Angling: When the bait bites back

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The Independent Online
THE fate of Bo Fenner, an Aldershot pike fisherman who is recovering from salmonella poisoning, should sound a note of warning to any angler who doesn't wear plastic gloves on the river bank. Personally, I wouldn't be seen dead in a pair of pink Marigolds (wouldn't go with my fishing jacket anyway). But according to Angling Times, it's what any sensible fisher sports to avoid Fenner's fate.

According to the story, Fenner spent 14 days quarantined from family and friends after contracting the potentially lethal disease. "At first I didn't know where it had come from, as I'd eaten the same food as my family for the last few weeks and they weren't ill," he said.

His doctor solved the mystery. It seemed that Fenner had thawed out some sardines and used them for pike bait. He had put one on a hook, casted out and tucked into his sandwiches. A health authority spokes- man is quoted as saying: "We believe that Mr Fenner ingested a small amount of the bacteria from his bait, which made him very ill. Baits such as sardines provide ideal conditions for salmonella to live and grow."

This cautionary tale brings back uncomfortable memories of the japes we played as kids. (Sensitive souls should probably skip the next two paragraphs.) One favourite game was to lure away an unsuspecting victim, while others delved into his sandwiches and added an extra filling. If you were one of the gang, you got off lightly with a sprat or finger-smeared bread paste. If it was someone you didn't like, this could be something really disgusting like maggots or worms.

I'm afraid we discouraged girls from joining our fishing trips by such underhand means. Ah, if I knew then what I know now... It meant that you never put any item of food into your mouth without first checking the contents. I've found such delights as a ragworm and a live crab (very crunchy, that one) hiding between two doorstops.

The giveaway, of course, was when your mates all stopped talking and watched as you opened your sandwich box. And I have to admit that it was a great moment to watch someone bite into their doctored lunch, then see their face change to horror when they discovered that the filling was cheese spiced up with a sliver of dead roach.

Goodness knows how we avoided salmonella. Because we were permanently hungry, the usual response was to chase the likely culprit, then scrape out as best you could the offending filling and eat the rest.

We knew nothing of Weil's Disease, though we saw plenty of rats, which cause the lethal illness. Yet we were often splashing each other with water, then tucking into our food. Even today, I have to confess that I'm not as careful as I should be. If your hands get dirty, you have water right in front of you. It seems logical to use this handy facility.

Thinking carefully, I don't know one angler who is scrupulous about the unhealthy link between food, water and bait. Salmon anglers often use frozen prawns or sprats; coarse fishers handle all sorts of unsavoury things, from pigeon droppings to maggots; sea fishermen rely on frozen mackerel, squid or herring. Fenner reckons that his problem was caused by deadbaits that he had kept for a year, thawing them out and refreezing the unused ones.

In its list of "Ten Things You Didn't Know About Avoiding Salmonella", Angling Times advises taking a container of fresh water to wash your hands after baiting up, or if you have put your hands into the river or lake. A few fishermen take a towel, but I don't know one who lugs along a gallon of water. Checking the list, I scored 0 out of 10.

The only thing in my defence is that baits are now kept in their own fridge rather than with the family peas and fish fingers. Even that only came about because of the dreadful incident with the escaping crabs (but we'll pass a veil over that one).

But this is serious stuff. I shall try to be a little more health- conscious on the bankside. And I hope any youngsters reading won't be encouraged to play stupid tricks by enhancing their pals' food (though if you do, make sure you retie the bag carefully, because it allays suspicion).