Brian Viner's Column: In search of the golden trout

A new open championship offering pounds 30,000 prize money aims to turn fishing into the `new golf'
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The Independent Online
Brown is the new black, polenta is the new potato, Bobby Robson is the new Ruud Gullit and fishing, apparently, is the new golf. It is said that fishing has reached the stage golf was at 20 years ago, on the verge of a major consumer boom. Just to muddy the waters, fishing is already more popular than golf in Britain, numerically. But 60 per cent of those who fish also play golf, whereas a much smaller percentage of those who play golf also fish. I can almost feel a Venn diagram coming on.

Of British golfers who fish, probably the best-known is Nick Faldo. And if fishing was handicapped, he would by all accounts be a scratch player. I recently cast my debut rod on the River Nore in Ireland, under the expert tutelage of Matt Bulger, chief ghillie at Mount Juliet, a magnificent sporting estate and hotel near Kilkenny. Faldo has played golf at Mount Juliet - indeed he won the Irish Open there - and has fished with Matt, who speaks highly of his technique. I have visions of Faldo practising his casting for hours, with Fanny carrying his spare rods and cheese-and- pickle sandwiches, and the famous fishing guru David Codbetter trying to cure his flying right elbow. Whatever, the last time Faldo was at Mount Juliet he caught 26 trout in 64 minutes. Which is much better than par for the course.

According to Matt, incidentally, Faldo is the soul of wit and bonhomie. I like hearing things like that. Last Wednesday I was hanging out at the England football team's Buckinghamshire hotel, and got chatting with a couple of the 15-year-old girl groupies who wait at the gates hoping for a moment with their pin-ups. Alan Shearer and Michael Owen had walked by offering them barely a glance, they told me (though they loved Michael regardless). Gary Neville had signed some autographs as he was passing. But David Beckham had emerged from the hotel expressly to sign autographs and pose for photos, and made sure they all had what they wanted - within the restraints of decency and the law - before leaving. What a guy.

Then there's former US President Jimmy Carter, who fished with Matt for hours on the Nore. An absolute gent, reports Matt, indeed it was hard to imagine that he once had his finger on the nuclear button. I could never get my head round it while he was president, either - but that's another issue. Apparently, Carter is a top-notch fisherman. He and Matt differed over the merits of a fly called the blue-winged olive, and Carter said he would send Matt his book on flies, just to settle the argument. Three weeks later it arrived, with a long, handwritten letter. He's in danger of giving politicians a good name.

Carter has expressed interest, along with Clint Eastwood, Brad Pitt and that lesser Hollywood star Ronan Rafferty, in competing in the inaugural Worldwide Trout Open, which takes place at Mount Juliet on September 25 and 26. It costs pounds 300 to enter - although in future years entrance will be by qualification - and there is a prize fund, unprecedented in the fly-fishing world, of pounds 30,000. At the end of day one, the leader will be handed fishing's equivalent of the Tour de France's maillot jaune in the form of a jaunty cap. And just to prove that fishing really is the new golf, the champion will be helped into a prestigious jacket. Not green but tweed, of course. In future years people will point in awe at a fisherman nicknamed, a la Greg Norman, the Great Brown Trout, and say, "Believe it or not, that man won eight tweed jackets."

The Worldwide Trout Open champion will be the person who catches the greatest combined length of fish, with further prizes for the largest number of fish (the organisers are at pains to point out that this is a catch-and-release event), the first fish caught, the biggest salmon and so forth. And to make it even more tantalising, 10 fish will be tagged, with one, the so-called golden trout, worth pounds 10,000 in cash to whoever catches it. Television crews from all over the world will be covering the event, and lest you think, as I did, that fishing is not necessarily the most telegenic of sports, you should be aware of two things. One, they used to say the same about golf and snooker. Two, they have sophisticated underwater cameras these days. And a miked-up John Dory, presumably, to tell us how it's lying.

For details of this splendid event, call 01705 5716685. I would be tempted myself, except that in two hours on the River Nore - which by the way is one of the best fly-fishing rivers in Europe - I didn't even catch a cold.