Fishing Lines: Battles with giants

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

DONAL HEALEY was fishing off Tauranga, North Island, New Zealand when a large fish gulped down his bait. When the black marlin started to tow his 12-tonne boat, Healey realised that he had latched on to something exceptional. Exactly 32 hours 5 minutes later, 50 miles from where the fish was hooked, it broke the line. What Healey said is not recorded.

That happened back in 1968 and it always struck me as an extreme example of fisherman's exaggeration. But John Bailey of Norwich, just back from the wilds of Kazakhstan, spent up to eight hours battling with a giant sturgeon that towed his boat for miles and never came close to being captured.

'We hooked one that our boatmen estimated at 1,700lb,' he said. 'It was hooked at 2.30pm and was still heading out to sea as the sun started to set. We decided that we were not going to get it in and broke the line. We played several fish for between six and eight hours, but they were just too big.' But Bailey did have the consolation of landing probably the largest freshwater fish ever taken by an English angler. Too big for the scales, the giant boluga sturgeon, which was returned unharmed, was estimated at around 400lb.

Bailey, an angling writer and wildlife guide, described the sight of huge sturgeon feeding as 'one of the greatest experiences of my life'. He travelled to a remote region of the Caspian Sea with a party of Danes. 'I said on the way: 'I'll be delighted if I even see a sturgeon.' But on one day alone, he caught eight up to an estimated 300lb.

'We stayed with the caviare fishermen on their fishing boat. Then we travelled on small boats into the delta, looking for sturgeon. We heard them before we saw them. There were between 100 and 150 fish averaging 200lb smashing the water, chasing asp (a carp-like fish) up to 10lb. It was an extraordinary sight, these huge backs coming out of the water like crocodiles. Once we found the fish, we only had to wait a few seconds before they took the bait'.

Bailey added: 'Physically, I just couldn't take it, and had to have a rest. So I fished for catfish, pike up to 40lb, carp of the same size and big rudd. The whole area was seething with fish. It is like the Norfolk Broads must have been 100 years ago. There were herons, storks, bitterns, frogs and newts everywhere'.

He was served with several hundred pounds' worth of caviare at one meal but not the flesh eggs from beluga largest of the sturgeon family. 'The beluga was in severe danger about 20 years ago and the government set up a fish farm to try to stop the killing. Now they only take the smaller species of sturgeon for caviare.' Jones reported that any poachers would face fishermen with guns and helicopters on patrol.

Sturgeon have occasionally been caught in British waters and a 388-pounder is said to have been hooked on a Welsh river in 1933. Bailey's largest would not have been far off the heaviest freshwater fish ever taken on rod and line - a 468lb sturgeon.

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