Fishing Lines: The weight of evidence is against this new Ness monster

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The Independent Online

Attracting people to an exhibition stand when all you have for sale is a highly specialist magazine proves quite a challenge. Chris the Stuffer came up with a great idea, though. We put a salmon on the stand, asked people to guess its weight (£1 a go) and the winner got the fish.

Didn't sell many subscriptions to 'Classic Angling', but the ruse brought hundreds of £1 coins, so we didn't care too much.

However, it showed us clearly that most people had no idea of a fish's weight. The estimates ranged from 5lb 4oz to 62lb. The salmon weighed... 12lb 6oz.

That's why I'm a little sceptical of claims this week that a salmon caught and released on the River Ness in Inverness would have broken the official British record. Several newspapers reported the catch, by Donald Milne of Aberdeen. A few claimed it could have weighed 100lb, way over the 64lb record. It was said to have a length of more than 5ft and a girth of 50in.

Well, the length is credible. 'The Domesday Book of Giant Salmon'*, published this week, records a 75lb 8oz Norwegian salmon that was 63in. But a 50in girth? Hmm.

Fred Buller's book lists a 74lb salmon with a 341/2in girth, while Georgina Ballantine's British record, from the Tay in 1922, was 52in and had a girth of 281/2in. So either Milne's fish had just eaten an American tourist, or someone was a little slapdash with the ruler.

However, I've just discovered that the Ness monster wasn't actually measured at all. Its size and girth were estimated as the fish was held in the water. Even experienced anglers would admit that this is a somewhat unreliable method of calculating size. Looking at internet pictures, I'd say it was around 45lb.

It certainly wouldn't have topped the largest fish in Buller's book, a 103lb 2oz salmon caught by poachers in 1908, nor the largest caught on rod and line, in Finland in 1953, at 88lb.

Buller has been hunting big salmon for longer than the police have been looking for Lord Lucan – and with considerably more success. He has spent 40 years recording as much detail as he can find about every Atlantic salmon over 50lb.

He even reveals that Miss Ballantine's fish should probably not be the record at all. That honour should go to a 72lb fish taken from the Tay. Trouble is, the accuracy is a bit hard to confirm. It was caught by a member of the Atholl family in the early 1800s. That's the Dukes of Atholl, who still live in Blair Castle, Pitlochry.

There's also an even older record, of a 69lb 12oz salmon landed by the Eighth Earl of Home from the River Tweed in 1730. Buller even discovered that the Earl had a Newfoundland dog celebrated for catching salmon, which had been known to catch up to 20 in a morning, a success rate that clearly annoyed the neighbours.

He writes: "The then Lord Tankerville instituted a process against the dog. The case was brought before the Court of Session, and the process was entitled The Earl of Tankerville versus a Dog, the property of the Earl of Home. Judgment was given in favour of the dog."

And I'll bet that dog never exaggerated the size of his catch.

*'The Domesday Book of Giant Salmon', by Fred Buller (Constable and Robinson, £50)