I can’t pinpoint precisely when my condition started, but the first episode that I can recall was last June, shortly after returning from a two-day float trip fishing for carp on the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, where perhaps I should have filtered the river water before drinking it. Anyway, I was in Montana to fish the Missouri River with Izzy Short, a guide with whom I’d had some fine days in the past. He’s a grizzled old-timer who rarely speaks and has never responded, or even reacted, to anything that I said unless it related to the next cast or a fish. Although not much fun to be with, Izzy is terrific at spotting fish and putting me in the right position to cast to them, which has always seemed like a fair tradeoff for his dour personality.
On that day, Izzy had found a few fish but I failed to hook them. I can’t remember a slower day on the Missouri. Late in the afternoon, he suddenly stopped the boat, staring intensely downstream. He muttered that he could see a fish rising near the bank. We moved slowly toward the spot, until I finally saw a tiny dimple. He had tied on a section of light leader, and a small fly. As I got ready to cast he put out his hand to stop me, saying “That there is a big fish. Don’t screw it up. And we need a heavier leader for this boy”
I made my first cast, and the fly landed two feet beyond the fish’s head. Izzy exploded. “What the hell you doin’? You’ll spook him. Get that fly out of there, numbnuts. Now!” I raised my rod and started stripping in the fly. As it moved upstream, the fish turned, swam toward it and sucked it in. Flummoxed by my lousy cast, I was not watching the fish, so I didn’t set the hook right away. Perfect technique for a downstream take – the fish hooked itself. It was a powerful one, swimming slowly down the river and taking me into the backing on my reel. Izzy rowed after the fish. Fortunately, the leader held, the fish didn’t find any rocks or logs, and in about ten minutes I brought it to Izzy’s net. That’s when it happened.
As Izzy lifted the fish from the net, cradling it, I excitedly blurted out. “Wow! What a beautiful brown trout. Gotta be twenty inches.”
“What? You messin’ with me? Twenty f…in’ inches? It’s the biggest fish I’ve seen on this river in years. Over twenty-six inches. What you been smokin’, man?”
“No problem Iz. It’s a beauty, but it looks smaller to me. I’m sorry, but it just does.”
“Well, you’re full of crap. The mouth of this net is twenty-four inches wide. And any fool can see that this fish is a lot longer than that. You’re screwed up! You didn’t earn this fish and you sure as hell don’t deserve it. You got no respect.” He let the fish go without even asking whether I wanted a picture, continuing to mumble expletives.
That was it. Izzy rowed hard to the boat takeout and drove me back to my cabin without saying another word. He grabbed my tip with no acknowledgment, jumped in his truck and was gone. The next morning the fly shop manager called to tell me that Izzy had to go to Ulm to get his wife out of jail, and that it was too late to find a replacement. I had a poor day fishing on my own, then left for home, frustrated because, assuming Izzy was right, I landed the fish of a lifetime and not only didn’t get a picture, I didn’t even know that I had done it.
Later, in August, I was up in Quebec for my annual salmon fishing week with my pals from the fishing club. It was always my favorite trip of the year. Even if the catching was bad, we still had a great time eating, drinking and telling worn out stories about the good old days. On arrival night, we had our traditional scotch-infused dinner to kick off what promised to be a great week. In recent years, I had paired up to fish with Willie Stretchit, who lives in New Jersey. I never saw him except on this trip. We’ve always gotten along great, enjoying one another’s company and never quibbling over typical problems like the allocation of water or fishing time. The river was low, and in the first five days, despite our guide Louie working hard, we each caught only two small salmon. Fortunately for our egos, no one else in the camp caught a decent fish either. Late in the last afternoon Willie hooked up with a serious fish. He fought it for about half an hour, which seemed a bit excessive to me, since it wasn’t all that big, but I guess he wanted to savor the first good salmon he had hooked all week. Just as Louie was sliding the net under it a few feet from the bank, it jumped out, took a run and was gone when the leader broke. Willie was pissed and I couldn’t blame him. He yelled at Louie, “What the hell you doin’ Louie? I wait all week to finally get a big fish, and you lose it for me? Damn it, I didn’t even get to measure it or a take a picture!”
Louie was not buying it. “It’s your own damn fault. You kept the line too tight so it broke. What do you expect when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing?” He marched off angrily and Willie followed him, hopefully to patch things up.
