Fishing: It pays to keep mum about the hot spots

THE FIRST proper writing I ever did, apart from those "What I did during my school holidays" essays, was producing a weekly river report for Angling Times. This involved sending in 100 words every week on prospects for fishing on the Thames between Maidenhead and Windsor. It paid, I think, 2s 6d, which is about 12p, though the postage was free. After a while, the news editor decided I was doing such a good job that he gave me a rise to three shillings. Eat your heart out, Nick Hornby.

I took my duties very seriously. I talked to all the local tackle shops. I fished the area almost every evening, homework or no homework. Weekends too. Twice a week, I cycled the length of the towpath, a distance of perhaps seven miles, and chatted to anglers. I introduced myself as the Angling Times river reporter. A few were impressed, and asked advice. Most, I suspect, thought I was a jerk.

Two incidents stand out from those halcyon days, when the Thames wasn't emasculated by over-abstraction and polluted by farm chemicals. (Studies last year showed that 99 per cent of Thames roach were female, which is great if you're a male roach, but not too promising for the propagation of the species.) Doing my twice-weekly check towards the end of June, I asked one angler how he was doing. "Haven't caught a thing," he said. "I can't understand it. Angling Times said it would be good here." On that occasion, I recall, I didn't volunteer the fact that I was the guru in question.

But sometimes I got it right. Probably the most sought-after species in the Thames then was barbel. My area was a good one for them, and in the autumn, if you knew where to go, it wasn't unusual to catch four or five in a session, averaging 4lb.

To give you an idea of the barbel's appeal, there was a knock on the door at 5am one September morning. I was still living at home at the time (on a reporter's salary, it was that or a ditch). My father, bleary-eyed, poked his head out of the window and saw one of my mates on the doorstep. He came in and woke me. "It's one of your bloody fishing friends," he snarled. I went down (Thank goodness I wasn't wearing the Sooty pyjamas that night.)

It was Clive Evans, better known to his mates as Flasher (that's another story). He didn't say: "Sorry to wake you up", but: "I've just caught 18 barbel." My response was exactly what he wanted. Not: "Do you know what the bloody time is?" but: "What did you catch them on?" and: "Where were you fishing?" God, I had it bad in those days.

Knowledge is a dangerous thing. At the time, I used it widely, but not wisely. If one area were fishing well, I would pinpoint it for the greater good. For days, often weeks, after the magazine came out, it was impossible to get near the hotspots. It never struck me then, nor when I went to work on the local paper and highlighted undiscovered lakes and ponds. I'm wiser now.

Reading the latest book by probably the finest angling writer alive, the American John Gierach, brought this all uncomfortably back. In Standing in a River Waving a Stick, he discusses the problem of revealing unspoilt locations. His words left me with the feeling you get when you polish off a child's Easter egg without them knowing. "The fact is, anyone who's been in this business for a while has probably ruined a couple of once- good fishing holes by writing where-to-go and which-rock-to-stand-on stories about them - usually early on, before it sinks in that people are actually reading this stuff."

But I'm helping people to better fishing, I argued. J G again: "In terms of journalistic ethics, you can always invoke people's right to know and that all you're supposed to do is tell the story, but that can become a cop-out. A public official with his hand in the cookie jar is one thing, while a secluded beaver pond with 20 brook trout that could be fished out in a single afternoon is another."

Well, I'm off fishing on Tuesday. But I'll be damned if I tell you lot where I'm going, or what I caught.