Fishing Lines: For the record, size does matter

Could you tell the difference between a nkupe and a sailor's choice? A nembwe or an oshitabirame? What about a binga or a bludger? Neither could I. To tell the truth, if a stingray snaffled my bait, I'd struggle to tell if it was a black, blue-spotted, bluntnose, common, Atlantic, cowtail, daisy, diamond, pelagic, roughtail, red or southern, never mind whether it was a round ray or Haller's round ray.

But there are people who do know. They can identify the 32 species of rockfish, or the 33 types of snapper worth catching. They are the Keepers of the Record.

Until fairly recently, people didn't bother too much with formal records. Fish fell into two categories: edible or inedible. The latter had subcategories (tastes like a dead rat; gives you stomach cramps; kills you). The former group tended to be more popular.

Records are, generally speaking, a bloke thing. Put two men together and they will compete, whether it's running, jumping, climbing or catching fish. Men want to catch the biggest one from a river, or even better, the biggest ever caught.

Saltwater records of a sort had been kept for some years by the American magazine Field & Stream, but the fishing editor, Dan Holland, recognised their lack of rigour and was quick to endorse the idea of a dedicated record-keeper. On 7 June 1939, while Neville Chamberlain (a keen angler) was chewing his nails and thinking, "This is going to screw up my autumn week on the Tweed", a group of Americans were concerned with matters of far greater import. They set up the International Game Fish Association, now the arbiter for all world angling records.

The IGFA (motto: No Whoppers Here) are very strict. Their 2006 World Record Game Fishes has 14 pages on submitting a claim. It includes having your signature witnessed by a notary, and backing from an ichthyologist who has examined the fish, in case you get your blacktip shark mixed up with a blacknose, blacktail, blacktip reef or blackmouth cat shark.

Records have grown to include categories for women, juniors and "small fry" (under 12), for species caught on fly-fishing tackle and even for the strength of line used. Some catches on flimsy lines are extraordinary: a 119lb blue shark on 2lb line; a 124lb halibut on 6lb; a 562lb marlin on 8lb. Many names appear several times: Niel Schultz holds all the Australian bass records from 2lb to 16lb line; while Stacey G Parkerson appears to have spent the past three years fishing for mullet snapper in Costa Rica and Panama: she holds all the women's records except for two.

And for what? Well, you get a badge, a certificate and, er, that's it. No money, no supermarket openings or appearances on Parkinson. But the badge does say: IGFA World Record Holder.

Most of us will never reach such lofty heights. But at $35 (£20), IGFA membership is a terrific bargain. Not only do you get the 384-page records book, you also get to talk to people who can tell you how many blotches on the operculum of a double-spotted queenfish (so easy to confuse with the talang queenfish). You never know when you'll need friends like that.

More details: www.igfa.org

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