Fishing Lines: All that glitters worth the bait

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The Independent Online
THE RENOWNED writer and angler Harry Cholmondeley-Pennell felt that the days he spent checking cod or monitoring mackerel for Queen Victoria would assure him of a place in posterity. He was so proud of it, that if you pick up one of his books, his by-line always reads: H Cholmondeley- Pennell, late Her Majesty's Inspector of Sea Fisheries.

It makes the old chap sound rather pompous, which I suspect is untrue. I prefer to judge him by the wonderfully unlikely tale he records in The Book of Pike of a man who described himself as the originator of the spoon bait in England.

"Some 20 or 30 years ago, he was in the service of the Bishop of Exeter, when one day, emptying a pail of slops into the Exe, a spoon was accidentally left in it, and was discharged with the other contents of the pail into the river. As the spoon went wavering through the water, a pike darted from under the bank and took it. The man being a keen fisherman immediately conceived the idea of turning the accidental discovery to practical account, and constructed, with the aid of a tin-smith, the spoon deposited with me, and which became the prototype of the bait now unknown upon but few European and American waters."

Even fishermen would have doubts about that yarn. It's far more likely that the first users of a spoon bait were Polynesian islanders, using segments of abalone shell tied to a crude hook. This claim has the backing of Chris Sandford, and if anyone should know, it's the man who is the voice of Toys 'R Us in the current television campaign.

Sandford, who runs his own radio production company, has spent the past eight years collecting and studying little bits of sparkly metals with hooks attached. What started as a mild interest has become an obsession. He has already written the first book on British lures, and is planning volume two.

In the US, lures have been big business for years, changing hands for up to $12,000 (pounds 7,500). This is probably because the Americans have a great tradition of lure fishing. But Sandford was surprised to find that for about 60 years, from 1870 to 1930, there was similar interest in the UK too.

"It was an absolutely golden age," he says. "People were making these incredible lures." The materials were not today's plastic or aluminium, but often mother-of-pearl, silver, glass and even gold. Some of the most spectacular products were produced by jewellers. "The other day, someone brought me a spoon with two brass house flies embedded in the back," Sandford says in wonder.

He got addicted after buying two boxes of lures. "People thought I was mad, paying pounds 340 for one box and pounds 280 for the other." (Eight years on, many of those lures are worth that on their own.) Soon afterwards, Sandford picked up a further small collection. "I started to collect information about them, because absolutely nothing was known. Five years later, one Sunday afternoon, I laid it all out on the dining-room table with the idea of putting it into chronological order. My wife said: 'You've got enough for a book.' I realised she was right."

Publishers weren't interested. "They all said: 'It's as fascinating as a book on tall egg-cups.' So I did it myself." He had some doubt about the potential sales, but a year later, just 240 are left from a print run of 1,000. At auctions, those pretty little spinners that you could pick up for a few pounds are now selling for hundreds. It's all Sandford's fault.

He doesn't fish with his prize collection, but he does tour the country with them, displaying them and raising money for the Anglers Conservation Association, a pollution- fighting charity. And he's still on the lookout. "There are about six that I would like to own, but I have to balance it against the fact that if I had those, would I still be hungry? I think there should always be five or six things that you can never attain."

l The Best of British Baits, Chris Sandford, PO Box 256, Esher, Surrey KT10 9WA, pounds 63.