Eddy Widdup offers up the traditional angling prayer – and then swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth
Heads down, eyes closed, let us pray:
Lord, grant that I may catch a fish
So big that even I
When talking of it afterwards
May have no need to lie
The origins of this famous little poem are shrouded in mystery. Some say it was Richard Walker himself who penned it and shortly afterwards was rewarded beyond reward with Clarissa. He certainly made it popular with his wonderful book - No Need to Lie.
Personally, I prefer the story that it was scrawled on the wall of an inn alongside the River Thames circa c17. Some long-forgotten but rueful angler had just told a rather large porky and needed redemption; he wrote his innermost feelings in a moment of drunken clarity, before slipping back into more bombastic fairytales of giants.
Who knows? But whatever its origin it stands as possibly the most exact assessment of an anglers psychology I have yet come across. I mean who hasn't added on a few ounces down the pub?
Obviously not me! I seldom drink and anyway I am, of course, the only honest angler in history but at some point in our angling lives all of us have lied about something or another; it is as much a part of fishing as green waders and a pint of maggots.
Some lies are as useful a piece of fishing tackle as anything else in your box. For example, how else would one get rid of keen but noisy youngsters without a quick bit of make believe.
"Lads, I saw some lovely chub under the bridge just now, I would have a go myself but I've got to go and see someone further downstream. Shame to let those fish go to waste...” Said with enough sincerity it can work a treat and inspire them to fish even more ardently than before. It's a lie that can lead to good things and who knows they may even catch that imagined chub.
Fishery owners will regularly tell a few myth-enhancing tales of monsters that reside in their lakes; it not only helps with business but gives everyone who fishes there hope (albeit often a false one). I have fished many a tiny carp fishery that seemed to have a "21lber" that a kid once caught on sweetcorn, or a "25lber" that nearly broke a landing net. These tales, however untrue, MUST be taken at face value. Those mythical monsters are the very reason we go fishing. If we start to question too deeply we'll turn into terrible and twisted cynics who, when presented with a real big fish tale, may turn up our noses in disbelief.
Another useful lie is to our better halves. How else can we justify the cost of five kilos of boilies without a mild misplacement of truth? I lie to her indoors about how much I smoke and eat when fishing:
"No dear, I did eat that lovely salad and I only had a couple of ‘Hamlet moments’ all day!" He says after a day of chain smoking, swearing and eating pasties washed down with chocolate biscuits. It's not that I am trying to be dishonest to her, far from it, I am trying to stop her worrying about my health and the subsequent nagging that would ensue thereafter - it's just easier on the ear that way.
But all of the above pales into insignificance when compared to the biggest elephant in the room - the ‘my fish was bigger then yours’ syndrome.
For the most part it's harmless.
Down my way every teenager who fishes tells you he has caught a chub over 7lb and seems to catch one, or even four, each time he goes fishing. Photos of very heavy foot-long chub adorn various websites and fish that on most people scales would weigh no more then 3lb suddenly metamorphose into fish twice that size.
The same can be said for various photos of roach, perch, barbel and pike. There is no harm in these budding specialist anglers. When they grow out of it and look back they will hopefully smile at their impetuousness; I know I do and I have many an old picture of me holding a smallish tench where the badly written label reads ‘6lb 7oz biggest fish of day. Sweetcorn!!!!’ The multiple exclamation marks betraying the desperate state of my adolescent mind.
Who I thought I was kidding is anyone's guess, but just like the hope bringing tales of chub under a bridge or the 21lbers, we must never make direct dispersions to the young liars. A courteous “congratulations” and maybe some pictures of a real 7lb chub to silence their boasts; after all they are causing no harm and boys will be boys until the end of time.
Where this white lie starts to creep into the truly comic is when these tales come, not from young boys but fully grown adults.
The temptation of machismo is very strong in some. Whether that be in supposed notches on bed posts or trials for a football club, hyperbole sneaks in and suddenly they are lying like an Italian politician. Granted, we are not going to be held in contempt of court for putting 5lb on the weight of a carp but nonetheless the trait is one which seems amusingly common. A friend of mine calls them ‘Elevenerifes’ - if you have been to Tenerife, he's been one better. We've all met them, the type that transposes the exact measurement of ounces for the suffix "ers".
"I had a 30lber from this swim!" he says, expecting a gasp of amazement and possibly an autograph request but what he is actually trying to say is: "I like this swim, it always looks like it should hold a lump or two, I wish I had the skill to catch one."
