There is a passage in the otherwise excellent Jerome K Jerome novel, Three Men in a Boat, that, as an angler, I had issue with from the moment I first read it. It comes from chapter 17, when the un-named narrator, along with friends George and Harris, undertake a spot of fishing while on their boating holiday down the River Thames.
Jerome describes an angler thus: “Some people are under the impression that all that is required to make a good fisherman is the ability to tell lies easily and without blushing; but this is a mistake. Mere bald fabrication is useless; the veriest tyro can manage that. It is in the circumstantial detail, the embellishing touches of probability, the general air of scrupulous ¬ almost of pedantic ¬ veracity, that the experienced angler is seen.”
Those words, like the rest of the book, might have been written with a comic slant, but the sentiments are undeniable ¬ a fisherman’s greatest skill is his ability to tell tall tales. Anglers live, according to Jerome, in a world of make-believe.
Maybe in 1889, when the book was first published, they did. But the modern-day fisherman is, in my experience, a different animal altogether. For a sport publically perceived as being the domain of well-meaning, but no less inventive story-tellers, I believe we are actually a remarkably honest, genuine and sincere bunch.
Specimen anglers, by and large, always tell the truth. As do carpers. Here, where a single ounce can make the difference between a personal best and just a good fish, accuracy has become something of an obsession. And with so many of the more notable specimens recognisable, fabrication of the truth is an option removed to all but the completely stupid.
Matchmen too, are above reproach. By its nature, competition fishing requires independent verification and end-of-contest weigh-ins ensure fair play.
No, of all fishermen it’s the pleasure angler who’s most likely to make a mistake ¬ specifically a pleasure angler who happens across a rare big fish. Inaccurate, cheap scales, poor weighing procedures, or just stab-in-the-dark guesses can only ever result in random and incorrect weights ¬ and they often do.
Crucially, these anglers aren’t used to seeing giants so, when, on the rare occasion, they do catch something huge, it looks outlandish. There’s a big difference between a 3lb perch and a four-pounder, but in the hands of a euphoric angler who’s never had one even half that weight, that ‘three’ will look like it’s from another planet.
I can picture the conversation.
“How big do you reckon this is?” they ask their mate.
“Dunno, but it’s massive, It must be at least 5lb!”
“I reckon it’s nearer four-and-a-half, so I’ll take 4lb.”
The next thing you know the picture is on its way to Angling Times and the team here is left with an awkward conundrum. Publish, and risk making fools of the captor and the paper, or ignore it and deny one very proud angler his five minutes of fame?
This scenario is, though, fairly rare. On most occasions the captor’s story is restricted to his mates down the pub and, aside from a raised eyebrow here and a knowing nod there, no-one really cares about its authenticity. In fact, it’s only when these mistakes threaten angling history do we have a problem.
For every bona fide record claim, there are several clearly wide of the mark. Up until now the British Record Fish Committee has relied on a strict set of guidelines to sieve out the gold from the gravel. And even if that fails (if an angler supplies a picture, scales check and sworn witness statements he has, technically, ticked all the boxes), the committee’s experts retain the right to throw out any claim under the guise of ‘reasonable doubt’ ¬ which basically means, in layman’s terms, they just don’t fancy it. Quite rightly, too, because angling history is at stake.
The point, though, is this. If the BRFC already has these measures in place, why even contemplate the use of a lie detector when in most cases the angler making the claim genuinely believes he’s caught something historic? Lie detectors are built to expose liars ¬ they have no capacity to expose innocent ignorance.
Anglers might live in a world of suspended hope and unfulfilled dreams, but the myth that fishermen only ever tell tall tales of the ones that got away ¬ and even taller ones about those that didn’t ¬ is only perpetuated by those with no understanding of what we do. Sure, mistakes are made, but most not willingly. Not very often, anyway.
As with any sport, we have our share of cheats. But unlike those with tighter rules, catching them isn’t very easy. Angling, more than any other pastime, is built on the foundations of trust and honour and, because of that, I believe most sign up to an unwritten code of integrity. So when we do unearth a fraud, we remember him.
Names like John Watson, Clive White and Jonathon Denny have entered angling folklore, each as memorable as those who have legitimately earned recognition.
Watson took his place in Angling’s Hall of Shame in 1990 when he sent AT images of the same pike on three separate occasions. Despite changing his clothes and reducing the weight, his ruse ¬ presumably to boost profile and win prizes ¬ was rumbled when a reader spotted a small piece of grass on the tail that appeared in each photograph. In an instant, his credibility was shot. Overnight, he became persona non grata, an angling pariah.
Then, of course, there was Clive White. His entry to the rogues’ gallery wasn’t so much unwillingly foisted upon him, more that he asked for inclusion himself. After spending eight years as the holder of the rainbow trout record, he sensationally withdrew his claim after admitting he had found the fish dying in the margins.
More recently, it is technology that has been the would-be cheat’s most potent weapon.
Armed with a computer and Photoshop, digital images have become easy to manipulate, and it was Jonathon Denny who perpetrated the greatest of these new-age angling crimes.
In 2001 he posted a picture on an angling website of what he said was a pike in excess of 50lb. But neither the captor, nor his accomplice, expected the subsequent publicity, and the pressure told. They cracked. Details soon emerged of how they had super-sized the image of a 22-pounder in what was supposed to be a prank, but they soon learnt that record-fish claims are never, ever, a laughing matter.
And that, in the modern era, has been about it. Yes, rumours do persist about certain individuals ¬ mainly in the big-fish world ¬ but these are largely based on hearsay, conjecture or just plain jealousy.
It seems to me that while some anglers will happily poach, lie about venues and bend the truth about baits to appease sponsors, few are downright liars. Credibility, it appears, is too valuable a commodity to risk for the sake of an ounce or two.
I also struggle to see what the motivation is, either. The only side of the sport where sizeable cash is on offer is matchfishing but, as discussed, cheating is impossible within its strict confines.
As for the specimen-hunter or pleasure angler, there is literally nothing to be gained from turning liar. Both finance and fame are in short supply in this sport of ours, and the fear of being damned, like messrs Watson, White and Denny, far outweighs the prospect of a brush with stardom that is as fleeting as it is parochial.
As such, angling, despite its vulnerability to manipulation, remains a very honest sport.
Maybe it’s the unshakeable sense of shame that accompanies cheats that helps enforce this spirit of fair play.
Maybe, in an individual sport like ours, the only one who loses out by telling a fisherman’s tale is the fisherman himself.
Or maybe, contrary to Jerome K Jerome’s opinion, angling, the past-time that welcomes all ages, classes and creeds, just attracts the genuine. Whatever the reason, it makes the idea of a lie detector mercifully redundant.