John Bailey: Weighing’s a funny old business

Leafing through my copy of the excellent Classic Angling magazine recently, I realized there's a little bit of a storm in Norfolk piking circles.

You might think that because the disputed fish in question was caught way back on March 9, 1965 that the whole story would be dead and buried and yesterday's news. The fact is, though, the tale has lingered on and from time to time, flickered into new life.

It's all about that gormy and somewhat contentious character, Dennis Pye, one of the great characters of Norfolk fishing last century. I knew Dennis to a small degree and was always in awe of him. In truth, as a lad, I was terrified of him. He could stomp out of nowhere and give you a right rollicking if you were fishing where you shouldn't be. I, for one, never argued with Dennis.

Others have more courage, or at least they're prepared to take issue with his legacy. The crux of the matter is this. On the date given, Dennis caught and claimed a thirty-four pound two ounce pike from Horsey Mere – which is a whopper.

It went on to win the Eastern Evening News Silver Fish Competition for that year. The fish was witnessed by two heroes of that period – Edwin Vincent and Len Spencer, both of whom were fishing nearby. You'd think, therefore, that the whole story was done and dusted and Pye's name would be safe for eternity.

Not so. The latest research suggests strongly that both Vincent and Spencer had almost immediate reservations about the weight of Pye's fish. Indeed, on the quiet, they secretly weighed it for themselves and found it to come in ten pounds below Pye's claimed weight.

For one reason or another, this alternative version remained buried and secret, although whispers always circulated around the Norfolk big fish scene, even when I was a lad and a newcomer to it. Very recently, photographs of Pye's supposed 'thirty-four' were compared with those of a twenty-four pounder caught a day or two earlier by Pye's apprentice, Derrick Amies.

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Anyone who isn't an angler will read this and think why the bother? The great Alfred Jardine, Victorian pike slayer extraordinaire, wasn't above fiddling a few ounces. Some 40 years ago, a taxidermist 'nicked' a 30-odd pound pike that was sent to him and claimed it as a new forty pound plus record. Pike have always symbolized the ultimate glory on the coarse fishing scene and, as a result, they've been subject to quite a bit of tampering. In the big fish world, such a thing, truly, is abhorrent.

Where should we stand over all this? Well, if the evidence is true, and it looks pretty compelling, Dennis Pye's legacy must be re-examined. This is a shame because he was a truly exceptional angler who did catch some extraordinary fish.

For many, many years, I personally resisted weighing any fish at all. This was, in part, a reaction to the specimen hunting scene that demanded almost any fish should be weighed, however insignificant and unimportant to the greater scheme of things. I remember seeing leading Norfolk celebrities weighing absolutely everything they caught for no other purpose than keeping some sort of irrelevant log.

There's no doubt about it that weighing fish does increase the stress of capture, however expertly it is done. My view was, through the 1990s at least, that by ditching the scales I was at least making the life of any fish I caught that little bit easier.

I accept now that this was an extreme view and that, to a certain degree, I was wrong. There's one fish that sticks in my own mind that will ever cloud my own angling history.

Some eight or nine years ago, I caught a massive mahseer out in India. The guide told me it was between 45 and 55 kilos which puts it, roughly, at between the upper 90s and a hundred and ten pounds.

Now, such a fish is historic. It's gone down into the annals of Indian angling history as a massive fish but, of course, none of us can say exactly how massive it was. I regret the decision not to send one of the boys back to the camp for scales as a major mistake.

My own stance today is that if I am guiding, for example, and a client catches a really notable fish, especially a personal best, then that fish is weighed as quickly and as considerately as is humanly possible. It's extraordinary just how a matter of a few ounces can change the significance of a catch.

Again, any non-angler reading this will find it hard to understand how a one pound, fourteen ounce roach is a near miss and a roach of two pounds, one ounce is the fish of a lifetime. Whilst the entire western world, it seems, is trying to lose weight, in our fish we're just praying for that extra bit of girth. Weighing fish can also be useful to see how a particular specimen is faring and whether it is gaining or losing weight. Information like this is useful for fishery management so, again, has a place.

So, back to my original question. How many anglers do actually act generously when it comes to the weighing of their fish…?

Well, we'll never know but I have to say amongst my own circle there is always a major attempt to get it right, something that isn't always easy with a very big fish in windy, squally conditions. However, we've all developed a degree of expertise which results in swift and exact accuracy.

My own view is that fishermen are fine fellows indeed and that we should always give angler the benefit of the doubt if a slur is cast on the weight of his capture.

Unless it seems that the proof against a claim is absolutely damning. And, sadly, that seems to be the case today with that contentious fish caught 47 years ago this March!

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