Bitter trophies of victory

fishing lines
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The Independent Online
I HAD the cleanest shoes on the block as a kid - because I was a good swimmer. That may strike you as slightly strange, considering swimmers don't often need shoes. But it happened because every time I won a prize in a swimming contest, it seemed to be a shoe-cleaning set.

Things aren't any better in fishing. There are two sorts of angling prizes: those you don't need and those you don't want. The former category invariably means items of fishing tackle. It would not be so bad if you won a limited- edition rod or an electric gumboot drier: you know, the sort of thing you never buy for yourself. But it's always a bottom-of-the-range reel. Now, most fishermen I know already own a reel or two, especially those capable of winning competitions. The answer is to donate such prizes to the club's dinner-dance, where fate chuckles and fixes the draw so your wife wins back the prize you thought you had palmed off on someone else.

The most talented winner of unwanted prizes I've ever met was Dave Stickland. In his heyday, he was picking up something in almost every contest on Southend Pier. Trouble was, he only ever won vacuum flasks. His house had a cupboard full of them, though he gave them away to all his friends. You expected to hear the music from Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice every time you opened the cupboard doors. In one big competition, he finished second and said to me: "At least I won't win a flask this time." But he couldn't escape his fate. Second prize was a monster flask more than 2ft high, capable of holding enough for six.

Of course, most of the time you don't win prizes, but trophies. The first few go on the mantelpiece, but very quickly there's no room for wedding pictures or the capo di monte. You don't even have to be a very good angler to win trophies in most clubs. There are awards for the third biggest roach, the largest trout on a club trip to Bedford, pairs knock-out competitions, prettiest perch from the club lake and so on. Prize-givings last hours, and eventually people are too tired to applaud. But pity the successful angler. He has to cart home armfuls of metal and wood designed by a Russian architect from the 1970s. Ugly? These trophies make Viz seem like a monument to good taste.

The worst thing I ever won was in a team match. It was about 4ft high, a veritable parthenon of columns, each with a gilt angler on top. The fake wooden base was decorated with curlicues and plastic laurel wreaths. It was truly horrible, and we argued afterwards about who should hold the trophy, because nobody wanted to.

Still, sometimes you can be agreeably surprised. I still remember the Wye Valley Team Shield. This was a handsome oak shield, inlaid with fishes and carved almost 100 years ago. We each kept it for three months. Unfortunately, one of the team, Roger Claydon, displayed the historic shield on his family sideboard, where it contracted woodworm. He treated it and tried to fill the holes with Polyfilla, but it has never looked quite the same since.

What sparked these reminiscences was my success in the Market Research Society's annual competition last week. I'm allowed to take part because my wife is a qualitative researcher. It is a pleasant day, even if I cannot understand the shop talk afterwards and it is good for making me believe I am a better angler than I really am. The researchers, a charming bunch, are generally hopeless at fishing so I'm really only competing against six others. Trouble is, the society has abbreviated its name to MRS on the wooden shield (to save on engraving) and everyone thinks my wife has won it.