There are several measures of how good a fisherman a fellow is.
You can check his hooks to see how sharp he keeps them or eyeball his equipment to see if it's class A. You can watch him cast and see if he hits the spot he wants time after time, and if you're really lucky you might see him lay into a big fish and observe whether he flips his cork or plays the monster coolly and efficiently.
These are all good techniques but the best way of all to take the measure of an angler is to start asking questions.
Generally, the better he is the less he'll say.
I've had perfectly congenial half-hour chats with good fishermen sporting a good day's catch and left scratching my head, knowing absolutely no more than I did before the talk began.
Here is a typical interview with a first-rate angler, conducted hypothetically on the banks of the Potomac River.
"Hey, that's a nice stringer of bass. Where'd you get 'em?"
(There are exactly 97 miles of Potomac down river from the spot at which the interview is being conducted.)
"What were they taking?"
"Oh, a little bit of everything."
"Been fishing long?"
"All my life."
"No, no, no. I mean today."
"These fish -- were they mostly in deep or shallow water?"
"Yes they were. Mostly."
"Well, did they like a certain tide or certain time of day? Anything special like that?"
"They seem to like a moving tide, either incoming or outgoing. Then again, they seemed to be biting good on slack water, too."
"Well, thanks a lot for the information."
"My pleasure, buddy. Say, when did you say this is going to be in the paper?"
This fellow has just wound his way through a traditional fishing conversation, parrying successive thrusts with successively nebulous counter-thrusts. Total knowledge shared: zero.
This is a time-tested technique, one that fishermen have honed over the years to a current high-art state.
But there are alarming new developments on the scene, apparently fostered by the stunning success of fish-for-money bass tournaments.
I was a party to such a tournament last weekend on the Potomac. The boats zoomed out of Pohick Bay just after dawn and returned for the weigh-in at 4 p.m.
My partner, Dick Martin of Baltimore, and I managed to boat only three largemouths, which put us both far out of the money.
After the weigh-in, I talked to a few of the top finishers and was shocked when they held nothing back.
"I caught seven fish within an hour right at the start," said one. "I was fishing Aquia Creek. I was using a smoked grub, fishing the structure in about six feet of water."
I dutifully took notes, then hurried over to another top money-winner who was talking to a knot of other competitors.
"I caught 'em all early," I heard him say. "I was down in Aquia Creek fishing the structure with smoked grubs."
"This," I muttered to myself, "is unbelievable."
"Right," said Martin's son, Richie, who was standing next to me. "I was in Aquia Creek all day, and there wasn't another boat in there. I happen to know both those guys were fishing up the river near Washington. And I'll bet anything they were using spinnerbaits.
"They're just plain lying. It happens all the time."
Lies. Bald-face, out-and-out fabrications. A volcano erupts in the fishing fraternity.
This is a terrible development, one that threatens to shatter the subtle peace and harmony that always has pervaded the angling community.
Maybe there are those to whom the traditional evasive fisherman's chat grows tiresome over years. But there are better ways to deal with that than turning to lies.
Parker Wheedon, a North Carolina lawyer who has the general build and bearing of a diesel mechanic, found a straightforward solution.
If Wheedon catches a nice stringer of fish and someone comes around bugging him about it, he tells the fellow, "You've got a hell of a nerve. Nobody gave me these fish. I earned 'em. It took me years to find my spots and I'm not giving them away to you or anyone. So bug off."
It may not be sweet. But at least it's honest.