Lighter Side

What is life if there is not laughter? Welcome to the lighter side of flyfishing! We welcome your stories here!
August 25th, 2003

Are Fishermen Really Liars?
Ed Zern

By Ed Zern

...Thirty-odd years ago I was fishing for smallmouth bass in the Thousand Island section of the St. Lawrence River, staying at Cape Vincent with "Hike" Newell, a partner in the company I worked for, and some important clients. One morning I was baitfishing in a boat with Carl W., who was advertising manager of a large corporation, and a guide, and shortly after Carl had caught the first smallmouth of this life, a two-pounder or thereabouts, I lucked into one just under five pounds, and boated it. That evening Hike took me aside and told me that Carl wanted to have his catch mounted, but that being smallish it had already been filleted for breakfast; he asked if I'd mind if he had my bass mounted for Carl. "I don't mind a bit," I said, "but Carl's sure to know it's not his fish - it's more than twice as big as the one he caught." "Kiddo, you've got a lot to learn about fishermen," Hike said, and went to telephone the local taxidermist.

As a result, for several years after that I would walk into Carl's office in Chicago two or three times a year, to show him an advertising program or discuss budgets, and always I would admire the mounted bass on his wall, and listen while Carl explained, in excruciating detail, how he had let it toy with the shiner until the precisely right moment, and what a fierce battle it had put up after he had set the hook, while I nodded and assured him it was a splendid fish, which of course it damn well was.

I wouldn't say that either Carl or the soldier were lairs, really, but I think that in their readiness, if not actually eagerness, to exaggerate the size of their catch they exemplied most of the anglers I know, including me. Most real fishermen are by nature dreamers, with few occasions on which we can let our imaginations off the leash, and the line between dreamers and liars is a thin one, which tends to dissolve in the running waters of a trout or salmon river, and even in the still water of a bass lake or bullhead pond.

Personally I make it a rule never to weigh or measure a fish I've caught, but simply to estimate its dimensions as accurately as possible, and then, when telling about it, to improve those figures by roughly a fifth, or twenty percent. I do this mainly because most people believe all fishermen exaggerate by at least twenty percent, and so I allow for the discounting my audience is almost certain to apply, so that the net figure in their minds will be about right. Thus, if I catch a four-pound brown on a #16 Adams in the Madison River I tell my friend Dave Dubious, "Dave, I took a five-pound brown on a #18 Adams just below the Varney Bridge last week." Dave thinks to himself, "In that fast, heavy water this klutz couldn't handle a five-pound brown on a #18 fly. It was probably a four-pounder, if that - and like as not it wasn't an #18 but a #16 or #14 fly." "Say, that's great!" Dave says, "let me tell you about the twenty-one inch rainbow I took out of the Big Hole three weeks ago, on a 6X leader." I instantly mark Dave's rainbow down to eighteen inches, beef up the leader to 4X, and say, "Wow! Tell me about it!" Thus we both come away with a fairly accurate understand of who what what, nobody has been injured, and life goes on.

There is, among hard-core fishermen, a conviction that truth, like pure water and the fish that live in it, is a precious commodity, not to be squandered or over-used. I respect that conviction, and those who hold it. And if the philosophers ask, "What is truth?" I answer, "I haven't the foggiest notion, gents. But one think it ain't is those stories your hear at Bud Lilly's or Phil Wright's or Dan Bailey's or any other tackle shop or fishing camp."

As for me, I get all the truth I need in the newspaper every morning, and every chance I get to go fishing or swap stories with fishermen, and to get the taste of it out of my mouth.
Field & Stream, 1997

Credit: Quoted from The Best of Ed Zern Published by The Lyons Press. We appreciate use permission.

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