Fishing: Forget size and weight - the hard-nuts are real prizes

Fishing Lines
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The Independent Online
ALL ANGLERS go through three distinct stages in their fishing lives. In the beginning the aim is to catch as many fish as possible; "I caught 10 today" I would say when I was a rookie fisherman, glowing with pride and the exertion of carrying a ridiculously greedy bag.

Then it is the pursuit of the biggest fish that gets us out on a cold winter's day and makes us stay out. But, finally, we all mature and seek to capture the hardest fish, the one that lurks in that almost - but crucially not quite - impossible to reach position under a tree, or behind a rock that calls for showmanship casting.

And the most difficult to catch fish are not necessarily the biggest. In trout fishing, it is relatively easy to fulfil that second goal and catch a big fish. There are many lakes stocked with monster rainbows of up to 30lb which will snatch at any gaudy lure dragged past their noses within hours of being introduced to the lake (from the breeding cages in which they were previously kept). Their capture takes relatively little skill and hardly any sport is involved. It is, admittedly, a step up from going to the supermarket and buying the fish already caught for you and dressed in plastic.

On the moorland streams of Devon and Yorkshire, however, it is a very different story. There, the wild brown trout rarely weigh more than two pounds, yet such a trout would be regarded a very good "best fish" and its capture would provide many a fireside conversation in the local drinking houses. Because, to reach this Ally McBeal weight, that little trout could have taken up to 10 years of hard graft.

I met my best fish on the river Lyd in Devon, on a beat owned by the famous fishing hotel, the Arundel Arms. The river has a run of salmon, and an accompanying population of sea trout, or peal as they are known in the West Country. I had long wanted to catch a sea trout, they are much prized by anglers for their shyness and fight, and by cooks for their coral coloured, sweet-tasting flesh.

As always, conditions were less than perfect. The river was still not fully recovered from a recent flood, and inevitably the sun was beating down. Anglers and sea trout hate the sun. For the angler it makes the fishing difficult because the fish go deep to the cooler water below. Having walked across fields in my winter weight waders, and city dweller that I am, taking a massive detour to avoid cows (silly me, they are harmless unless you have a dog), I was grumpy and damp around the gills but determined. Fishing down the pools diligently, my fly was sent to search every likely- looking spot.

Several miles of river were fished in this way, without the slightest hint of a bite. Not a hint of a dorsal fin, not a nibble. Then, suddenly, one jumped, then another, and the indefatigable optimism all anglers keep somewhere in their fishing waistcoats kicked in. Half glimpsing a fish rising hard on the far bank under an overhanging tree, I scrambled down a sheer face to the river- side and perched on a ledge barely wider than the span of my boot sole.

The fish was slightly downstream and my casting, mediocre at the best of times, was hampered by an upstream wind. The rock face behind me made a back-cast impossible, and the canopy of trees above made roll-casting difficult. The water in front of me was too deep to wade, worryingly, since I was in imminent danger of falling in.

Sea trout do not afford you second chances, they are shy and are spooked extremely easily, so I knew that I had but one cast. The fish was not moving for the moment, he was cooling himself off. I pondered the geometry of the cast needed to reach him neatly for a full half-hour. If I could just master a sort of reversed snake roll with a semi-double spey-style cast, upside down, I would have him.

My fish - for in my mind he was surely mine by now - splashed around a little, safe in the knowledge that no one could reach him where he lay. I cast and the truth is that it did not all come together beautifully: the cast fell in a heap, I nearly broke the tip off the rod on the overhanging branches, I nearly fell in during the very inelegant capture, but that's not the point. I had been utterly absorbed by the pursuit of this solitary fish, which all told had taken nearly six hours.

But it worked and I lifted the little chap into the net, his lilac flanks glistening in the sun, his tail spade-like and quite, quite perfect. He was the most beautiful fish, the hardest fish, the best fish I had ever caught. As I admired this lovely creature, I thought of all the times that I had caught a bagful of stumpy-tailed, pellet-fed monsters and had gotten bored doing so.

His weight? Just over one pound. But as all fishermen eventually learn, size really isn't everything.

Annalisa Barbieri is away.