Since our guide was gone, I returned to camp. When I got to the dining room, the other guys were already into their first round of drinks – except Willie. Once again, none of them had caught anything worth talking about. They were all ears when I told them “Willie hooked a good one”.
“How big? You got any pictures?”
“Nah. It jumped out of Louie’s net and got away when the leader broke. We never got a picture. But it was probably twenty pounds, maybe a bit bigger. Fought like crazy. Jumped three times. Beautiful fresh fish.”
Just then Willie came in. Manny Fisch, our club president, with more than a slight hint of schadenfreude, said “Hey Willie, heard you lost a twenty pounder.”
“Twenty? You kidding? It was much bigger than that. Who told you twenty?”
“Your partner. Said he saw it. And you know him – he’s truth.”
“Truth, my ass. Charlie, what the hell are you talking about? Louie told me that, based on the size of his net, my fish was about forty-five inches long. And fresh and fat as it was, it had to be over thirty-five pounds. My god, it was the biggest salmon I ever saw, much less caught. How the hell did you come up with twenty pounds?”
“Hey, don’t get your knickers in a knot. I was just guessing. Actually, I said a bit more than twenty, which seemed about right. But if you had managed to land it, we’d know for sure.” The sarcasm was a big mistake.
“You jerk! You know damn well that Louie lost that fish for me. What are you trying to prove here?”
“Not trying to prove anything. Maybe I’m wrong and it was thirty-five or even forty.” Of course, the other guys were delighted to pile on. “C’mon Willie. What’s wrong with twenty pounds? That’s a helluva fish. Way better than anything the rest of us have caught all week. No need to exaggerate. We gotta trust the old guy on this one. He’s seen more salmon than any of us. Besides, he has no dog in this hunt.”
“Yeah Willie. When you’ve been starin’ at the little guys all week, a real salmon looks huge. Course they always keep growin’ once they’re gone.”
Now Willie was even more riled up. “Screw you guys. You can’t catch jackshit. I don’t need this.” He stomped out without even waiting for dinner.
When I returned to our cabin Willie was asleep. Next morning he had packed and left camp by the time I woke up. No goodbye. Guess he was really pissed. On our way back from breakfast, Manny and I happened to see Louie. Manny asked him how big he thought Willie’s fish was.
“It was a really big fish. The biggest I seen all season. Musta been close to forty pounds. Too bad there’s no picture for Willie. But it was not my fault. A big fish like that is hard to get into the net. He had the line real tight. He got too excited and didn’t concentrate.”
Manny turned to me angrily. “What the hell were you looking at? All the years you been salmon fishing and you don’t know the difference between twenty and forty pounds? Who the hell wants to fish with you? Willie’s right. You got a problem.”
“Manny, I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t trying to mess with Willie’s mind. I was happy that he caught a good fish and I’ll call him and apologize. Tell him what Louie said. He’ll be glad to know that we talked to Louie.”
After getting home, I emailed and called Willie several times to try to repair things, but haven’t heard from him. I told him what Louie said, and apologized. Not sure where he stands for next year. Or me. No doubt Manny and the others told the story to everyone in the club, and I’m probably in the doghouse there too.
In September, I went down to the South Holsten River for my last trip of the season. There were some small olive flies coming off in mid-afternoon and a few fish rising. I picked out what looked to be the best one, and hooked it. After a hard fight, I netted a nice 18-inch brown. Before releasing it I put a mark on my rod so I could measure it exactly when I got home. I was shocked to find it was just over 22 inches, the biggest trout I’ve ever caught on the river. Manny and Willie were right. I did have a problem. The worst problem an angler can ever have. I was underestimating the size of fish. I needed help.
My GP, Harry Pitts, suggested an eye doctor, who had a unique specialty. He was from Alaska – claimed to be an optical Aleutian. When I told him about my problem, he was skeptical. An examination revealed that my eyesight was fine, so it wasn’t a visual problem. Though he probably wanted to suggest that I see a shrink, he referred me to a psycho-neurologist called Dr. Pavlov, whose name rang a bell.
