Mark Yocca

The Quixotic Quest to Find Out Why You Can’t Get a Fish Drunk in Ohio

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For years, the internet has had a good laugh at America’s weird alcohol laws. But some seem so oddly specific and entirely needless that they raise the question of how they came to be, or at least how they came to be so widely cited. A prime example of one of the most ridiculous ones is Ohio’s supposed prohibition on getting a fish drunk. So we set out to find its origin. What we ended up finding goes a lot deeper than simply not being able to offer a Martini to a Marlin.

Before we descend too far down a rabbit hole stocked with inebriated marine life, let’s look at the three main sources of strange laws. The first is America’s puritanical past. Many “dumb” laws are just old blue laws—legal prohibitions intended to protect Sunday as a Sabbath day. That, for example, is why you’ll see claims that it’s illegal to eat ice cream on Sundays. Many things were banned on Sundays in an attempt to keep it holy, including ice cream. The second reason a “dumb” law might exist is because it actually needs to exist. Take Wyoming’s ban on drinking in a mine, for instance. Singling out boozing in a mine might seem strange to someone who doesn’t live in Wyoming, but mining is simultaneously one of the state’s biggest and most dangerous industries, so snark all you want, but banning people who operate heavy machinery underground from being drunk isn’t unreasonable. The last way in which a strange law may find its way into the zeitgeist is by someone misinterpreting (maybe intentionally, maybe not) a broadly written law. That’s what happened with Colorado’s ban on riding horses drunk. The law actually prohibits drunk pedestrians from wandering in the street because, you know, that’s a good way to get hit by a truck. One section says the law also applies to “riders of animals.” But that is just a way to close a possible loophole in the law; it wasn’t actually targeting cowboys.  

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get back to the Buckeye State. Why is it illegal to get a fish drunk in Ohio? The short answer is, it’s not—not as a matter of record in the Ohio Revised Code, anyway. And, even more disappointing, there is no hilarious/horrible story of a state legislator doing goldfish bombs as part of a fraternity hazing ritual at The Ohio State University. In an email, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources told Supercall that the ban on drunk fish, “was most likely an old rule relating to silo runoff and stream pollution. And that rule or wording no longer exists.” In its place is section 1531.29 of the ORC:

No person shall place or dispose of in any manner, any garbage, waste, peelings of vegetables or fruits, rubbish, ashes, cans, bottles, wire, paper, cartons, boxes, parts of automobiles, wagons, furniture, glass, oil, or anything else of an unsightly or unsanitary nature on any state owned, controlled, or administered land, or in any ditch, stream, river, lake, pond, or other watercourse, except those waters which do not combine or effect a junction with natural surface or underground waters, or upon the bank thereof where the same is liable to be washed into the water either by ordinary flow or floods. This section does not apply to any substance placed under authority of a permit issued under section 6111.04 of the Revised Code or exempted by such section from its terms.

No mention of alcohol or fish anywhere. But the Ohio Department of Natural Resources likely sited silo runoff regulations as the source of the supposed drunk fish law because that runoff can include alcohol. Silage, which is a mixture of plants used as animal feed, can be kept in silos where it can ferment, creating ethanol. Dumping that ethanol-laden waste into the water is bad for both water quality and fish well-being.

But here’s the thing: We couldn’t turn up a reference specifically to silo runoff in any old versions of the ORC. We also couldn’t find any mention of a prohibition on drunk fish earlier than the late ‘90s. There were, however, several mentions of an identical law against inebriating fish in Oklahoma dating back to March 1979.

A syndicated blurb from UPI published in newspapers around the United States in the spring of ‘79 read, “Now you know: In Oklahoma, it is against the law to get a fish drunk.” The language is identical to language that appeared 20 years later on sites like dumblaws.com with Ohio in the place of Oklahoma. We reached out to the person who maintains dumblaws.com (yes, there is indeed a human being you can contact with your dumb law questions) to check on the source of his information about Ohio. We didn’t hear back. But the interpretative legal gymnastics one has to do to create that rule in the Ohio code, combined with the fact that alphabetically Oklahoma immediately follows Ohio makes it seem likely that the widespread story about Ohio’s prohibition on drunk fish is a decades old typo. And it’s a typo that’s only gotten more ingrained over the years. In a 2007 story picked up by both British tabloids and the BBC, a British TV station called UKTV Gold (they specialize in reruns of old BBC comedies) rated the non-existent Ohio law as one of the most ridiculous in the world. The legitimacy offered by those outlets cemented the fictitious law as a fixture on almost every “dumb law” list that’s come out since.

So at this point, we can all feel comfortable making plans to drink with fish in Ohio, but what about in Oklahoma? Once again, the answer is complicated. A representative from the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation told Supercall via email that, “The wildlife laws (Title 29 and Title 800) that govern operations of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation contain nothing related to getting a fish intoxicated.” A quick read of that section of Oklahoma law confirms that is the case, but the fact that it was published by UPI long before the days of the internet hoax still gave us pause. With all due respect to dumblaws.com, UPI employed Walter Cronkite and Helen Thomas and comes with some credibility, even if it is syndicating silly filler to small town papers. We reached out to UPI to see if anyone could provide any archival material as to the origin of that 1979 blurb. We didn’t receive a response.
In one last desperate attempt we combed Google’s library of eBooks for any mention of Oklahoma, fish and alcohol. And there, finally, in Davis D. Joyce’s An Oklahoma I had Never Seen Before: Alternative Views of Oklahoma History, a tie between fish and booze:

[In Oklahoma] there are local products, a distillation of about 150 proof, pure white, euphemistically called “panter sweat,” and a brew known as Choctaw beer, made of water and corn meal, sometimes spiced with a native berry, once used by the Indians to poison fish…

Those berries, actually called fish berries, were used either whole or in a powdered form to paralyze or stupefy fish, not just in Oklahoma, but in lakes and rivers all over the world. They were also mentioned by name in the Oklahoma statute book. According to the 1903 version:

It shall be unlawful for any person to deposit, place or throw in any stream, lake or pond in this Territory, any line, dynamite or other deleterious substance with the intent thereby to injure fish; or any drug, medicated bait or fish-berries with the intent thereby to poison or catch fish.  

Breaking that law was punishable by a fine ranging from $50 to $500 (about $1,300 to $13,000 in today’s dollars).
Whether plying fish with a common ingredient in beer to make them easier to catch constitutes getting them drunk is open to interpretation, but it’s the closest we’ll likely ever get to the oft-cited dumb law. And, in context, it doesn’t seem so dumb. Putting potentially poisonous material in lakes with the intent of catching fish is dangerous for the fish and anyone who eats them. However you interpret the law, though, it has also been revised. In the most recent version of the Oklahoma game and fish statutes, “fish berries” and “medicated bait” have been replaced by rotenone (a pesticide) and the broad category of “poison.” However, a prohibition on fish berries remains in Minnesota. So, to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, we apologize in advance for any onslaught of emails and phone calls asking if it’s illegal to get a fish drunk in your state.

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