Sometimes the truth hurts. In a recent conversation, someone pointed out that I have long been a purveyor of fake news. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard the term fake news many times in recent weeks. Perhaps it can be most easily described as the crazy stories that pop up on your Facebook feed, originating from some website you’ve never heard of before. The stories may range from political trash talk to “breaking news” of the untimely death of a celebrity who, in the real world, is very much alive and kicking. But the fake news my friend referred to is different and far older than the Internet.
“You write about fishing,” he said.
Yes, I do. And he has a point. Anglers are well known for their propensity to stretch the truth. Sometimes they stretch it to add a few inches or pounds to a fish they’ve caught. At other times, they get a little dodgy to maintain the secrecy of a favorite fishing hole. And the rest of the time…well, most fishermen are chronic liars.
So, I fish and write about fishing, which means I speak lies and write the truth. Honest. Actually, it’s easy for me to do. Enduring readers of this weekly drivel are aware that I never reveal my fishing secrets in print. Nor do I write about the fishing secrets of others. Still, as an outdoor writer who has long dealt with fishermen, I’ve learned you just can’t trust them.
For instance, I once reported on an angler who was boasting about the hot walleye fishing on the St. Louis River in Duluth. I quoted him saying that he and a buddy had boated and released 160 walleyes in four hours. Shortly after the story ran, my phone rang. The caller was a friend who is a hardcore fisherman and a mathematician.
“I did the math,” he said. “There is no way that guy and his friend caught 160 walleyes in four hours.”
As he explained, when you accounted for the time of fighting and landing the fish, unhooking and releasing them, then rebaiting and casting out again, it was impossible to catch walleyes at that pace. I had to admit that I’d been snookered by a blowhard. And I never again used him as a source for information.
On another occasion, a man who had a hunting-related business was less than truthful in an interview. He was promoting an extra-large set of shed antlers found by another man and said he had the man’s permission to do so. He did not. Once again, the telephone rang shortly after the story was published. It was the man who found the antlers. He hadn’t given the other fellow any permission to publicize his find. In fact, he had expressly told him that he wasn’t seeking publicity.
Then, he told me what had happened since my story was published. Looking for shed antlers, his favorite winter pastime, was now a stealth operation. He lived in a small northern Minnesota community, and now everyone was noting where his truck was parked and even following him into the woods. Instead of simply enjoying his search for antlers, he was forced to furtively sneak around in the woods. I felt terrible about my role in this mess. A responsible reporter would have called the man and verified that he was okay with having his antler find publicized. I failed to do that.
Verifying information is the cornerstone of good reporting, whether you are writing about national security or fishing. The best way to do this is by interviewing a reliable source. Since it is now very easy to do so, I usually share via email what I’ve written with a source to allow them to check it for accuracy. My sources appreciate the opportunity check the facts and very rarely do anything other than point out minor inaccuracies.
The writers in publications such as this one do their best to present you with the facts. Still, the truth-stretchers find ways to sneak onto the pages. I suspect I’m not the only reader who wonders why all of those pictures of anglers holding 50-some-inch muskies never show the measuring tape. The same is true of all of those pictures of fair-to-middlin’ bucks that are said to “green-score” some marvelous number on the Boone and Crockett scale. The editors of this publication have no way to verify those claims.
However, they do try to verify the accuracy of some pictures before they are published. Every now and again, an email from the editor will make the rounds with an attached picture, perhaps a blurry trail camera image, that someone has sent in as proof positive that a mountain lion or some other unusual critter stalks the wilds of Minnesota. Very few of those images get published, because it is often impossible to identify the animal. At other times, someone will get a hot tip on a news story that can’t be verified. That doesn’t mean the story isn’t true, but a reporter can’t prove that it is.
Fake news, be it based on fishing or some other topic, exists and these days thrives because the world is full of gullible people. As an editor, on a couple of occasions I’ve played April Fool pranks on the readers. The first time was with a supposed sighting of a bigfoot-like creature called the Swamp River Monster. The second time, we tongue-in-cheek reported on an oil strike on the outskirts of Grand Marais, complete with a front-page photo-shopped image of a massive oil tanker entering the tiny Grand Marais harbor.
Even though both stories clearly stated (at the end) they were April Fool pranks, more than a few people believed them. I took long-distance telephone calls from people who “knew” the Swamp River Monster was out there, because they had seen it or heard its calls. After the oil strike story, I spoke with very angry callers who didn’t find the prank story at all funny. Maybe these responses are a testament to by creative writing ability. Or, more likely, they are justification of P.T. Barnum’s remark about a sucker being born every minute. Ironically, that is one truth long known by fishermen.
By Shawn Perich