Angling casts its net to lure youngsters from computer games to the riverbanks riverbanks

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More than a million fishing rods will stretch out over British ponds, lakes, canals and rivers today as the coarse fishing season opens, but fewer young people are taking up the sport and the Environment Agency is planning a £5m initiative to reverse the trend.

Over three years, the plan aims to provide 50 new or restored fisheries, mainly in towns and inner cities, and introduce 100,000 newcomers to angling through a national coaching scheme.

The message is original: you can live on a housing estate and still be Izaak Walton, 17th century author of The Compleat Angler.

Specific measures include: halving the cost of rod licences for young people; making 100 fishing tutors and 20 angling development officers available countrywide; providing £2.5m to restore and create fisheries; and installing facilities for the disabled wherever possible.

Behind the move is the Government's firm support for angling and its belief that fishing not only introduces people to the natural world and triggers environmental awareness, but can also reduce crime and help combat social exclusion and poor community health.

The fisheries review was commissioned by Labour in 1997 to look at every aspect of fishing with rod and line. Last year, the researchers stressed the social and economic value of angling, especially in urban areas, and urged its expansion. The Government has agreed, and the plan from the Environment Agency, which has a statutory responsibility to promote fishing, is the result.

One of its most important objectives is to stem the decline of angling among the young.

Half a century ago many boys ached for their first rod and line, and the Daily Mirror's strip cartoon of the time, Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing, in which a pipe-smoking father showed his son the ways of river and fish, became the world's best-selling angling book when it transferred to hard covers in 1949. It is thought to have sold 2.5 million copies, more than The Compleat Angler, published almost three centuries earlier in 1653. (Bernard Venables, the author of Mr Crabtree, died in April aged 94, still fishing until the last year of his life. He was buried on May Day in a wicker creel by a chalk stream.)

"Kids today are much more obsessed with computers and computer games," said Chris Poupard, secretary of the National Angling Alliance, the umbrella organisation for all British angling's governing bodies.

"And as people get busier and busier, the situation in which dad takes his son out to teach him is not happening."

However, participation in angling is increasing among the over-55s, perhaps as a result of more early retirement.

Between two and three million people are thought to go fishing in Britain, making it the country's biggest participant sport. More than one million licences for coarse and game fishing are sold throughout England and Wales by the Environment Agency (sea fishing does not need a licence).

The agency is making an initial bold stroke to win back young anglers: the cost of a rod licence for a young person (aged 12-16) has been cut in half, from £10 to £5. But the coaching initiative is likely to be the real recruiter.

David Clarke, the agency's head of fisheries, and the man behind the plan, said: "In the past, coaching schemes were small-scale, run by clubs and other school and community-based groups. Their combined capacity was not enough to make a significant difference nationally."

Now, though, the coaching effort is to be brought together in a national partnership of fishing clubs, angling's governing bodies, local councils, scout groups, school and youth clubs, and Sport England, the sports development quango. Nearly 100 tutors will be available to teach the basics of fishing to 35,000 people a year, with 20 angling development officers giving follow-up support across the country.

A £2.5m programme to restore derelict fisheries and make new ones has been drawn up. Lakes in inner city parks will be made a specific target, and facilities for the disabled will be installed wherever possible.

The Environment Agency hopes to provide about a third of the total funding and intends to make a joint bid with Sport England for lottery funds to provide much of the rest. If the bid is successful, the scheme is likely to start in April next year.

Mr Clarke is convinced of the social as well as the environmental value of fishing. He points to a much-publicised scheme run by police in Durham to offer angling courses for young people as an alternative to drug culture and anti-social behaviour.

"We believe a lot of good can be got out of angling, and a lot more people can be included," he said. "If Mr Crabtree is looking down, I'm sure he would approve."