Anglers go out in the worst weather in the hope of a bite and a little peace and quiet. But this week, Britain's most popular sport will be baited by those who believe it is cruel. Cole Moreton reports
You just sit there, waiting. Then you sit some more. Finally, after hours of sitting, often in the rain, you might get a bite. Or not. It might just be your float stuck in some weeds. That's coarse fishing, surely the most tiresome, pointless pastime known to humankind.

It is also the most popular sport in Britain, in terms of participants, with nearly 3 million people sitting patiently by the banks of canals, rivers and lakes in England and Wales. Almost 90 per cent of them are men, who can spend thousands of pounds on their rods, nets, floats, flies, maggots and other "tackle". You can see them by any stretch of water, huddled under green umbrellas in their waterproofs, staring enigmatically into the middle distance. Even if they do eventually catch a fish, they don't eat it - just look at it, then put it back.

So why do they bother? "I've stood in the water fishing and had it freeze around my feet," says David Bird, former president of the National Federation of Anglers. "But never mind the weather; you're getting away from the city, away from work, away from the wife and kids. I've fished all day without a bite, but still enjoyed my surroundings. It's pure escapism."

The average angler spends pounds 1,000 per year on trips and tackle. You also need a rod licence, which can cost up to pounds 45, and to fish in certain waters you need a ticket. But it's still a low-cost sport, says Mr Bird. "A guy who works in a factory all week can relax and forget it all. It's a stress- free situation. If more people did it we'd need fewer psychiatrists."

Not all fishermen are sad and lonely types who spend all day alone because they have no friends, he says: you can fish in groups, or even in competitions. Other anglers tell me it's a good excuse to spend hours near water, which can be therapeutic. They say it's the only remaining socially acceptable form of hunting, which is "what we're designed to do". There is the physical skill required in casting the rod, they argue, and the intellectual challenge of reading the river.

"It's the unknown," says John Mead from Cardiff. He was hooked as a young boy, after wrestling with a big, strong pike on the end of his line. "It's the thrill of actually getting a bite, the thought that there's something down there just waiting to be caught. The desire to beat the fish."

Hang on. Beat the fish? You're a human being, Mr Mead. It's only a fish. "They are cunning," he argues. "More cunning than human beings. Particularly the trout."

David Bird agrees: "Although a fish is a very basic animal that stopped evolving 20 million years ago, it still has instincts. A change in temperature of one degree can mean it's feeding along the bottom instead of mid-stream, or along the top. It might respond to stationary bait, or bait that is dropping. There is a challenge in working out what it wants."

Perhaps. As well as being the start of the coarse fishing season, this is also Anti-Angling Week, when members of Pisces - formerly known as the Campaign for the Abolition of Angling - will leaflet against this "cruel blood sport" and argue with anglers. Unofficially, they may also indulge in activities on just the wrong side of the Criminal Justice Act, including splashing through prime fishing sites in wetsuits, throwing sticks into the water and doing everything they can to frighten fish away.

"Fish feel pain," says Marianne Macdonald of Pisces. "Angling is done for fun. It is totally unnecessary. There are lots of other ways to go out and enjoy the environment." Not surprisingly, anglers disagree. "Some get incredibly violent and throw you in the water, or try to punch you," she says.

Many fishermen describe Pisces' argument as emotional garbage based on bad science. They claim it's really the saboteurs who throw people in.

So much for escaping to the peaceful countryside. Let them get on with it, I say. Samuel Johnson had it right. "Fly fishing may be a very pleasant amusement; but angling or float fishing I can only compare to a stick and a string, with a worm at one end and a fool at the other."