Delights after the defrost

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THIS IS the time of year when certain angling journalists clear out the family freezer. My wife, the sort of person who doesn't like surprises, always hated the last few weeks of March. Unidentified frozen objects would be hauled from the deepest recesses of the chest freezer, bearing that sparkling patina that only comes from lying undisturbed for months past the eat-by date.

I'm not very good at labelling for the freezer. When you return from a winter sea-fishing trip at 2am, the last thing you feel like after disembowelling several cod is writing a neat contents message on each plastic bag. Still, it adds an air of mystery to meals. When the shapeless lump defrosts, it could be cod or conger, sole or skale, eel-pout or sea-trout.

Sometimes there would be surprise packages. It could be pike baits such as smelt or roach, and on one memorable occasion, a green and red fish that I thought was a wrasse turned out to be the children's lovebird. When it keeled over, I had dumped it into the deep-freeze while arguments raged about its final resting place, and we had forgotten all about it. (We didn't eat it, in case you're wondering, though I felt it would have been fine with chips, broccoli and a light lemon-based sauce.)

The reason for this sudden interest in frozen food was always the official start of the trout-fishing season on 1 April. It sounds like I'm one hell of a trouter, expecting to bag so many spotted things that I need to empty the larder to make way for my catches. The truth is far more mundane. I'm a mediocre angler who is occasionally privileged to fish waters where the trout display the natural cunning of a bathmat. Such occasions are called press days, and here's how they work. Filling a hole in the ground with water and stocking with trout is no longer a surefire way to get rich quick. An idyllic setting, trout dimpling the surface in their quest for flies and an intellectual challenge posed by the wariness of the fish or the inaccessibility of their habitat were once the criteria for a good water. Now such qualities can be a disadvantage.

Trout-fishing has become popular, but along the way it has become vulgar too. A good water nowadays is too often measured by the size of its fish and their lack of inbuilt caution. lt was years before I caught a trout over 1lb. Many waters today stock with fish averaging 3lb. This belief that big is good, and bigger is better, has resulted in fisheries loading up with trout bigger than most salmon, huge creatures topping 20lb that won't even fit into a large chest freezer properly. They are ugly as a cod, their only attribute being that they possess even less intelligence than the creatures that seek to catch them.

But the quest to attract punters becomes harder as more waters join the merry-go-round. To get ahead of the pack, you need publicity. What better way to get it than to invite along angling writers and let them catch sackfuls of trout? It's terrific for their egos; it ensures at very least a picture in a newspaper. The cost of a few trout is more than repaid with months of publicity as the writer relives his success throughout the season.

So a few days before it officially opens, a selected few are invited to try out the water. That morning, the fishery manager will haul a mess of trout from his stock ponds and infiltrate them within a few yards of the car park. (Fishing writers are notoriously poor on walking any distance.) These trout have lived solely on high- protein pellets: no wasting their energy chasing insects, fish and flies. They are so cunning they assume a floating cigarette end is food.

It's not unknown for waters to put in a very large fish, working on that basic publicity equation: E=MC2 (E=Egoist and MC=Mundane Client). A 20- pounder caught by a fishing writer will ensure better publicity than Princess Di sunbathing naked. Ordinary anglers get no such special treatment. Trout waters would never survive if every punter caught their entitlement (generally two fish, often four and sometimes as many as eight). But it doesn't matter. Fishermen will assume it is their own lack of skill, rather than a lack of fish.

It's not always like this, but it's happened too often for me to feel comfortable. So now I join the grockles a few weeks into the season, secure in the knowledge that if I catch a bundle of trout, it's not because they've been put there especially for me. The children are pleased, too. There's now room in the deep-freeze for proper food . . . like fish fingers.

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