Salmon record in the balance

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The Independent Online
AFTER re-reading my copy of Zen and the Art of Fishing Reel Maintenance, it suddenly struck me how Dogen's teachings are directly related to anglers. Like any of this stuff, you need to read it on at least two levels.

I have found that several glasses of whisky, rather than tea, is one of the best ways to find yourself (usually fully dressed in the dog's basket, but that's another story).

Sudden enlightenment, an essential element of Zen, came upon me while wrestling with esoteric issues, which I won't bother you with, on the Way. Kerpow! it was like accepting Batman's offer to get you to the office quickly. I immediately went out and fed Blotto, my favourite koi carp. Sure enough, concentrating on the Weigh enabled me to estimate his size at close to 12oz.

Because you probably don't have my heightened awareness, I had better explain. Most anglers carry a set of weighing scales. But only advanced Zen training enables you be to see the oneness in a rusty spring balance.

The thing is, many fishermen like to judge their catches by size alone. The larger it is, the more status the fisher acquires. Those who are totally confident of their own ability can estimate a fish's weight to three decimal points. A weighing machine is merely an accessory to confirm their judgement. It's easy to tell such anglers because they carry hi-tech machines with digital readouts, able to weigh the components parts of an ant.

At the other end of the line, so to speak, is the man who merely carries a spring balance. It will take him ages to find his scales, and you will probably regret you even asked because they are invariably rusted up. He is a shining example of that Zen axiom: any fish or catch measured with accurate scales will always weigh less than the angler's estimate. This person will cheerfully guess at a fish's weight. "We'd better check that, though," he says. Hello, the spring balance doesn't appear to be working properly. Never mind, we'll take the higher estimate.

They are on the way towards reaching the higher path, for those who do not carry scales at all. Cynics may say it is because they never catch anything, but it is more probable that their ability to judge a fish's weight with their eyes renders scales obsolete. Why should they need them? All friends are delighted with the master's calculations, which have an authentic ring to them. Traditional scales lurch in 4oz graduations, but a weighmaster can compute in drams, one-sixteenths of an an ounce, and never be wrong.

Very interesting, but it has relevance too. Just last week, Angling Times reported that Harvey Milne, a 55-year-old postman, has broken the oldest record in the books by catching a salmon larger than the 64-pounder caught in 1922. Most people thought this record would stand for ever because giant salmon, or portmanteaux, are as rare as winter butterflies.

I glanced at the headline, about a record salmon that could have weighed 70lb, with regret. The record salmon is a wonderful tale of a fisherman's daughter fishing on the river Tay with her father, and hooking a monster salmon at dusk. It took Georgina Ballantine more than two hours to land, and she eventually hauled it in more than half-a-mile from where she hooked it. Her father, who looked after the fishing on the Glendelvine water, near Perth, bought her a new frock for catching the fish, which was given to Perth Royal Infirmary to feed the patients. Miss Ballantine, who caught her first salmon when she was eight, died in 1970.

But when I read the Angling Times story more carefully, it turned out that the salmon wasn't a record. It wasn't weighed at all. It was returned because the Dee Salmon Fisheries Board has asked all anglers to return catches over 33in in an effort to conserve stocks. Weighing such a fish could easily have damaged it mortally.

The newspaper reports: "Harvey measured the fish against his rod at 56in long - two inches longer, and thus around 6lb heavier, than Georgina Ballantine's record." This is the weighmaster's art at its best. The newspaper's claims can't be disproved.

I have some old records showing a 54in Wye salmon weighing 52lb, and another of 59lb 8oz which was 52in long. So Milne's fish could have weighed 70lb. Or 63lb 15oz. Or even 50lb. We'll never know. Asking what a 56in salmon weighs is like asking what a 6ft person weighs. If you ask me, I think it was probably as heavy as a bag of white swan feathers.