Fishing: Bass on line and on the net

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IT'S BEEN a good week. I won $245,000, beat some of the world's leading anglers on their favourite lakes and broke two world records. A pretty impressive performance, I think you'll agree. Especially as I did it without moving from my desk.

Well, it was fishing, but not as we know it, Jim. I've been playing the tournament edition of Bass Masters Classic, a computer game that allegedly simulates competitive fishing for freshwater bass, with "all the glamour and excitement of the Bass Masters Classic itself". If your copy of Freshwater Fish of the British Isles unaccountably seems to have bass missing, don't worry. In this country, they are as rare as benevolent taxmen. Various attempts to introduce bass, legally and illegally, have generally failed miserably. Only one site, a Dorset lake, definitely holds a breeding population.

In the US, however, bass are the American dream. An estimated 56 million go fishing, and most of them want to catch bass. I fished with one bassman in Maine who owned a giant outdoor sports complex. He had enough money to buy his own river. "Ever fished for salmon or trout?" I asked. "Well, I used to," Wayne confessed. "But then I found out about bass. I don't bother with salmon any more."

Tournaments carry massive prizes of up to $1m. I asked Wayne if he had picked up any big dollars. "No, the most I've won in a day is $25,000," he said dismissively. At the apex of this competitive circuit is the Bass Masters Classic. Win this, and you're made for life, the fishy equivalent of scooping the Lottery. This game gives you an inkling of that moment, with a video cut showing a hall the size of Wembley Stadium packed with people, lights flashing and thunderous applause. You would think it was Elvis back from the dead to play one final gig. Instead, it's the reception for a man who caught more bass than 14 other men after a day's fishing. If you're going virtual angling with Bass Master, you need to send your sanity out for a long walk.

Well, the game is a nice idea. You drive your boat to a likely spot, cast out a line and hope to snare a bass. In the dummies' version, which is most fun to play, you can see the fish - or at least black shapes. The ones to cast at are those that look like humpback whales from a spotter plane.

If you hook a bass, it takes off like a Ferrari. You can tell the predilection of the program writers, because everything else (crappies, red-eared sunfish, channel catfish, green sunfish, bluegills, walleye and probably a few others) swims happily up to the boat. But these bass flash across the lake like a pervert at an Ibiza beach. You have to "play" your catch by moving the mouse backwards and forwards. These virtual bass can take nearly an hour to boat.

That's the duffers' level. On normal or professional level, you can't see fish unless you switch to the underwater camera (and not often then). This may be more like real fishing, but it's not a lot of fun. Nor, you suspect, are the game-makers. It has as much humour as leprosy.

I can forgive Bass Masters this po-faced attitude. Fishing for $1m is, after all, a serious business. I can certainly make allowances for anything that awards me $15,000 for not doing very well. I can even put up with the 1985 graphics, which look like they have been transplanted from a Commodore 64 or Sinclair Spectrum. (Remember those?)

Less forgivable is the fact that the game randomly "crashes". Just when you think you're in line for the key to the tuckshop, it turns turtle. Tough luck, buster. Start again. I rang the game's makers. We'll phone you back, they promised. They didn't. Probably gone fishing.

Still, who am I to whinge? It allows you to fish whatever the weather and it doesn't leave you with smelly hands. You can even meet really interesting people by setting up a tournament on the Internet.

Me? I'm booking a ticket for the real thing. Success can go to your head.

l Bass Masters Classic Tournament Edition,THQ International, pounds 19.99.