The perils of being an outdoors expert

The perils of being an outdoors expert
- Original Credit: (HANDOUT)

When a reader called asking my advice on fall crappie fishing, I happily related my unfailing trolling/fancasting approach, replete with tips on tackle, rigs and locations. Then he told me he fished Loch Raven Reservoir, and I had to tell him almost everything I just said was wrong for that weedy lake. Once again, I failed as an outdoor expert.

Fishing experts, in my experience, fall into two camps. The first are those who explain what works and fails in great detail – but only afterwards. The second are masters of the selective prediction, able to describe in excruciating detail why a fish will be at a certain place and what lure and technique will take fish, predictions that are spot-on – about one time out of 10, at which point they'll say, "See I told you!"


Both techniques are used by stockbrokers, sports bettors, weather forecasters, medical practitioners, tabloid psychics, and others. We experts are a large and proud lot; we're just not trustworthy.

The Bible declares, "Pride goeth before a fall." I think the Bible greatly understates the matter in the case of fishing. In fishing, pride goes before a pratfall, usually one that shatters your collarbone, or, worse yet, your priceless split bamboo Leonard rod.

John Gierach warned of the phenomenon he aptly named "expertizing," in "Sex, Death, and Fly Fishing," and defined it as "not being an expert, but acting like one".

I should have learned my lesson on expertizing over 30 years ago in North Carolina.

My wife, Carolyn, and I had been taking an average of five cobia per day in the 25 to 40-pound range fishing Pamlico Sound in my 14-foot aluminum boat. Cobia are fierce fighters that never quit –- even after they're boated, which makes things exciting when a 40-pounder comes aboard a small boat. With the good fishing and my column already filed with The Baltimore Sunday Sun, I was feeling pretty cocky.

My Maryland friends, Andy Adkins and the late Jim Benton, had been unsuccessfully fishing offshore for marlin all week in Andy's 22-foot Boston Whaler Outrage. Impressed by my success (a warning sign), they invited me to join them for an evening's cobia fishing aboard Andy's boat.

We used the standard rig for that area, 30-pound test outfits with a fist-sized chunk of fresh bunker on a "fish finder" bottom rig. I had the first "strike." The line began moving off against the click of the freespooled reel at a stately pace. I explained to Jim and Andy, in my best tutorial voice, how I could tell by the way the line moved out that this was a good-sized cobia, rather than a shark, bluefish, etc.

After the proper interval, I sharply set the hook. Immediately I knew something was wrong. Instead of the blistering initial run of a cobia, the line continued to move off at the same stately pace. It took us about 20 minutes to finally spot my quarry, a flipper-hooked sea turtle between 3 and 4 feet in diameter.

Andy got on the radio to announce our "expert's catch" to several friends in a nearby boat. You know how sound travels on the water? Derisive laughter carries even further. I tightened down the drag, and, fortunately, the hook pulled loose.

A few minutes later Jim Benton's line began moving off the same way, but I didn't say a word (Honest!). He set the hook into what turned out to be an 81-pound cobia. After a terrific and prolonged battle, Jim had the fish played out off the port stern. I had moved up to the bow, furiously snapping pictures (like a dutiful outdoor writer). Jim, who'd had some experience with a cobia's Hell-raising when brought aboard, decided to join me.

That left Andy with the cobia at the stern. Andy is an expert boat handler and fisherman. Now the mantle of expertizing descended on him, as he grabbed the gaff hook and swaggered over to the fish. "Alright you _______s (synonym for wimps)," he said. "I'll handle this!"

Andy gaffed the cobia and tried to lift it into the boat, but there was no movement other than the thrashing of the cobia. "I could use some help back here," he muttered through clenched teeth as the cobia pulled him to his knees. And we probably would have helped him if we weren't paralyzed with laughter. Andy finally worked his way hand-over-hand down the gaff handle and wrestled the cobia over the low gunnels of the Outrage. With a mighty heave Andy and the cobia lay sprawled side-by-side in the stern.

At this point Jim fell victim to expertizing. The 60-inch, 81-pound cobia was a wonderful catch, not that far from the then-existing 98-pound world record. After hearing raves about his catch all evening, Jim decided he had to have his trophy mounted. He called and made arrangements with a taxidermist local to this area who is still in business and whose good name shall be protected.

When Jim showed up with the cobia at the taxidermist, he was greeted with, "Holy ______! What is that?" Jim reminded him of the phone call. "Man, I was asleep when you called," was the response. "I wrote down 16 inches. That's a lotta fish," he said gesturing toward the 5-foot cobia.


Nevertheless, the taxidermist did a wonderful job. At least we thought so. But Jim was still living at his widowed mother's home at the time. She did not share our view. Declaring it "the ugliest thing I've ever seen," she refused the cobia its rightful place of honor over the living room mantle and banished it to the basement, where it graced the wall behind the furnace.

Jim told me later that the guy who serviced the furnace thought the mounted cobia was beautiful. Since he'd had a course in art appreciation at the local community college, we considered this an expert opinion.

Bill May is a Times outdoors writer. His column appears every other Sunday. Reach him at 410-857-7896 or