Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to email@example.com.)
In a photo on his Tinder profile, John Prioli is standing on a pier in Greenpoint, the Manhattan skyline in the distance, holding a live striped bass slightly larger than the size of a standard pillow. He’s wearing a beanie and a leather jacket over a Ghost concert T-shirt. He’d just heard the heavy metal band play at Lincoln Theatre, he explains, and decided to grab his fishing poles on the way home; striper feed at night, and the bite was hot. After the photo was taken, Prioli released the bass back into the East River, as he does with most of his catches.
For the past five years, Prioli, a 32-year-old North Carolina native who lives in Brooklyn, has used a handful of dating apps off and on — Tinder, Bumble and Hinge — and built profiles featuring similar photos. On Tinder, his profile says, “What’s worse? A couple of fish pics or bathroom/gym selfies?” It’s pretty clear which side he falls on.
Here’s my take: It’s not that fish pictures are inherently bad. It’s that they’re ubiquitous. I first discovered the trend when my friend, over at her apartment for dinner, asked if she could play around with my Bumble app — and once she pointed it out, I started seeing fish everywhere. How had I missed the fact that another fisherman popped up seemingly every few swipes?
Curious and a little amused, I started to collect some data — and by collect some data, I mean screenshot every Bumble fisherman I encountered and compile the images into a quickly growing Google doc. After logging over 100 screenshots of mackerel men, I was more intrigued than ever. I get the men who put a dog or cat selfie in their profile — it’s an easy conversation starter, and gives guys a chance to show their tender, pet-dad side. But fish? They’re slimy, scaly, and smelly. I needed to know: why so many of them?
The next stop on my research quest was the Tinder profile of a cute guy whose photo showed him wearing overalls next to a pond. When we matched, I wrote him, “I noticed you have a lot of fish pictures. What got you into fishing?” His reply: “Oh, I live in North Carolina. All I do is fish.” Once I confirmed that we matched while he was visiting New York, I unmatched him. (As a general rule, at least in my experience, out-of-towner Tinders are generally up to no good).
Then I started a conversation with someone more geographically acceptable. We’d already chatted about weekend plans, so I followed up with another inquiry: “Looks like you’re a fisherman. What got you into fishing?” “It’s a lifestyle,” he said. “A lifestyle?” I replied, hoping to invite elaboration. “Yep,” he answered. Chatting online with matches, it seemed, wasn’t going to get me any answers.
So I turned my investigation elsewhere, joining the Facebook group of a local fishing alliance. There, I met a 50-something fisherman who told me met he his wife while working as a fishmonger. (He gave her his number after she admired several 30-pound fish he brought into a sushi restaurant where she was eating.) But he — and plenty of my new fishermen friends — warned me that fish love stories aren’t always sweet.
The desire to show off your fishing skills online, they told me, isn’t just boasting; it’s also a weed-out mechanism. Fish pictures can be subtle warnings to potential mates that they’re immersed in a time-intensive and sometimes expensive pastime. AJ Scheff, a 35-year-old environmental scientist who belongs to the online fishing community, told me his first marriage ended partially because “I was spending too much on boating and fishing.” So when he got back into dating again, he decided to make it clear to women he matched with exactly what they were getting into — for three years after his divorce, every photo he posted on Bumble was either on a boat or at the dock. “I wanted to make my hobby known in hopes to find someone who also enjoys it as much as me,” he says. Eventually, Scheff matched with a woman who had fishing photos of her own. Their first date was a boat ride, and they’re still together.
It makes sense, but surely not every guy with a fish pic is that dedicated a hobbyist. Another possibility, evolutionary psychologist David Buss told me, is that the men posting fish photos are signaling that they’d be valuable partners — that they have both the ability to provide resources and the tendency to seek resources beyond what’s currently available. (This holdover from long-ago caveman instincts is an idea excellently mocked in a New Yorker article titled, “I Am a Tinder Guy Holding a Fish and I Will Provide for You”. (Sample line: “I will provide you with many orgasms and sea bass.”)
“Resources obtained by the man’s individual efforts are more highly valued than, say, resources that a man lucked into,” Buss, a professor at the University of Texas, wrote in an email. “This also signals industriousness, a work ethic, and is a good cue to long-term provisioning potential.”
Or, as Prioli puts it, fish photos “show we can put food on the table if the shit hits the fan.” Dating profiles often have built-in features for more modern forms of resource signaling, like the college someone went to and the company they work for, both signs of socioeconomic status. Fishing photos, on the other hand, can display strength and athletic prowess.
But Prioli, who has 15 years of experience as an angler, has another theory: fish photos convey wholesome enjoyment. “I use fish pics because I’m usually happiest in them,” he says. “It’s the culmination of waking up early (or going out late), busting your ass to get out there, bringing the right gear, presenting the fish with the right bait or lure in the right place and time and finally just being able to hold the animal for a while and take a photo.” A good fish can also be a conversation starter — sometimes, he says, matches might kick things off by complimenting his catch or asking him where he goes fishing. It probably doesn’t hurt that fishing is typically a summer activity, meaning plenty of opportunity for tanned, shirtless pics on boats.
For now, though, that’s about as far as my investigation has made it. And maybe as far as it’ll ever go. During my get-to-the-bottom-of-the-fish-pics quest, I came across Prioli’s profile and swiped right. We never matched. I say he swiped left. He says he might not have seen my profile. Either way, there are always other fish in the sea.