Happy Days had been on television for a little over three years when the episode called "Hollywood Part Three" hit America's airwaves like a greaser's fist hits a jukebox. The now-infamous episode began as a scheme to boost the show's slowly-declining ratings and included television audience's favorite lovable bad boy, the Fonz, played by Henry Winkler, replacing his trademark blue jeans with a provocative pair of water skiing shorts. It is most famously remembered for Fonzie's rip-roaring maritime hijinx, which spawned a phrase used by television critics and fans alike: "jumping the shark." (Personally, I would have preferred one of Fonzie's other daring acts to have lasted in the public consciousness instead, namely "riding the bull".)
It is often used when a T.V. show, sliding into a declining relevance, makes a last-ditch effort to boost popularity by including something as unbelievable and over-the-top as Fonzie jumping over a shark on a pair of water skis. Many times it is associated with the demise of the show, as there is nowhere to go after that level of crazy.
In the intervening years, Henry Winkler hung up his leather jacket as the Fonz in favor of character-actor roles in cult T.V. shows like Arrested Development and Barry. Instead of insisting on sticking to his leading man status as the coolest-of-cool, Winkler was effectively able to transform his career to appeal to different and newer audiences as pop culture and television evolved. Winkler was adored by teenagers who raced to get home in time for Happy Days in 1978 who swooned when he slicked his hair back to the tune of "Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream)" and he is equally adored by teenagers in 2021 who will stream hours of Arrested Development.
Winkler is so beloved around the world that the "Bronze Fonz," a statue in his likeness, was erected in Milwaukee in 2008. (Note that Winkler himself is definitely from New York and not from Milwaukee, although the Fonz is.) The actor is also known for his love of the outdoors, particularly when it comes to fishing. His passion for the activity is so strong he wrote a book in 2011 about it, titled I've Never Met an Idiot on the River: Reflections on Family, Photography, and Fly Fishing. His love for fishing is rooted strongly in his love for family, and when he speaks on the subject, he often brings up the dynamic he and his wife have on the river.
For Winkler, fishing is an escape from normal day-to-day stress and a way to reconnect with his family and with the great outdoors. Like so many other avid fishermen, Winkler has a unique soft spot for Montana, especially on Hebgen Lake. He is often found fishing on the Firehole Ranch, and has said before that, (birthplace, current residence, or statue placement notwithstanding) "his soul lives in Montana."
However, Winkler seems to have landed himself in a bit of hot water in recent months, this time not for jumping the shark, but for fishing the trout.
On May 10, Winkler tweeted a picture of himself proudly displaying a freshly-caught fish, the caption reading "I can't even express the beauty everywhere on our planet." Now, to be fair, Mr. Winkler's twitter account is about 40% fishing photos, so this was nothing new. And, just to be even clearer, Winkler was briefly displaying the fish before putting it back in the water - Winkler practices catch and release.
While the regular well-wishers and fellow fishers voiced their approval, the tweet had a startlingly bad response, with many calling him cruel or fishing unethical. Specifically, most replies that took issue with his actions mentioned the fish "suffocating" and "dying." One person told him not to "rip an animal from its natural environment with a hook through its face so you can feel something." Another user retorted back, "You're weird! STFU! Fishing dates back to B.C. ages and the dawn of man! Get over yourself!"
The replies cited diverse quotes as tension mounted, recounting the words of everyone from Greek philosopher Heraclitus to stand-up comedian Mitch Hedberg. Oddly enough, Winkler's fishing photos have occasionally trended on the app.
Today, it seems like almost everything that's posted online is an impetus for confrontational discourse. In some ways, it's the "jumping the shark" post of Twitter account @hwinkler4real. Ultimately, though, the Great Henry Winkler Fishing Debate of 2021 is not going to matter. This brief skirmish between a few voices online is not going to tank Winkler's career, it's not going to change the insurmountable fishing culture in Montana, and you can be rest assured it's not going to keep Winkler from fishing. I do, however, think it's interesting to look at the commotion as a microcosm of a much bigger trend on the internet.
Somehow, in the dyspeptic and dystopic world of 2021, the image of a man smiling, overcome with pride, as he holds up a fish he caught, has become political. It seems to be inevitable.
On one side of the argument, there are the people who are lambasting Winkler for harming wildlife and desecrating nature as it was "meant" to be. On the other hand, there are the people who argue that fishing is an ethical practice that is a way of life and foundational to what makes Montana great. The latter group is perhaps a slightly older generation that grew up watching the Fonz on Happy Days, and have deeply personal roots tied to fishing. Their connection to the activity is oftentimes entrenched in pride of their home, or nostalgic connotations with family trips and bonding. For them, fishing is an American and, perhaps even more so, Montanan tradition that is a testament to the state's glory. It's a way to revel in the beauty of public lands, and an ode to what makes America something to be proud of, like a painting of a resolute, solitary fly fisher that's been framed on the inside of a local burger place since before anyone can remember. The former group may have never fished at all. Many of them, through no particular fault of their own, have next to no context for the activity except for a cinematic portrait of a Hollywood actor, solitary and resolute, on a set made to look like a Montanan river. Their perspective is that a high order of human cruelty is being exhibited on an essentially helpless victim.
Their case might be stated as easily as this: would you like to have someone lure you with something you liked, like a $100 bill or a really slick pair of boots, and then when you get up close and reach for it, they stab you through the cheek with a meat hook? Then, because they're merciful and dedicated to the tenants of conservation, they get the hook out of your face for you and gave you a ride back to your place. Would you say that had been a good experience?
On the other hand, how would that experience stack up to being killed outright?
Of course, it's possible that fish don't feel pain in the same way we do; in fact, I was assured as much by dad the first time I saw him catch a fish. But still, some part of me can't believe that it's true. After all, it's not like we can ask a fish, can we?
These are all perspectives that are worth examining, but I'm not going to hold my breath until the day they're thoroughly examined - that's not what the internet is about. Instead of having a real discussion about the ethics of catch and release, or what fishing means as an industry and a tradition, we're stuck with hysterical comments on the Fonz's twitter account. When it comes down to it though, it's just a guy fishing. There are probably half a billion photos out there of proud fishermen displaying their catch.
In addition, this particular fishing tweet seemed to be the only one of Winkler's out of the ten or so that he's posted this summer to have sparked any sort of controversy. However, this doesn't stop these kinds of arguments and debates happening ten times a day, every day, for months, for years because that's what happens on Twitter.
It is the sort of cacophonous social media din that Henry Winkler himself must get sick of, and is probably some of the white noise he seeks to cut through via his fishing trips. It's ironic, then, that the incessant toxicity of social media still manages to seep through somewhere as pure as Hebgen Lake.
Anyway, Henry Winkler caught more fish in the month of June alone than I will probably ever catch. Talk about the magic touch. I just wonder if he'll ever do the obvious thing and post a picture of himself jumping over a trout to social media. I hope not; I can't imagine how outraged everyone will be then.