Charlton's unlikely booking

Fishing lines
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The Independent Online
Fishing licences have come a long way from the days when I paid a shilling to dangle a line in the murky depths of the Grand Union Canal at Alperton, north London. That was a lot of money then, but we bought a group ticket so it only worked out at about a penny each. One of us paid for the ticket when the bailiff came along while the others hid in the hedge behind the canal. If he returned, those without tickets jumped on their bikes and pedalled off, returning when he had disappeared.

This mobile approach had the advantage of supplying extremely cheap fishing, but it severely affected your concentration. The bailiff, wise to the ways of 11-year-old boys, would sneakily creep through the hedge himself and pounce, rather than doing the decent thing and approaching along the long, straight bank. No wonder I'm so neurotic now.

Of course, I could have fished lots of other places for free, but the canal held lots of gudgeon, the occasional roach and sometimes even a bream. Such a bonus made the risk worthwhile. Nowadays, you can't even fish in your own garden pond without a licence.

Until a decade ago, you could fish most places for nothing. King John supposedly gave the fishing on the Thames below Runnymede to the people of London in perpetuity. The concept of paying to fish on free water was laughable. Then the Government saw the figure of 4 million anglers and called in the lawyers, who argued that the right of free fishing did not mean you could fish for free. Such sophistry was well beyond most anglers whose IQs are generally only a little higher than those of their quarry.

In came the tax gatherers. Their latest guise is the Environment Agency, but the main preoccupation is still to rake in licence revenue. Most of the press releases I have received over the past few weeks have not been about cleaner rivers or rehabilitating the great crested newts, but on the theme of "New Blitz on Licence Dodgers".

Take this week's release, which claims that in some areas evasion is as high as 60 per cent. It says that the agency is planning a "huge rod licence blitz" over the May Bank Holidays and adds: "The agency has a 'no excuses' policy in regard to licence evasion, aiming to prosecute every angler caught without a licence."

That should be particularly interesting to the former Ireland football manager Jack Charlton. He has just been booked for fishing on Northumberland's Whittle Dene reservoir, and admitted: "It wasn't an oversight. I knew I didn't have a licence."

If it had happened in Ireland, the incident probably wouldn't have cost him a penny. Such is Charlton's standing that whenever he pays for anything, recipients prefer to put the cheque on the wall rather than cashing it. But the English are much more hard-nosed. Failing to buy that pounds 15 licence could cost him up to pounds 2,500, though the average fine is around pounds 400.

The agency's much-publicised policy will now be put to a stern test. If it follows its own publicity, it will have to take Charlton, a keen trout and salmon angler, to court, where he could be fined far more than he ever incurred for a late tackle or harsh words to a ref. And to think he gave up running the Irish football team to spend more time fishing.

It's not as clear cut as it seems, either. Nabbing a public figure would certainly help to publicise the agency's obsession with licence-dodging, but prosecution may not be the ideal solution. The agency's predecessor, the National Rivers Authority, used publicity pictures of a famous angler buying a rod licence only two years ago. That angler? Jack Charlton.