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Desperately seeking Salty: A WOW fishing tale

One man's decade-long quest to become the ultimate digital fisherman.

World of Warcraft turned ten on Sunday, and all throughout this week we'll be marking the anniversary with a series of features from across Eurogamer's editorial team. Having taken you through the game's finest dungeon, today John tells the tale of how he bagged WOW's most elusive achievement.

In a world packed with linear storylines, daily quests and gated dungeons, fishing has always been one of WOW's purest role-playing pursuits. Grab a metaphorical chair, listen to the siren song of the game's ethereal soundtrack, and embrace the gentle simplicity of a two button, click-to-cast minigame nestled within one of gaming's most marvellous worlds. When everything was new, and before all was efficiency and magic became mundane, this element of WOW was every bit as beguiling to me as even the grandest design strokes.

Although the profession became more tangibly useful in subsequent expansions, fishing remained something gloriously useless - almost defiantly so, given the increasing richness of more carefully crafted content sprinkled lavishly throughout Azeroth. From my first days exploring the Night Elf starting island, to my very last when fatigue set in and I just stopped logging in one day, it remained one of my favourite activities in the game.

But then something terrible happened. In the middle of last year, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I idly resubscribed to WOW and accidentally won the Stranglethorn Fishing Extravaganza. It would ultimately send me down one of WOW's loneliest and most desperate roads.

Stranglethorn's fishing competition has undergone a number of revisions since it first launched with WOW a decade ago, but the core challenge has remained the same ever since. You - along with any number of the thousands of other fishing fanatics on your server - descend upon this dense tropical region at 2pm each Sunday, and compete to bring 40 Speckled Tastyfish to the tournament's organiser.

The real catch of the day? These special fish can only be caught during the tournament itself, they disappear from your bags at the end of each week's contest, and there can be only three winners each week. The winners in 2014 can consider themselves lucky. Until relatively recently, only one victor could emerge - a mere 52 or so desperately lucky souls from a potential pool of thousands each year.

Who doesn't love Booty Bay? Well, anyone who's ever lusted after Salty for a start.

The drama that plays out in Stranglethorn Vale every Sunday is therefore one of equal parts bitterness, self-loathing and tragedy for all involved, as players race one another to track down the Tastyfish from pools which spawn all over the region, and cough up a limited number of the tantalising treats before vanishing for good.

Some opt to dip into their competitor's pools to both grab a few extra fish for themselves, and also limit the opposition's tally and frustrate them - even at the expense of finding a bigger private haul further down the coast. Entire guilds of players have been known to band together to shatter the will of a world's worth of competitors, just to increase the odds that a single member of their ranks might hope to touch glory.

As a result, the pressure of competing in this tournament - week in and week out - is a uniquely bleak experience within WOW. The mere sight of another player arriving at your secluded spot just moments before the tournament begins can be enough to break your spirit, as your meagre, pathetic advantage evaporates into nothing.

I had tried to win the tournament on any number of occasions in years gone by, but winning it so early on in my return to the game - and on such an idle whim - felt like a sign. I wasn't just lucky, I deserved it. For my years of dutiful service, followed by a year or two in the wilderness, I had received my rightful reward and claimed my place amongst the ranks of the lucky few who could hope to tick off the achievement in 2013.

But as success at the tournament closed one booming door behind me, I had no way of knowing that a dozen others were scraping open ahead with grim foreboding. At the end of this bleak corridor lay a prize valued beyond all others in World of Warcraft, one that was only awarded for those who completed an entire collection of unlikely fishing challenges: the title of Salty. Once unlocked, it would be heralded before my character's name, there for the world to envy and admire.

The additional tasks ahead of me were certainly tricky, but I had already ticked off some of the worst through years of idle, happy and unfocused fishing. To unlock the Salty title, I would have to fish up a collection of lucky coins from a fountain, hunt down a series of rare fishing pools, and fish up a single, solitary fish - the Dark Herring - as I worked my way through these tasks and others.

Surely by winning the tournament though - a feat of such unlikely odds in its own right - the real hard work was behind me? With just a little effort, and a little feverish fishing, I would be Salty Strokemagnet, fisherman of kings. It was just a matter of time and commitment, and I had bags of both.

But as I set out to conquer these more tangible achievements, I couldn't have known that it was the Herring that would come back to haunt me, like a continental breakfast gone bad.

