Steve Partner: Record-breakers!...but does anyone really care?

This week the British Record Fish Committee announced the introduction of DNA testing to the sport and the latest claim for a UK best roach has been thrown out as a hybrid. But, as Steve Partner asks, is anyone really that bothered about our records or have they become something of an irrelevance?

So the latest record roach isn’t a roach. How do we know? Because the science of DNA has proved it.

Angling, we’re told, has at last dragged itself into the 21st Century, borrowing techniques and technology normally associated with crime scenes to help, quite literally, set the record straight. Now, apparently, we can definitively tell the difference between a bona-fide crucian carp and a brown goldfish or, as Terry Jackson has just discovered, a roach, a rudd or a mix of both. Where once a single list existed there will now be two – one for those fish that have been DNA tested and one where hybridisation remains a possibility. Confusion, false claims and mistakes will, we have been triumphantly told, be a thing of the past, with purity and authenticity taking their place. Members of the British Record Fish Committee are collectively puffing their chests out with pride.

The problem is, though, does anyone really care?

Some will argue our record list stands as the ultimate benchmark, each new entry worthy of huge celebration. A growing number, though, see it differently. Weary from familiarity, they have come to view it as a collection of abstract and inaccurate statistics that have no real relevance or meaning. DNA testing, they’ll ask. So what?

It hasn’t always been like that. There was a time, before the invasion of so many alien species and the monotony of repeat captures, when anglers were able to recite with accuracy each of the fish on the list.

But could you name the carp record? Or barbel? And what about pike, tench, bream or chub? I doubt there’s an angler alive capable of recalling the entire list from memory.

That doesn’t mean that everybody has the same ambivalent attitude. Specimen-hunters, those men who target the very biggest of our coarse fish, certainly care. While few, if any, ever leave home with the sole intention of catching a record – to tread that path is to take a speedy route to insanity – to them success is very much a size game. They target creatures that are upwards of 90 per cent of the British best, so for them, a national benchmark is essential because it provides context.

And what of those at the other end of the scale, those that represent the vast majority of fishermen in this country, the pleasure anglers? Hope and anticipation are two of the sport’s most important commodities and somewhere, even if it’s deep in the recesses of the mind, there remains a dream that one day it might be they who catch a record.

Without that list there to provide a goal, that chance, however remote, wouldn’t exist. If you don’t think things like that happen any more, look at Dean Rawlings. In April 2002 the 11-year-old schoolboy set a new British perch record, catching the fish under remarkable circumstances – on a bunch of maggots attached to a size 12 hook and 10lb line from a tiny, unheard-of pool. It still remains one of fishing’s greatest surprises. 

Without a record list, that perch would have meant nothing.

The angling media certainly cares, too. There can be no doubt the capture of the biggest fish of most species is a hugely newsworthy event that should be rightly celebrated. But even here a hierarchy exists. A record pike or roach is guaranteed front page news. What, though, of a bleak, gudgeon or silver bream? None are likely to justify more than a few column inches.

Then there are the numerous recaptures that have come to blight even the more mainstream species like carp, chub, bream and, most notably, barbel. Such is the frequency with which some records are broken nowadays – the barbel at Adam’s Mill known as Red Belly was such a regular visitor to the banks in the late 1990s that some suggested it had developed the ability to breathe out of water – that they begin to lose kudos, respect and, more importantly, interest.

Banner headlines that scream ‘record carp’ must seem like the ultimate angling story, but when that same fish is caught from the same water – on occasion by the same angler too – it ceases to have the same impact. Familiarity, as the old saying goes, breeds contempt.

The fact that a particular type of angler – notably the long-stay carper – has come to dominate the list is another turn-off. Think tench, bream and chub, all species taken by mistake. Even fish like barbel are now caught on tactics and tackle more likely to be found on large pits than rivers.

And what happens if anglers catch record-breaking fish but don’t report them – something that has happened several times in the last 10 years? Then there are the fish caught before technology allowed more precision weighing implements to be carried by serious anglers. Can we really expect our counterparts from the early part of last century and beyond to have accurately recorded what they caught? Unlikely.

Don’t forget either that despite the changes, the current system is still too easily abused. It would only take a semi-devious mind, fuelled by the misapprehension that a giant fish equals fame and fortune, to con its way into the history books.

So Terry Jackson’s latest fish isn’t a record. But, given all the arguments, does it matter? Not if you take the list for what it is – an amateurish collection of statistics compiled without the aid of structure or pin-point accuracy. Most of us will never trouble those charged with its upkeep and, accordingly, it remains abstract, distant and largely irrelevant.

Yes, it has its place but let’s not take it all so seriously. DNA testing? That’s a technology we can surely live without.