Fishing Lines: Fins ain't what they used to be

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The Independent Online
I COULD understand the police constable's point of view. There was I, with blood all over my arms and shirt, looking furtive as I walked out of a heavily wooded area in a London park. Fishing? Don't make me laugh, sunshine.

Ah, Battersea Park lake] It's undergoing a pounds 600,000 clean-up now. But I'll always remember it as the place where I was almost arrested as a murderer, and where I nearly caught a salmon.

Back in the 1970s, l was recruited by a small club to join their team for the London Parks Championships. If you stroll around the Serpentine, Clapham Common ponds, Battersea Park or Crystal Palace lakes, it's hard to believe that anything with fins could live there. But at the time, London's best fishing was in the public parks.

Most were free, while a season ticket for the Serpentine cost just pounds 1. And it was full of surprises, because people would dump unwanted pet fish into the lake. Most died, but some surprisingly exotic species survived. The best I did was a 2lb goldfish, but I saw two varieties of South American catfish and a cichlid landed, while locals claimed even more colourful specimens occasionally turned up.

The first round of the championships was at Battersea Park. I had no idea what to expect, so I casted out a float for whatever came along. The first fish was an eel, an uncommon lake catch. So was the second. And the third. The lake must have been full of the slithery horrors. Soon I had more than 20, and my trousers, where l had wiped my hands in a vain attempt to dislodge some of the slime, looked like the inside of a giant runny nose.

A passer-by stopped to chat. 'Are you catching anything?' he asked.

Lots of eels,' I replied. 'Watch, this will be one as well,' I said as the float sank.

But it wasn't. Instead of an eel's tug-tug, like having your hook attached to a slowly swinging door, a two-foot bar of silver flew out of the water, jumped eight more times and threw the hook. It happened faster than it takes me to tell the story.

''What the hell was that?' asked my onlooker.

'Just a salmon,' I said, my hands shaking.

'Oh,' he said, and wandered away.

Such a fish would have carved out a small chunk of piscatorial history. Battersea Park was connected to the Thames by an inlet and the salmon, no doubt one of the earliest from the river's pounds 1 million rehabilitation programme, had wandered accidentally into the murky pond. Until then, only a couple had been caught on mud and line in the river itself, and even now, none has been captured in a London park pond.

Nowadays, there's probably more chance of seeing an aardvark in your back garden. Thanks to European Commission money, the lake will no longer need to depend on the Thames, drawing water instead from an unpolluted 400ft borehole in the Battersea chalk. The pond desperately needs some clean water. Crap-happy Canada geese, stale bread and a diver full of chemicals have turned the water green. I'm told that the resident bream and carp will be removed (though nobody has said anything about the eels) and replaced with tench and crucian carp, which supposedly churn up the lake bottom less. That's a bit like changing the bathwater because a radiator is leaking.

Wandsworth Council is also planting prickly shrubs around the banks to discourage these geese. I wish the plants had been there when we fished in the parks semi-final. It would have stopped me taking a short cut back to my car, and saved me an embarrassing grilling by the local law.

Knowing by then that the lake was full of eels, I took along a secret weapon - a gallon of ox blood. They love the smell and many poachers' wiles feature freshly-killed things. But mixing blood with groundbait is a messy affair, and I soon looked like a nightmare from Elm Street.

Fortunately, I had a towel in my car, so I ran through the bushes to fetch it - and that's when I met the patrolling policeman. He was terribly disappointed that his search of the bushes failed to yield a mutilated body, and I don't think he really believed me, even when I showed him the empty container of blood.

As it happened, I didn't catch any eels either. They were probably all on their way back to the Sargasso Sea. If only they knew what they'd missed.

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