Fishing: A light catch claims the keys to the brewery

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NOT A lot of people know this, but the manner in which I became British sea-fishing champion is scarcely the stuff of legend. I did so by catching a few flounders and garfish so small you could have used them for postage stamps if they had borne the Queen's head. Foodwise, my total catch over three days of competition was about enough to make a bouillabaisse for one. The haul of 18 fish (14 garfish, four flounders) added up to 6lb 2oz. The largest fish weighed a mere 6 ounces.

It all came back to me this week with the news that Dennis Flack was now the holder of four records. It sounds impressive. But Flack's best of British are for such mighty species as the bitterling, silver bream, bleak and three-spined stickleback. You would think a 68-year-old would have better things to do with his life, but I suppose it puts my triumph, if that's the word, into perspective.

Technically, it was quite an ingenious victory. The scene was Southend Pier, an unlovely chunk of rusting metal spanning the Thames Estuary. I knew it well because my grandparents lived at nearby Thorpe Bay, so it became the venue for my formative years of sea fishing. The pier certainly took you a fair way out across the briny (almost one-and-a-half miles, making it the longest in the world) but it was hardly the sea I had read about in Hemingway and Zane Grey. The water, dyed by the estuary mud, was the colour of severe diarrhoea. Even the fish looked vaguely unhealthy.

I didn't care. The flounders, plaice, dabs and garfish that comprised the bulk of Southend catches were quite enough for a youngster. Occasionally a few mackerel swam through the structure, and it was sometimes possible to snare mullet, or even a bass. I spent every day of my holidays on the pier, or on the mud collecting bait for fishing.

And so it came to pass that the National Federation of Sea Anglers decided to hold its British championships there. By then I was a journalist, working on a fishing paper. I would have to cover the competition anyway. Why not compete in it?

I spent a few days beforehand collecting bait and working out how to fish. It soon became apparent that a set of letter scales would be enough to weigh catches. Only a few tiny fish were willing to feed in the windless, hot conditions.

So while others among the 800 or so competitors angled for large flounders that are standard fare for Southend fishers, I used tiny hooks, tiny baits and tried to catch anything with fins. My judgement here was heavily influenced by the fact that the event was sponsored by Double Diamond, a popular beer of the day. Any sort of prize was bound to bring alcoholic rewards.

On the first day, I finished second. That was surely enough for a few gallons of beer. I could relax. Next day, I fished for bigger fish but none came along. I caught only four tiny flounders. Still, that put me sixth on the day, so poor was the fishing. Suddenly, I was third overall. It was no longer just an opportunity to win a week's beer: I was in line for the key to the brewery.

To have a chance of winning, I had to go after those tiddlers. I caught nothing for four hours, but finally snared seven pygmy garfish, a strange creature that looks like an undernourished swordfish.

Hundreds gathered round the scales. It was embarrassing bringing such puny fish to be weighed. Each was only just above the minimum size limit. Those above me both had seven fish, while another angler had 10. The weights were so low that fractions were going to settle it.

Nobody knew who had won until the awards ceremony later that evening. With prizes each day, my table was soon awash with booze. As the evening reached its climax, and overall results were announced in ascending order, I lost track of proceedings. A roar awoke me, and someone shaking my shoulder. "You've won it, Keith," said a friend. "Oh. Good," I'm told I replied. My picture in the local paper, with my eyes going different ways as I shake hands with the mayor, tells it all.

Along with all that booze and quite a bit of tackle, I also won a colour television, which back then was a pretty good prize. The following year, with new sponsors backing the event, the winner collected two cars. Just my luck.