost every day for a whole week once, but I never caught what I would consider a “mess” of fish. And with all the fish I wasn’t catching, I had time to think about what that term means. Why didn’t I have a mess?

My first thought was the obvious one: I didn’t catch enough. But that’s not entirely true. I probably caught upwards of 100 pinfish. So why doesn’t that constitute a “mess”?

I decided that it was because I don’t eat pinfish, which means that any valid definition of mess has to include edibility. That makes sense when you consider the military’s use of the term – mess hall, mess kit, officers’ mess (the place, not the usual condition of a BOQ room), etc.

The problem with this definition is that I did catch some edible fish, just not very many and not very big ones.

Three more inches and he would have been dinner. But he still wouldn’t have been a mess.

At this point, you’re probably thinking: Duh! Clearly, a “mess” is enough keeper fish to eat. It’s a function of quantity and quality. End of story.

But it’s more complicated than that.

Where I come from, the terms “enough to eat” and “mess” are used to mean different things. A mess is definitely enough to eat, but “enough to eat” isn’t necessarily a mess.

This is a lot of snapper, but not a mess.

Case in point: Somebody pulls up to the boat landing and you ask, “Did you catch a mess of fish?” Often, the answer is, “Nope. We got enough to eat, but that’s about it.”

So we can surmise that a mess of fish is more than enough to eat. But if that’s true, how many more? Is there a definitive number? And what if you have a large family, or guests or a tapeworm? Can a mess for one person simply be enough to eat for another? Can two people with enough to eat combine their catch so that one person has a mess?

The confusion doesn’t end there, either. There are also qualifiers.  For example, you can have a “nice” mess or a “big” mess as well. Again, I’m not sure where the line is, but I’ve never heard the word used with a negative modifier. No one I know has ever caught a bad mess of fish. (Though I have seen folks with a mess of bad fish.)

To further cloud the issue, I’ve noticed that a mess is almost exclusively used to apply to freshwater fish. Does anybody ever say they got a mess of grouper or marlin? On the other hand, I have heard the term apply to specked trout, so maybe the rule is suspended for inshore fish.

And what about things other than fish? I’ve killed a mess of squirrels, but never a mess of quail – and certainly not a mess of deer or hogs. That suggests that the term also only applies to animals or fish of a certain size.

This is certainly a mess!

But then how do you explain a “mess of collard greens”? Now we’re in a whole new domain of life. And here again we can have a mess of turnips, but nobody says they picked a mess of oranges or even a mess of lettuce.

Maybe this is one of those enduring mysteries, like why I use live shrimp for bait when I’d rather eat them than most of the fish I use them to catch.

I think there is an answer, but it’s an elusive one. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart’s comments about obscenity, maybe we can’t really define a mess of fish – but we know one when we see it.

PS — I didn’t see one last week.

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