Fishing: A small price to pay for Paradise

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ANOTHER dumb sap fined for not having a fishing licence this week. Come in Martin Owen Lenaghan of Wakefield, who thought he would probably escape with a hefty fine when he was nicked by an Environment Agency bailiff at a country park near his home. He was wrong. Lenaghan landed a piddling little penalty of pounds 20. Trouble was, he also got banned from fishing for a year. It turned out he had previous convictions for the same offence.

With fines as large as pounds 700 for first offenders, some would argue that Lenaghan got off lightly, the equivalent of a notorious burglar being told he's not allowed to go up ladders for a year. It all depends what price you set on a year's fishing.

If you're a salmon fisher, it's about 20p at the moment. Personally, I can think of no worse punishment, except perhaps being sentenced to play golf every week for a year. And so you won't catch me without my pounds 16 coarse and trout licence (water bailiffs, please note).

Yet it's amazing the people who try to beat the system. One important publisher friend who actually produces angling magazines got nabbed a couple of years ago. Now it doesn't take Hercule Poirot to smell a long- tailed rodent, when said publisher drove off in an Aston Martin Lagonda with a personalised number plate that didn't match the name he had given.

Bailiffs have hooked even larger fish. The prize catch was Jack Charlton. He starred in several fishing videos and actually appeared in an Environment Agency propaganda film exhorting people to buy a licence, though he failed to and landed a swingeing fine.

Figures released a few weeks ago, showing licence avoidance had declined to about one person in 15, were actually praised by the agency as a sign that it was winning the battle. Maybe. But that means there are bankloads of anglers who still don't buy a licence and have no intention of doing so. Does it mean that subconsciously, they don't want to go fishing?

That's a depressing thought. I could understand it more if it was a throwback to the days of escaping the park-keeper, when decisions were made on the tough economic grounds of: "Shall I buy a fishing ticket, or take a risk and have the money to buy three more hooks?" For today's youngsters, dilemmas like this seem the stuff of ancient history, when people walked around in smocks and muttered "Ooo arr" all day.

I run a small fishing club for youngsters. New members always have unsuitable tackle, so I kit them out from a store that I've accumulated. We pile into cars (invariably mine) and drive to waters better than the ones on our doorstep. As the youngsters grow up, some become interested in girls, computers or football. But many stay with it. They now have their own cars, not a pounds 50 Metro on its last legs, but something worth several thousand pounds. Soon even the newcomers are buying pounds 70 rods, pounds 50 reels and the undoubtedly expensive paraphernalia that you've just got to have. The idea that these kids couldn't afford a pounds 8 licence is laughable. Most have far more disposable income than I do.

But they all question why they need a licence in the first place,when they pay a fee to fish someone's water anyway. I reel out the official Environment Agency line (improving stocks, that sort of stuff). You can see they don't believe it. Nor do I, actually. If the agency is forking out all these millions to improve angling, how come the pounds 7m or so it's spending to improve the quality of salmon fishing has resulted in a headlong plunge in catches? And if you tell kids that they actually need a licence to fish in their back gardens (yes, honestly), you can see them thinking: "Tell my gnomes that."

I don't suppose this has gone very far towards solving the mystery of licence evasion. Maybe it's all down to our own natural pettiness, or being able to cheat a faceless, unfriendly bureaucracy, even in a small way.

Still, I'm taking great care after Lenaghan's fate. I can just see my wife working out how many rooms could be redecorated, kitchens rebuilt and relatives visited in a year if my licence should, by chance, become lost.