Fishing Lines: Respite for the pike pirate

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The Independent Online
IT WASN'T quite the road to Damascus, but for fishing cheat John Watson, the road to Chatteris in Cambridgeshire was one that helped him to see the light. Six years ago, Watson was banned from the prestigious British Pike Championship after being caught falsifying claims about fish he had caught. But this week, a penitent Watson was readmitted to the competition after a confession curiously akin to that of scallywag American TV preachers.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Watson, who lives in March, Cambridgeshire, was one of the big names in pike fishing. Though helped by living in an area renowned for its extra-large specimens, Watson still came up with catches that were spectacular by any standards.

He certainly caught a lot of big fish - but nothing like as many as he claimed. However, nobody noticed for ages because Watson had the photographic evidence. There he was on the bankside, posed in the obligatory man-with- sack-of-coal angling photo. Whispers that his catches were not all that he claimed were dismissed as jealousy. And so he continued to scoop prize after prize.

It all started to fall apart in 1990. Watson had been careful to pose his photographs in different ways, and had even carried a spare set of clothing so that it looked as if he had been fishing on a different day.

One particular fish that he entered for three sets of awards nine months apart caused his downfall. The pike weighed 31lb 11oz in February. It was 29lb 3oz in March. Then in September, when Watson sent in a further set of pictures, it was still on a diet and weighed 28lb 13oz. Unfortunately, he had not been quite careful enough.

An Angling Times reader spotted a small piece of grass on its tail. It appeared in all three photos. Watson was undone. Though he protested his innocence, he was drummed out. His name was as muddy as the riverbank where nothing had changed in nine months. Another renowned pike angler with the same name, who lives in Norwich, took to wearing a T-shirt proclaiming: "I'm Not the Cheating Bastard: It's the Other John Watson".

And so John Watson No 1 might never have been heard of again. Except that this week, a new contrite JW came out with a public confession of which Jimmy Swaggart or Myra Hindley would have been proud. He said: "I'm ashamed of what I've done and I want to apologise to my fellow fishermen, to Angling Times and all its readers. I don't know why I did it. The glory went to my head and I wanted more of it. I knew I'd done something silly when I thought about it, but I couldn't admit it."

He added: "It's not an excuse - I know what I did was wrong and I'm truly sorry - but my marriage was on the rocks and I was going through a very painful time. I've now started a new life with a new lady and have two little children, whom I love taking fishing. I'm sorted out now, but I had to learn the hard way."

After wiping the tears from their collective eyes, organisers of the British Pike Championship welcomed Watson with open arms. Angling Times editor John Kelly said: "John made a foolish mistake but he's served his time and is genuinely sorry for what he did." His sentiments were endorsed by Frank Gibbons, the secretary of the Pike Anglers' Club, who said: "Our present justice system is based on the belief that people can reform and angling should be no different."

Funny old world, isn't it? The British Pike Championship takes place on 24 October near Chatteris, and no doubt Watson will be accorded a standing ovation. He will probably be asked to bless new rods and there may even be a publisher or two lurking, hoping to sign up the book of his conversion.

His cathartic experience might even encourage a couple of other dodgy claimants to confess that their prizewinning catches were not made in British waters. Why, you could even get your picture on the cover of Angling Times without catching a thing.

How's that for glory?