Hook, line and sinking feeling

Applause greeted the animals yanked from the water and dangling by hooks in their mouths
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I TOOK my son to the lake. Just the two of us. Tough work and school schedules had been screaming for it. Our car drew up at the cottage and a tired, hot nine-year-old already in a bathing costume saw little wisdom in formalities like checking in and unpacking. To the lake!

But we couldn't ignore a commotion in the car park. A local kid was using a rubber band to fire paper clips at a little frog in a puddle of mud, and someone had called the police. The officer arrived, rescued the frog, put the youngster into the patrol car and explained to the crowd that the boy was often in trouble. A result, he said, of a broken family and child abuse. One more trip to the station and another stern lecture for the bad lad.

Soon my son and I arrived at the edge of the lake. We eventually found an opening between anglers where we could swim without getting entangled in their lines, or maybe hooked and reeled in. There were scores of these people, with rods pointing toward the lake. Some were hardened, leathery types with coolers of beer, but many of them were just families with children who looked a lot like us and were simply doing what families are supposed to do on holiday. Fishing and unwinding and bonding and all that.

Shrieks and applause greeted the animals yanked from the water and dangled by hooks jabbing through their mouths, their full body weight tugging away. Some people pulled the hooks out and threw the fish into buckets until dinner time. Many other people pulled the hooks out and just tossed their fish back into the water, for humane or ecological reasons no doubt. These were not bad people. I'll bet many of them shun fur, cringe at hunting and coo at their pets. And most would probably have joined the mob against the frog child. But the obvious was not lost on my child. He asked me to call the police.

Youngsters say strange things. After all, there had to be some perfectly logical reason why torturing a frog for sport is considered an act of cruelty to animals, while torturing a fish for sport is not only legal, but widely regarded as an uplifting and wholesome recreation for the entire family. I told my son that, instead of calling the police, we'd go to a library first thing in the morning to find some answers.

In the meantime, an evening of TV, newspapers and magazines would delay unpacking by another few hours. Although we'd seen most of the ads before, it had never occurred to me how many "feel-good" ads feature angling: those for banks, travel, beer, insurance and cars. No escaping it, angling has become the advertising industry's cliche for "the good life".

The morning arrived and became uncomfortable. The material we found at a library painted a picture that was clear and to the point: fish and frogs and dogs and humans are all vertebrates whose nervous systems are akin, regardless of brain size, especially when it comes to feeling pain. A fish's mouth parts turn out to be exceptionally nerve-rich. A fish caught and released is severely traumatised, often fatally. And in the case of deep-sea fishing, the animal's inner organs frequently rupture from the dramatic pressure changes that occur while it is being yanked to the surface.

Now don't get me wrong. If I were starving, I'd catch me a fish or drop Bambi without blinking. But the evidence shows that angling is one of the cruellest forms of hunting. At least biblical figures with little else to eat used a net. So, how do I explain to my son that people who wouldn't harm a fly (or at least wouldn't pull his wings off first) would choose to unwind, get close to nature or bond by putting some fish through a living hell?

I told him that I didn't think most of those people really comprehended what they were doing. The facts seemed to be safely hidden away at the library.

We wrestled with it all for a while and then went through the motions of being carefree on holiday. We learnt how to row together, told our first "off-colour" jokes and shared the steering-wheel on a back road. But, for better or worse, the endless images from the lakeside, TV and library had changed us. We spent our last afternoon scrawling giant anti- fishing messages in the sand. Personally, I think "Angling Is Cruel!" would have been preferable to "Angling Sucks!" But at least his heart was in the right place.

According to George Bernard Shaw, "Custom will reconcile people to any atrocity." We saw proof of that at the lake.

A millennium or two ago, gladiators and cock-fights symbolised "the good life". Fifty years ago, it was fur, hunting and cigarettes. And now, my son and I - who have never felt closer - hereby jointly nominate angling to that same hall of fame. Consider it bonding.