All at sea with rubber ducks

fishing lines
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The Independent Online
IF YOU go down to Southend Pier today, you're sure of a big surprise. Walk halfway along the pier, gaze out to sea (always assuming you can, because the tide goes out more than a mile, hence its nickname of Southend- on-Mud) and you will probably see little yellow ducks swimming merrily on the waves. You might assume that these are mutant mallards, eiders and pintails, an inevitable result of living in the Thames Estuary's polluted waters. A reasonable guess, but wrong. They are fishing floats.

It all started when a local tackle dealer was sitting in his shop earlier this year . Trade was quiet. No, correct that: it was non-existent. (Q: Why don't tackle dealers look out of their windows in the morning? A: Because then they would have nothing to do in the afternoon.) He looked at a box of little rubber ducks that he had somehow bought at a car boot sale (I told you tackle dealers lead exciting lives) and inspiration struck.

Although the ducks were more accustomed to riding life's waves in a domestic bath, why shouldn't they have the chance to explore wider horizons? It only took a few minutes to drill a hole through the duck, fit swivels and beads to attach it to a line and seal the holes (nothing worse than a sinking float, and not just because it's a contradiction in terms).

Locals took to the new floats like, well, like a duck to water. The original batch of 20 were gone within days. He had to search for more. As I write, he has sold more than 200, far outselling the traditional plastic or balsa wood models. Most anglers use them to fish for garfish, a long, slim fish that looks like an undernourished swordfish. Gar are quite good eating if you can ignore the fact that they have green bones.

Although duck floats are aerodynamically unsound, they make up for this by their visibility. A yellow duck stands out wonderfully against a muddy brown sea with its flotsam of seaweed, deckchairs, condoms, beer cans and beach balls. As Southend catches mainly comprise garfish, flounders and the occasional mackerel, duck floats also make the fishing seem more interesting than it is. And technically they are very effective because fish often hook themselves by pulling against the duck's innate buoyancy.

But this strange float is not unique. The giant American tackle maker Zebco sells a range of oddball floats, called "bobbers" over there. I've got the full set: Snoopy, Goofy, Mickey Mouse and, of course, Donald Duck. As floats, they are useless, but they are wonderful for fun days with friends or for deflating those who take their fishing too seriously.

When we went to Ecuador to fish for giant arapaima a few years ago, we took lots of balloons as floats, because they will support a large bait. Arapaima, after all, are said to grow to more than 1,000lb so we needed to use big baits to get them salivating. We never used the balloons, though. We gave them all away to the native children, who found them far more satisfying. And we didn't catch any arapaima either. (We did catch giant piranhas, but that's another story.)

When you're shark fishing, balloons make an excellent float. Even in rough seas, a bright red balloon is easy to see. Of course, a yellow rubber duck would be even better, though there's a danger of sharks actually attacking the duck. Don't believe it? I'll tell you more next week.