But none of this type would ever show such weakness to a stranger. In fact, in many instances the exaggeration only increases the longer they chat, with wilder and wilder stories permeating from his fertile imagination. His waving arms getting wider and wider until they are touching on the campest opera.
These people are comic caricatures of the rest of us, they are like looking in one of those fair =ground mirrors exaggerating certain of our traits and foibles. They provide us with a good laugh when they leave and, to be fair, fishing wouldn't be the same without the bankside characters and the different extreme personalities that our sport seems to attract.
However, as lovable as the Elevenerifes are there is a certain nefarious undercurrent of the really big fishing lie. This is when very naughty and underhand tactics are used to convince their contempories. I wonder how many fish we see staring back from the angling pages have had a few ounces or pounds added on here and there? Sometimes it's obvious, other times not so.
Say, like me, you had just caught a chub weighing in at 6lb 15oz and like me you had never caught a seven. How tempting would it be to add on that magic ounce? I was tempted, more then tempted. I even pulled the needle about trying to gain that extra tiny division. Luckily for me, the chap who witnessed the fish pulled me back from the brink. He said, “Listen mate, whatever the weight it’s still a bloody good fish." So it was I settled reluctantly with the 6.15 (twice that season in fact) and when the seven did finally come it made the whole experience that much sweeter.
Others have not been so fortunate and have fallen into the grasp of this numbers game. Some delving so deep they believe the lies they tell themselves; it is a sad way to be and degrades the reason they fish in the first place.
The pull of glory is so great that they are willing to cheat not just themselves but the readers of magazines and even the tackle firms that sponsor them. They gain their coveted publicity as well as gaining financially with the tackle items with which they are rewarded. Some even make a career out of catching bigger and bigger fish. I wonder how often they feel pressured to continue their ‘form’ and have to make it up to prove themselves as still competent.
The fact this surely happens opens up the disparaging comments and deriding attacks on websites and quite often blatant jealousy when someone really does do well.
An example of this was last year when I made the national papers with a big bass I fluked out of the Royalty on the Avon. It was a complete jam, absolute total and utter luck, nothing more nothing less. I showed no real angling skill to catch it but apparently it was noteworthy enough for it to be a national story.
It was only when a friend of mine pointed me towards an internet forum that I realised how odd some anglers can be. They openly accused me of lying about it, suggested that the photos had been ‘shopped’ and that I probably did not know the difference between a bass and a pike anyway. It struck me as very funny at first, then when I thought about it, quite sad too. Have we sunk so low that every fish that is caught has to go through a testing procedure to prove its authenticity?
Maybe we should all take a step back and say "If it's not a British record, then who really cares? Let the angling press decide if the bloke is kosher or not." I reckon that some lies are small enough to be believed, after all it’s better believing the small ones then not questioning the largest.
I came across this quote recently:
"...of all the liars among mankind, the fisherman is the most trustworthy." ~ William Sherwood Fox, Silken Lines and Silver Hooks, 1954
A trustworthy liar? I like that and perhaps that is what we are - oxymoronic to a man. We all love to catch a fish but it's amazing how disappointed one can get if that beautiful creature falls short of our desired weight.
Similar to the 6.15 chub, it happened to me again the year before last but this time with a big pike.
For all the world I thought I had finally broken my ten year old PB and the fish was going to be well over 25lb. I shook like a leaf as I put the fish into the sling, only to stare flabbergasted when the scales read ‘only’ 19lb 14oz. It was an odd feeling and very nearly detracted from the hugely impressive fish I had cradled in my arms.
But almost as soon as the disappointment had set in, it evaporated. I remembered the words that wise old angler had said to me years before - it was still a bloody good fish!
The battle, the adrenaline rush and seeing a pike like that in the autumn sun washed away any worry about what, let's face it, is an artificial barrier. Perhaps, that is the pragmatist’s way of looking at these things. Moreover, perhaps that is the way we should look at all our fish. Why do we care so much about extra ounces when really all we should care about is how beautiful big fish actually are? Why not let the actual weight come a distant second to the condition of the fish or the circumstances you caught it in? No one would lie if we all took that pragmatic, more artisan stance. There really would be no need.
The problem is that it's never going to happen. I do not know why, but adding 2oz to your PB is an amazing feeling and even if that fish is right old minger it still makes the heart beat faster.
One thing I do know though is that venerable old poem needs a second verse to truly sum us up:
Dear Lord, now that I have caught a fish
Much bigger than any other.
I have one more thing to ask of you:
Please can I catch his big brother?