Fishing Lines: Fishy tales of the unexpected

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The Independent Online
YOU get used to strange noises offstage when you're fishing, especially at night. But not many anglers will be able to match the experience of Bob Oakley, who met a bear while fishing on the river Teme near Worcester.

Hearing a rustling behind him, Oakley turned round, expecting to see a fellow fisherman. Instead, he was confronted by a fully grown bear. Taking a lead from Shakespeare, he exited rapidly, though the bear in this case did not pursue him because it was attached to a stout chain. It was part of a passing circus, and its handler had taken the beast down to the river for a drink.

Fishermen on this stretch of river should be prepared for similar close encounters, because its proximity means circus animals can get a walk, a drink and even a swim in some cases. One angler turned up at his favourite spot in Worcester to find three elephants gambolling in the water. Needless to say, he decided to find a less disturbed pitch.

Large circus animals are increasingly rare, thanks no doubt to pressure from well-meaning but ignorant animal welfare groups. (I speak with some knowledge here, having spent a couple of hours working with a lion tamer before the lion had eaten its breakfast, though that's another story.) But a few circuses still keep the traditions, so if you're fishing anywhere near a big top, it might be wise to check when the animals will be taking their morning constitutional.

If the very prospect makes you come out in spots, you won't enjoy the story of the deadly snake that we nearly trod upon while fishing in the Ecuador jungle. In fact, the country is disappointingly barren of man- eating creatures, and generally it's the smaller denizens that are most dangerous.

There were malaria-bearing mosquitoes, assassin bugs, blackfly that generated river blindness, a sandfly parasite that eats away your warm extremities, and the human botfly, whose larvae bore into your skin and emerge 40 days later as inch-long maggots.

We tried not to think of these too much. We even joked about the vampire bats that drifted through our open hut as dusk fell. We were a little jumpy about the tarantula that ate moths attracted by our candlelight - but we never worried about snakes until we nearly trod on the fer de lance.

Motioning us to be silent, our guide, Fernando, cut a branch, pinned the seven-foot creature to the ground and gave it a few hefty whacks with his panga. He then revealed the fer de lance's unusual habit - unlike almost every other snake, it will actually chase you if it's in a bad mood.

Its bite will kill within a couple of hours, and as we were five days' canoeing from the nearest road, let alone the nearest supply of anti-snake venom, our chances of survival had we trodden on it would have been lower than an arms dealer's morals.

I've often seen adders and grass snakes while fishing in this country. Both are fairly common, and grass snakes are great swimmers. Because anglers blend into the scenery rather than intrude upon it, fishermen see far more wildlife than casual walkers. I've spotted quite a few otters, and once even a coypu in Norfolk.

But the rarest creature I ever met was many years ago, when I fished at Woburn in Bedfordshire. It was my first visit to the angling complex, and I took my friend's grandfather, who knew the water well. We arrived at dawn, but it was so foggy that we could see very little. He set us in a prime spot and told me to throw in plenty of groundbait to attract the fish. Big fish were moving. You could hear them swirling, but it was almost impossible to see a float 10 yards out, so we couldn't see how big they were. It was slightly mysterious, these splashings in the mist, and we talked in hushed tones.

However, we kept on throwing in the groundbait, hoping the fish would be waiting when we could see what we were doing. As the fog started to clear, I cast towards some lily pads. Suddenly those pads started to move towards me. As they got nearer, they rose out of the water - and materialised into the head of a hippopotamus.

The old chap, confused by the fog, had positioned us on the wildlife park's hippo pond, not the fishing lake, which was a couple of hundred yards further on. Like Bob Oakley, we moved very fast in the opposite direction.