Fishing Lines: Guilt pangs on golden pond

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TRYING to catch goldfish always leaves me with that same underhand feeling you get if you leave your car in a disabled parking space. I used to hook them out of my garden pond quite regularly when the rivers were flooded and lakes frozen. The poor suckers were spoilt with free helpings of ants' eggs and bread crusts six days a week, so they were easy prey for a yummy maggot or juicy worm.

These goldfishing sessions honed my techniques but the silent gnome, who angled there for years without a bite, radiated disapproval and the fish (some were nearly 2lb) had this look, as if to say: 'How could you?' They didn't understand the withdrawal symptoms caused by being unable to wet a line for weeks. In the end it all became academic when my hooligan springer spaniels wrecked the pond. I had to rescue those long-suffering fish, and they now live unsullied in a non-fishing friend's lake.

I caught lots of goldfish again this week - or more strictly, golden orfe. Though it was all above board, I still couldn't shake off that guilty feeling. The occasion was the UK Press Championships (I'll pass a veil over the scribes' performance) organised by the Midlands entrepreneur Billy Makin to celebrate the opening of his 11-lake complex at Wolvey, near Hinckley.

With pollution, cormorants and farming chemicals making rivers about as friendly to fish life as a leaking oil tanker, there has been a trend towards small, heavily stocked stillwaters. Most are stuffed with carp: hardy, fast-growing and greedy. But Makin, a pioneer of the genre, has taken things a few steps further.

The 11 lakes, which will accommodate 500 anglers, hold fish of every size and shape. Some are stocked with tiddlers for children and novices; others are for match anglers. One has masses of trout, a couple hold very big fish, including record dace and barbel. 'There are lots of carp lakes around, so I'm trying to give fishermen variety,' he said. 'I've put in everything from chub and barbel, which are usually considered river fish, to ornamental species such as ghost carp and golden orfe.'

The oddest thing about the complex is that the fish would starve without anglers. When fishing is not allowed, between March and June, Makin feeds them with about two hundredweight of wheat and high- protein food every two days. A natural water has about 300lb of fish per acre. Makin's lakes have 1,200lb. 'The angler becomes part of the food chain,' he said. 'Because the waters are grossly overstocked, there isn't enough natural food so the fish are always hungry. Fishermen supply this food.' Many carp add 7lb in a year, and catches of 100lb are commonplace.

It all seems as artificial as plastic flowers. Makin admits that it's not fishing as he would like it. 'I think the future of river angling in this country is dead,' he said. 'I'm a little sad that youngsters will grow up believing that this is what fishing is all about.' But the punters love it. 'People who haven't fished for years are coming here, and coming back, because they can catch fish. I'm seeing tackle every day that has been out of fashion for 20 years. I've never seen so many wicker baskets.' This week, there were fishermen from as far away as the South Coast and Carlisle.

Makin rarely fishes now, though he was once a top match angler. One day eight years ago, sitting on a canal with a procession of boats floating past, he said: 'That's it. I've had enough.'

'You're packing up for the day, Billy?' said the angler next to him.

'No, I'm packing up for ever,' he said. And he did.

Now he is hugely protective towards his fish, insisting that all hooks must be barbless and that nets are banned. 'When fish are not kept in nets, they will feed confidently day after day,' he said.

Most of all, he feels protective to the beautiful orfe, pinkish-orange beauties that look like flickering fire underwater when they cruise along the surface. If there weren't so many of them, you feel he would like to give them all names. Exotica like these will become the norm on more stillwaters, I suspect. The National Rivers Authority appears to have given up the battle to stop ornamental species such as orfe, catfish, koi, ghost and grass carp from invading (a Yorkshire fishery this week announced that it had stocked with sturgeon). So perhaps hooking goldfish out of the garden pond will eventually become acceptable.