That Fish Was How Big?

Fish Exaggeration Syndrome runs rampant in the angling community.

It was my freshman year in high school when I met Bill “the smallmouth fisherman.”. Bill and I were in the same study hall and when the teacher wasn’t looking we talked fishing. Bill must have been the best smallmouth fisherman in the state.

I was privileged to story after story about tons of fish in the 3 to 5 pound-class. These fish didn’t show up occasionally, he caught fish of this caliber on every trip. I sat spellbound every day at 2 o’clock.

One day after one of Bill’s lengthy and detailed stories he must have noticed one of my eyebrows was slightly raised. Was I actually questioning the validity of his fishing expertise? How dare me! This awkward moment spawned what I’d been waiting for, an invitation to fish with the master.

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Bill was a senior so I’d been hesitant to invite myself. The following day Bill produced a detailed log outlining every fishing trip he’d taken in the last two years. It was all there, trip after trip, big fish after big fish. Every fish had been carefully weighed and measured before being entered into the log. Plans were finalized for the following Saturday. I don’t think I slept a wink Friday night.

Mid-morning Bill picked me up in his old Mercury. We headed north out of town and made a bee-line for Little Blue River. As soon as we cleared the city limits Bill asked me if I’d ever gone over 100 mph. I’d barely said no when he put the pedal to the metal. Cars like that weren’t driven, rather they were merely pointed in the right direction.

It was an exciting two minutes while Bill struggled to keep the big Merc on the road, anywhere on the road. I’d already racked up my first first of the day and soon I’d be racking up my second, a smallmouth bass over twelve inches.

We were fishing with ultralight rods and reels. Bill had instructed me to bring small Johnson Silver Spoons and small white pork rinds. He said that’s all we’d need. Neither of us owned waders so the early May water was invigorating to say the least. Bill took the lead and I stayed back to watch the master at work. I wasn’t disappointed, Bill had the first smallmouth of the day hooked up within minutes.

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It didn’t take him long to subdue the beast. After removing the spoon from the 10 inch fish Bill proudly held it high for all to see. Looking me straight in the eye and displaying the fish for me to admire Bill proclaimed “she weighs a little over four pounds.” I waited for the punchline but none ever came. Bill didn’t own a tape measure or a set of scales, he truly thought the fish weighed over four pounds. I was speechless to say the least.

That was my first experience with “extreme fish size exaggeration syndrome,” but it wouldn’t be my last. Over the next 50 years I would meet many kind and well-meaning fisherman that suffered from this non-fatal illness.

One would think that mostly the inexperienced would be prone to this illness but I’ve found this isn’t necessarily so. Fishermen and women of all ages are at risk. Take my friend Jeromy for instance. Jeromy is a rather skilled river fisherman. One day I took him with me to one of my favorite stretches of Flat Rock River.

While wading and fishing side by side Jeromy proceeded to tell me about his last excursion to the Flat Rock. He described it as a day long trip where he and his fishing partner caught 5 pound bass one after the other all day long. I didn’t comment on the tale other than “that must have been fun,” but I thought to myself “no you didn’t.“ I’ve fished Flat Rock River harder than anyone I know for over 50 years and I may have caught one smallmouth over 4 pounds. The chance of him catching numerous 5 pounders in the same day is highly unlikely.

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Don’t get me wrong Jeromy is a great fishing companion and I’m sure he had no intention of spinning a tall tale. The simple fact is he’s never taken the time to weigh and measure the fish he’s caught, thus he has no idea what a 5 pound or for that matter a 2 pound smallmouth bass looks and feels like.

There is an upside to fish fabricators not weighing and measuring their fish. Usually after catching a fish these well intended fishermen take a quick photo and release their catch, no worse off for the experience.

On the flip side of the coin is the angler that is obsessed with knowing the exact weight and length of every fish he or she catches. This person holds the fish by the lower lip and wallows it around the boat for what seems like an eternity. We all know what happens to this fish when it is finally released. Unless it can swim belly up it’s going to die.

Over the years I’ve experimented a little, mostly during largemouth bass fishing trips while sharing a boat with a fishing partner. On more than one occasion I’ve asked my partner to guess the weight of a fish they had caught. Some guessed pretty close but most guessed fifty to thirty percent higher than the fish’s actual weight.

If it really matters to you, there is a sure fire way to sniff out a fish exaggerator. The next time your ears are getting sore from listening to a long, drawn out story about 5 and 6 pound bass being caught on every cast ask the angler how long the fish was. Most people are much better at guessing length than weight. 

If the angler refuses to give up the length and sticks with the weight, you’ve got him. Or if he or she confesses that the 5 and 6 pound bass were 16 inches long you know you’ve encountered a fish exaggerator.

Last but not least there’s the fisherman that produces absolute truth – the photograph. We’ve all seen the photo of the big fish being held as far from the fisherman’s body as possible. The solution to figuring out the actual size of the fish is to look at the anglers hand. How big is the hand holding the fish compared to the length of the fish. In other words if the fish’s length is three times the width of the angler’s hand (approximately 4 inches) the actual size of the fish is around 12 inches.

I’m not sure why I’m infatuated with fishing lies. I really don’t care if a buddy stretches the truth a little bit. At one time or another we’ve all added an inch or two to that smallmouth, or with a flick of the tongue turned that six point buck into an eight. What’s the harm? Does it really affect our lives in one way or another?

We’ve heard it said many times that it’s not the size of the fish or deer that creates great memories. What creates great memories is the time spent with friends and loved ones, even if they are a bunch of no good liars!


Shadley’s interest in hunting, fishing and a ton of other outdoor activities started at a very young age. He was hunting and fly-fishing on his own when he was eleven; it’s always been his passion.

He was employed by the Indiana DNR as a conservation officer for 34 years. For the first 17 years, Shadley worked southeastern Indiana as a field officer. For the last 17 years he was in charge of Indiana’s Turn In a Poacher program (TIP) and was the chief public relations officer for the law enforcement division.

Since his retirement he’s spent most of his time fly-fishing, shooting sporting clays, hunting and photographing wildlife.

Shadley is Fishing Editor of the Sporting Report.

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Dean Shadley
Shadley’s interest in hunting, fishing and a ton of other outdoor activities started at a very young age. He was hunting and fly-fishing on his own when he was eleven; it’s always been his passion. He was employed by the Indiana DNR as a conservation officer for 34 years. For the first 17 years, Shadley worked southeastern Indiana as a field officer. For the last 17 years he was in charge of Indiana’s Turn In a Poacher program (TIP) and was the chief public relations officer for the law enforcement division. Since his retirement he’s spent most of his time fly-fishing, shooting sporting clays, hunting and photographing wildlife. Shadley is Fishing Editor of Sportsman Magazine

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