Fishing lines: Barker falls for barra boys

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The Independent Online
WHEN the Sports Writers' Association holds its 50th birthday celebrations later this year, all former winners of their various awards will be invited. As a committee member, I am granted the unique chance to sit with half a century of sporting superstars. Botham or Daley Thompson? Redgrave or Nobby Stiles? It's a tough choice. But actually, I shall be angling for a seat next to the former tennis star Sue Barker.

This is not because of her involvement in the quiz show A Question of Sport. Nor is it because I secretly yearn to mutter sweet nothings into her ear (she is, after all, married to a detective sergeant in the Met and owns three rottweilers). The reason is so she can solve a fishing mystery: why is her favourite fish a barramundi?

I only know this because I was reading an extremely boring interview with her. (Sample questions: What are your rottweilers called? How involved do you get with your husband's job?) In between asking about her favourite hymn ("Jerusalem") and the best piece of advice she has been given ("never worry what others think"), the interviewer asked her favourite fish. Judging by the rest of the answers, you might have guessed that her answer would have been "cod" or "goldfish", but the woman once ranked as the third best tennis player in the world replied: "A barramundi, from Australia. It is the best fish in the world."

Well, you could have knocked me down with a pot of maggots. Barramundi are also known as giant perch, but they are very far from the chubby, stripey chaps that swim in our lakes and rivers. They are more like the Nile perch, a mighty African predator with a mouth large enough to gulp down a family of Egyptians. Barras don't grow quite that big: the angling world record is 63lb, though they have been netted over 100lb.

The place to fish for them is the North Queensland coast of Australia. They abound in the brackish rivers flowing into the sea and in that area there are more boats and guides offering barramundi fishing than the big- game stuff. That's pretty amazing when you consider that the Great Barrier Reef probably offers the best big game angling in the world.

My friend Simon Channing, who has been a companion on a couple of the more outlandish trips I have made over the past few years, became so enamoured with barramundi that he left his British dental practice, carted his girlfriend, Sally, off to Australia and got a job in a hick Queensland town, where they still do extractions using string and the door handle.

Simon immediately caught a mighty barramundi of more than 50lb. He is one of those people who appear to be blessed by about 20 good luck spirits. As well as being lucky, he also suffers from being charming, extremely good-looking and amusing. In Arunachal Pradesh, Simon caught more than the rest of us put together, the native girls all fell in love with him, and the sea parted when he walked towards it. What a bastard.

Here is a man who could have everything, sharing Sue Barker's obsession and heading to the other side of the world for barramundi. So what is their appeal? Well, they are spectacular sporting fish that can be caught on lure, bait or fly. They jump, pull like a big Scammell and make you work for every catch. They are the sort of fish you would like to be: big, tough, afraid of nothing. Even the crocodiles probably keep out of their way.

And while the angling trend is undoubtedly to return them after capture, I have to report that they are truly excellent eating. Not as good as coral trout, which you can catch off the Great Barrier Reef, and which I believe to be the best eating fish in the world, but barramundi are pretty good, too.

I would like to think that Sue Barker, in a new sporting role, was referring to the fish's angling qualities when giving it pole position in her aquatic chart. I can't believe she would merely admire the barramundi for its ability to swim in hollandaise sauce. There's only one way to find out. Botham will just have to wait.