Steve Partner: Trial by the keyboard coward

Craig Humphries is just an angler who posted the image of a very big fish on an internet site. No harm in that, you might think. And if you were of sound mind, you’d be right.

But fishing, it seems, isn’t a world always populated by those of sound mind. Not if you gauge the reaction to Craig’s innocent decision, that is.

Instead of receiving the plaudits he might expect for claiming to have caught a 42lb 8oz pike, his decision to go public was met in certain quarters with outpourings of cynicism, vitriol and hate. According to Craig, since uploading his picture he has been verbally threatened, accused of illegally moving fish and repeatedly labelled a liar.

Naturally, he’s distraught and confused: “What exactly have I done wrong?” he asks. Craig now wishes he’d kept his mouth shut and remained ensconced within the safe ground of anonymity.

Pike fishing’s own kangaroo court ¬ in this case a particular internet forum ¬ has sat and found him guilty. His picture, apparently, is a fake. Now, I hate picking out individual websites ¬ it gives them undeserved publicity.

Suffice to say, this one belongs to a niche magazine for pike and predator anglers.
On a thread entitled ‘Hickling 42.8lber’ the members quickly decided that Craig’s pike ¬ the image of which had been ripped off another forum ¬ was digitally enhanced. Apart from the odd exception, the views were damning.

‘Fake, fake, fake,’ said one, ‘another Photoshop job, suppose someone will believe it,’ added another.

Some bypassed the image and went straight for the captor, calling him anything from a Russian transvestite to Walter Mitty. He was, according to one poster, ‘from another planet.’ Then, of course, they dissected his motive. The reason for the alleged digital trickery was because he wanted to tap into untold riches, get his hands on more gear than you’ll find in your average tackle shop or, more imaginatively, lever a free holiday from the Norfolk Tourist Board.

Honestly, I’m not making this up.

They finished their character assassination by demanding he come on the site to explain himself and his picture (which, to his credit, he did) then ¬ and this is a genuine post made by someone who must surely never be allowed anywhere near a jury ¬ stated Craig couldn’t have caught a 42lb 8oz Hickling pike because his jeans weren’t wet enough. You couldn’t make it up.

I can understand the need to protect fishing history from fraudulent captures, but is this the right way to go about it?

Let’s start at the beginning. Is Craig’s fish the real deal? In the light of having no cast-iron proof otherwise, you have to say ‘yes’. The doubters point to the shape and the size of the fish, its odd proportions and, more bizarrely, its lack of spots. They argue that Craig’s hands look odd, his gaze is in the wrong direction, the trees in the background aren’t right.

Everything that’s superficial and laughably easy to counter.

According to our experts here at Bauer ¬ home to a portfolio of digital photography magazines ¬ the image shows no signs of enhancement, other than the basics of cropping and lightening. Both are elements that Craig has admitted to ¬ they are widespread in angling photography.

The only area of concern for our professionals was the lack of the original, untouched image. Craig claims he no longer has it, discarding it in favour of his superior amended one ¬ that might seem slightly odd, but it by no means makes him a liar.

It’s worth noting that Angling Times remains the only newspaper he has spoken to. And far from being the money-grabbing egotist many have made him out to be, at no point did he seek financial gain.

From the moment he first posted his picture on our website he was modest, self-effacing and slightly bemused at the sudden media attention. If he really was hell-bent in conning the angling world, you have to ask why.

Much of the condemnation heaped upon him stems from the fact that he dared publicise the catch and then, even worse, name the place of capture ¬ Whispering Reeds, a boat yard on Hickling Broad. Pikers, more than most, view this as the worst of crimes. They have, on occasion, good reason to. Pike are especially vulnerable creatures that don’t take to pressure well, and repeated capture is often fatal. But given this story broke as the river season ended, with the fish able to move anywhere it liked in the ensuing three months, that argument has little weight.

Why shouldn’t a lad, who by his own admission has never caught anything remotely close to this before, enjoy his five minutes of fame? Why shouldn’t he revel in his good fortune and see his name, and face, in national newspapers and magazines? What gives anyone the right to deny him that?

If some of these zealots had their way, no-one would publish anything they catch. And where would that leave us? What if Dick Walker had never written about carp fishing, about the Arlesey bomb, about bite alarms, about Redmire Pool, about Clarissa? More pertinently here, what if legendary piker Barrie Rickards had chosen to keep quiet about what he caught and learnt? These men, and their successors, have inspired generations. To expect anglers, regardless of background or ability, to keep permanently quiet is not only to deny a basic human right, but to stop angling advancements in their tracks.

If one of the ‘known’ faces had caught the fish, would it have undergone the same level of scrutiny? It’s highly unlikely.

Craig Humphries might not be an established name, but I’m fairly sure he caught a very big pike that hasn’t been inflated via Photoshop’s digital wizardry.

What I know for certain is that he doesn’t deserve the level of abuse he has subsequently been subjected to. The vast majority of the pike fishing community is made  up of normal, decent, right-thinking individuals who share the same underlying goals that we all do ¬ to enjoy their sport. But, more than in any other branch of fishing, they have a spiteful element who threaten to tar their peers with their poisonous brush.

How can they sit around a table and talk sensibly about key issues like livebaiting when they behave in such a childish and vindictive manner? How can they be taken seriously when members of a forum many consider the home of predator fishing damn a man who caught a fish as looking like a Russian transvestite? 

They might represent a tiny fraction of the 130-plus page thread, and of more than 2,000 posts, less than 100 were made by different people ¬ but these acidic opinions are still in the public domain. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with the internet.
It made the world a smaller and more accessible place, it has changed the way we live in almost every dimension. But, in website forums, it has also given a voice to people without the wit or intelligence to deserve it.

These faceless individuals, many of whom hide behind pseudonyms, sit behind computer screens, often choosing to dismantle and destroy anyone and anything that contradicts their own small-minded views.

Not all forums are like this, of course. At their best they can be fantastic communities where like-minded individuals share information and conversation that helps them get an extra dimension from their hobby. But at their worst they can resemble virtual playgrounds where cyber bullies gather together to round on innocent individuals.

I’ve often heard frequent forum users described as ‘keyboard warriors’ but that term doesn’t get close to being accurate. In the case of Craig Humphries’ detractors I reckon ‘keyboard cowards’ is a bit more like it, don’t you?