Fishing Lines: Life's ambition becomes a pain in the elbow

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The Independent Online
NEXT TIME you whinge about your job, think about the school leaver who worked as a maggot farmer's assistant. I never really got to talk to the lad, and was chary about shaking his hand. After all, minutes earlier, I had watched him standing knee-deep in a pit of maggots, clad in swimming trunks.

It was like a scene from Hell: The Movie. The maggots generated so much heat that the temperature was well above 100 degrees, and the smell of ammonia (a cheeky little perfume the maggots exude) made you gag. How the kid stood it all day, I've no idea. Well, yes I have. He was paid pounds 400 a week. But by God, he earned every groat of it.

At the other end of the scale, I met a man in Florida who was paid extremely well for working about four days a year. He was the skipper of a boat owned by a multi-billionaire, who was too busy making money to go fishing. So the skipper just went fishing himself, and took along his friends. It cost him nothing, his boss picked up the tab. When you've got more money than the GDP of most countries, even the worst alcoholic isn't going to scratch your cashflow.

Before I went to the Bass Master Classic in New Orleans, I imagined that professional bass fishers were only a few notches below that boat skipper. Fancy being paid big bucks to go fishing all the time! That's my kinda job - or so I thought. After all, they compete for huge cash rewards (the Bassmaster Tour is worth an estimated $6m, and there is a contest later this year carrying a $1m first prize). Even the guy who came bottom in the Bass Master Classic won $4,000. It makes the frenzy over the UK's biggest payout, pounds 25,000 for the winner of last week's Fish-o-Mania, look slightly misplaced.

Several of the top pros have won more than $1m in prize money, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. They also have sponsors for everything. I was told, only half in jest: "The reason these guys wear long-sleeved shirts is so they can get the names of all their sponsors on." They don't have to pay a dime for fuel, hotels, tackle or cars, and they are given a new boat every year. Even competition entry, which can be as high as $3,500, is paid for. Then there's the stuff of really big bucks: appearance money, television programmes, speaking engagements. I sat down to dinner one evening and shared a table with six millionaires - all from fishing.

Forgive me for sounding bemused. It sounded so good that I wanted a piece. And I was all set to up sticks and file my column weekly from the US - until I talked to them, fished with them and realised that it's not quite as easy as it seems. Though 1,659 are registered pros, only 300 make a living from catching bass. You need to like travelling. It's nothing for them to drive 1,000 miles to a competition. One man said that he was away from home at least 200 days a year.

Still, it's worth it just to fish all day, isn't it? Not the way these guys do it. None of your lounging back in a chair and watching the world go by. For them, fishing is work. They will cast up to 18 times a minute. On a competition lasting perhaps 10 hours, that's, er, well, a whole lot of casts. Most of them have serious problems with "bass elbow". Some wear a back brace to ease the buffeting caused by the boat hitting waves at 70 mph.

Suddenly, it sounds a lot less like fun. Then how about one Florida competition,where the fish lurked among thick vegetation. Ray Schenk, who's trying to make the pro circuit, told me: "These fire ants were in the trees, and they bit like hell. But they weren't the worst thing. There were these cottonmouth snakes in the trees, and as we went through, they dropped into the boat.

"I carried a gun loaded with birdshot to shoot them when they came in the boat, but I found it pretty hard to fish because I spent most of the day looking up to see what was coming next."

Ken Cook, the 1991 Classic champion, deliberately went fishing in the hottest part of the day to prepare himself for competing in Louisiana, where temperatures topped 110 degrees. I asked Cook if he still fished for pleasure. Not any more, he said. Maybe it's not the job for me after all.