As I explained my condition to Dr. Pavlov, he took copious notes with a broken pencil, which was pointless. At the end of our session, I asked if he had ever heard of my problem before, and was encouraged to hear him say “Yes, but, it’s a condition that I’ve only encountered in women. Usually their husbands send them here. The men complain that the women constantly underestimate the size of, uh, important things. But these things tend to be considerably smaller than the fish you’re describing.”
“Have you been able to treat the problem?” “Not treat it, but I think I’ve fixed it. I just tell them that lying or exaggerating in the cause of connubial bliss is no sin. No wife has come back for further consultation, so I guess it worked. But I’m not sure what to do with you. Perhaps I don’t get it. Do the fish get upset and stop biting if you think they’re smaller than they really are? How would they know?”
“No. It’s other fishermen. They’re kind of like the men who send their wives to you. Except the only size that fishermen care about is that of their fish. And for a fisherman, overestimating is a virtue, while underestimating is rude and unacceptable behavior. So, none of my pals want to fish with me anymore. They’d sooner spend a day noodling with a redneck. I can’t even keep my guides, cause they’re afraid that I’ll ruin their reputations. You have to understand. In fishing, bigger is not just the best thing, it’s the only thing.”
“Do you have the same problem estimating the size of other things?”
“How would I know that? I don’t walk into a market and say ‘gee, I think that zucchini is about two and a half pounds’ or look at a baby, and say ‘wow, that’s a beautiful 24-incher’. But, if a fisherman mentions catching a fish, his buddy asks ‘how big was it?’ And if it wasn’t particularly big, he gets a self-satisfied smile and gives him the ultimate put down, ‘oh.”
Well, if your problem is really that serious, maybe you should just start lying. Whatever you think the size is, say it’s a lot bigger. Won’t that work? Or, when your friends catch a fish, don’t comment on the size. You could say ‘that’s a dandy’, ‘jolly good show’ or something similar that will let them know how impressed you are. After all, what do you care? Fishing’s not a competitive sport, is it?”
“No, that won’t work. I need a cure not a band-aid. I was hoping that you could recommend some pills or maybe even surgery.”
“I can’t. And even if I could, I don’t think your insurance will cover fish enhancement therapy, though I guess it might under the next version of Obamacare. Unfortunately, you’re probably going to have to live with your problem. Maybe you could try golf. Golfers don’t seem to feel any need to embellish their scores.”
Clearly, continuing to see Dr. Pavlov was barking up the wrong tree. But I thought about his question and, over the winter, decided to do some self-therapy. Every place I went, I carried a tape measure and a small scale with a hook on it. If I saw an object that was remotely the same size as a fish, I would estimate the length or weight, and then check it out. It raised a few eyebrows when I was measuring cucumbers at Harris Teeter, but I persisted. I was underestimating nearly everything, so I began mentally adding about 20%, and started getting pretty close. Early this spring I went over to the Cowpasture River to see if my mental adjustment system would work on fish. I caught several good ones, and it did. I was ready to test it under real fishing conditions.
I set up a float trip on the South Holsten this past week with a local guide, Kenny Landit, and called Manny to see if he wanted to join me. At first, he was standoffish, but he finally agreed. We got to the river in the morning. The dark clouds presaged a perfect day for fishing. At the start, there were no fish rising. I persisted with dry flies, while Manny used a nymph. He caught a nice rainbow trout right away, I made my 20% mental adjustment, and blurted out “That’s a beauty, Gotta be close to twenty inches. Kenny, would you mind measuring it. It’s the first good fish I’ve seen this season and I need to get my mental tape measure calibrated”
Kenny pulled out his tape and measured. “You’re right on target. It’s nineteen and a half. A real nice fish.” Manny beamed, and I felt great. Cured! Or at least that’s what everyone would think. My practicing had paid off. We had a great day. Manny caught a fish or two every hour, and I caught a few good ones on dry flies in the afternoon, which was all that I cared about. I continued providing size estimates and no one objected. When we reached the boat pullout, I gave Kenny our tip. “Kenny, that was a great day. Manny, you must have caught about ten and I got five beauties on dry flies. For me, that’s as good as it gets on this river.”
Manny erupted. “What the hell are you talking about? I don’t know how many you caught, but I counted my fish, and I got nineteen. What boat were you in? It was a great day, but your always putting people down sure ruins it. You got a problem and I, for one, am sick of dealing with it. Call someone else next time you want company. I’m finished.” It was a long ride home.