And to think Howling Fjord used to be one of my favourite zones. Now even the inn music makes me itch.

In a game so heavily centred around the mechanics of effort and reward, the Dark Herring is not entirely unique in its rarity, although it is an agonisingly rare fish to find by chance nevertheless. Estimates (and it's always estimates in a game whose creators stay tight-lipped about such things) are left for the players to evaluate amongst themselves.

An entire community of bitter fishermen, chasing a taste of Salty and analysing their collective data, judge the chance of catching the Dark Herring from any single cast to be approximately 1 in 10,000. Don't be fooled into thinking that 10,000 casts is enough to guarantee you your haul either, as the game has no memory of your earlier attempts. Some - agonisingly vocal - players will find it on their first few casts, while others will find themselves staring into the abyss after 30,000 casts or more.

Given this endless roll of a dice that has no cares for previous results, who knows what variable determines the odds of success at this, or any number of WOW's myriad, randomly determined rewards. The number of in-game steps you've taken on average in the last seven weeks? The size of the lead designer's feet, divided by the speed of light and multiplied by the second half of your screen resolution? Nobody knows, and whatever mechanism controls such things is a cold and tortuously opaque thing. Despite the intimidating numbers involved, the Dark Herring was nevertheless considered the least elusive of the precious fish that could be caught to trigger the achievement.

As is so often the case when you find yourself at the mercy of one of Blizzard's brutal randomised systems, you find yourself engaging in desperate endeavours to find something - anything - to give you an edge in your quest. Something to shine just a little light on your dark road to nowhere.

Northrend's Howling Fjord is a cold and desolate place. Lonely too, since the passing of what was arguably the game's heyday during the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. In a sea of desperation, it was also the only positive lead I had in taking some of the sting out of my quest. In the endless community discussions about hunting down the Herring, it had been decreed that certain pools in the Fjord - similar to those that cough up the tournament's Tastyfish - were rumoured to provide Dark Herrings only fractionally more often than standard open water.

And so the grim rhythm of the minigame continued, albeit with a renewed sense of purpose and focus as I worked my way repeatedly through a farming route around the rivers and lakes of the Howling Fjord. Moving from spot to spot, I whittled the process down into one of effortless, ruthless efficiency. Cast, bob, click. This time. Next time. Fly to the next pool and begin the process all over again.

What's in a name? I mean apart from dignity, self-respect, months of lost time...

It's remarkable that for the thousands of casts that ended in disappointment, the potential promise of excitement never waned. Each attempt felt certain to be the magical catch. Less appealing was the nagging sense that this had become a process about negating a loss, rather than achieving a goal - a pressing need to finish a bitter job in order to salvage something of the days that had already been lost to this mindless pursuit.

There is no way of adding excitement to the tale of what this miserable lake came to mean to me in the second half of last year. In the time since I'd first attempted to win the Stranglethorn fishing tournament, I had travelled the world and married my wife. In just the final leg of this decade-long quest I had bought a house and become a father for the first time. Yet the Herring seemed certain to elude me forever.

As days turned into weeks turned into months, my enthusiasm for circling this cold patch of land became one of bitter endurance, with only a handful of mental minigames to add some semblance of sanity to the pursuit. On some days, I would "only" fish until my bags were full. On others, I would resolve to dedicate no more than an hour each day, every day to my quest. Whatever happened, the battle of man versus fish would at least be fought on my terms.

And then, one day, the Dark Herring inevitably appeared in my haul. I stared at it and felt nothing.

Or rather, I didn't feel whatever it was I believed I should feel. I remember standing up from my chair and shouting something, but it was an act I felt compelled to do, rather than something I felt in my bones. For a few moments I intentionally flooded my mind with positive thoughts, but I was only lying to myself. Remorse and regret for the wasted days were the dominant emotions, even as I tweaked the interface to add the title to my character. Achievement unlocked.

WOW is nothing if not a collection of micro-goals and achievements, some of which are based on collaboration, others on dogged persistence as increasingly desperate offerings are made to the gods of good fortune. The rarer the reward in this world of bragging rights, the greater the lengths people will go to to unlock it, but the price in this instance - paid for in shredded nerves, broken spirits and lost months - was simply too steep.

I'll never live by any other name than Salty as long as I'm playing the game, but I'd much rather have earned it than endured it.

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