Fishing Lines: Bleak scene in auction house

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The Independent Online
IT LOOKS as if I may have to say goodbye tothe giant pike, caught by R S Aspinall in 1911, that scowls balefully across my sitting-room. She (all big pike are female) will probably be joined by that 6lb bream, caught by Mr C Chapman in the Ouse near my home more than a century ago. Maybe even the unique Irish trout, which has no description in the glass case but probably weighs nearer 20lb than 15lb, will have to go too. In the world of taxidermy, small has suddenly become beautiful - and that means collectable.

The trend towards paying ridiculous amounts for cased tiddlers has been set by the London auction house Bonham's. A 2oz gudgeon, some six inches long, sold for pounds 3,000 last week while a bleak of similar size attracted a pounds 1,700 bid. A few months ago another gudgeon, this time a real monster of 3oz, set a record for cased fish at auction when it was bought for pounds 5,000 plus pounds 750 commission.

This sudden obsession for mini- fish makes as much sense as cod eating plastic cups thrown from cross- Channel ferries. The latest two weren't even very good examples of the genre. The gudgeon had huge, unnatural staring eyes, rather like Mrs Thatcher in her final days, while the bleak looked more like a sprat that had contracted mumps and swallowed a pot of gold paint.

Bleak should be silvery as a fresh herring. The name probably comes from an old Teutonic word, blaiko, meaning white or shining (hence bleach). Its shining scales were once extensively used in France to make artificial pearls. The industry stalled in 1656, and involved coating hollow glass beads with guanine crystals washed from the scales. It took 4,000 bleak to make about four ounces of essence, so the fish are probably fairly pleased that more efficient ways of making artificial pearls have been found.

Walton called bleak 'river swallows' after their habit of jumping out of the water after flies, but they are of little interest to anglers unless you are under 10 years old or a match fisherman. They are perfect fish for beginners because they are so greedy, while competition enthusiasts relish their shoaling habits. The England international Tom Pickering, from Barnsley, once caught 14 in a minute.

But otherwise, what is there about the bleak that makesit so sought-after for pole portion over the mantelpiece? Well, nothing. The British record is a mere 5oz. This is about the same as the king of gudgeon. A bottom-grubber where bleak are surface feeders, gudgeon were once highly prized, not for their handsome demeanour in a glass case but for their taste.

Upper-class Victorians would sally down to the Thames in their Sunday best and hop in a punt for a spotof gudgeon-fishing. Your boatman would stir the muddy bottom with the punt pole. Shoals of gudgeon would be attracted by the commotion, and easily captured. (No wonder its name became synonymous with a gullible person.)

They are unquestionably good to eat. Cholmondeley-Pennell in his Fishing Gossip (1866) says: 'In a gastronomic point of view, gobio gives precedence to none, and is a dish fit to set before a king.' But they can scarcely be described as a sporting fish. What sort of person, then, has a gudgeon preserved for posterity?

It makes me wonder where it will all end. The rising prices that cased fish are attracting has prompted certain unscrupulous taxidermists to take a modern fish, make it look a little worn, put it into a case, add the label of a traditional stuffer and sell the whole thing as a 100-year-old work of art. But it's much harder to get a 20lb pike or 40lb salmon these days. Coarse anglers are far more conservation-minded and few will kill a very large fish, while big salmon nowadays are as rare as chihuahua police dogs.

Small fish, though, are simple to catch. I fear we may see a glut of minnows, ruffe, stone and spiny loaches, bitterling, sunfish, guppies and goodness knows what else appearing mysteriously out of attics over the next few months. So check carefully for a Made in Taiwan label if you're buying a small cased fish.

Not that I should really complain. Years ago, a friend gave me, for a joke, a tiny small-mouthed wrasse in a glass case. It's about four inches long (they don't grow much larger) and about 60 years old. I had it on the wall once but it drew too many ribald comments about my angling ability. If the mad quest for Lilliputian fish continues, that joke gift will probably be worth more than my house.

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