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Fishing: A fish called Bernard

Fishing lines
An Amusing tale reached me this week about two Norfolk guides almost coming to blows when they found themselves about to fish the same stretch of river. It didn't quite get as far as the aquatic equivalent of road rage (trading punches is quite tricky from boats, especially when there's 10 feet of water beneath you). But they threw herrings at each other and bandied words along the lines of "I was here first," and "This is my bit of river," with sundry adjectives.

The tale was told to me by a third Norfolk pike guide, Richard Furlong, who's been doing it for nearly 10 years as a full-time job rather than a way to make a few quid that the taxman won't find out about. For ages he was the only horse in town; indeed in the UK. But suddenly guiding, especially for pike, has become immensely popular.

It's always been part of salmon fishing, where the guide is called a gillie or ghillie. But the trend towards expert help has spread to all areas of fishing. It's not just those who like fishing for a particular species and see a way of getting others to pay for it. Over the past few years some top writers have headed in this direction.

Last week I wrote about the author John Bailey, who runs trips to locations where the group get the chance to catch exotica like mahseer, sturgeon and arctic char. Two days later I went to a slide show where the doyen of angling broadcasters, John Wilson, was exhorting people to join his next trip to Lake Nasser, Egypt, in April and to Lake Kariba in September.

A trip with Wilson would be good value even without the lure of tigerfish, vundu catfish and Nile perch. In April his seventh series with Anglia TV starts. The care he puts into ensuring each programme has more than Man v Fish has seen him survive where other angling series have risen and died. Small wonder that his travels have attracted audiences of up to three million.

Lake Nasser is not the prettiest place in the world. It was formed by flooding a Nile valley to produce a 15-mile lake that is up to 10 miles wide, with depths of 200 feet. The views are, well, lumpy sand and rock, but the shoreline is scattered with relics from hundreds, even thousands, of years ago.

The main attraction is a fish with a mouth like Bernard Manning. A 50lb Nile perch could swallow a three-course dinner without any of the plates touching the sides. A 300-pounder could probably swallow the waiter too. Fish of 100lb can be caught from the shore on lures and even on a fly. They are not hard to hook, though getting them out is harder.

For variety, you can play historian, tangle with tigerfish which have teeth straight out of a Hammer film, or go croc-spotting. "If you're going to wade in the shallows, don't bother buying a return air ticket," says Wilson. "Some of those crocodiles are huge." Losing a fish is one thing, losing a client is quite another.

I am indebted to C B McCully's fly-fishing dictionary for putting me straight about how gillie should be spelt. I've tended to include the "h" because otherwise it looks the girl's name. But McCully is in no doubt, quoting my favourite bed-time reading, John Jamieson's An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (Volume Two). Because it's from a Gaelic word meaning manservant, it is spelt gillie - most of the time. But I'll let McCully explain it. "The orthographic 'h' is due to misuse: in Gaelic, 'g' is aspirated after a preposition or when it is used in the vocative case, and then it is spelt ghillie." Now you know.

For more information about John Wilson's fishing safaris: Tailor Made Holidays, 5 Station Approach, Hinchley Wood, Surrey KT19 0SP. Tel: 0181- 398 7424.