Fishing Lines: Monster of the shallow lands

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IT'S a wonder that I go sea fishing at all, after the terrible experience I suffered while paddling through rockpools as a short-trousered brat. I certainly had nightmares for months after that day at Croyde Bay, North Devon.

The resort, one of those typically drab North Devon villages famed only for their outrageous parking charges during holiday time, has a flat, sandy beach flanked by rocks. When the tide recedes, there are hundreds of inviting pools: just the thing for a bored eight-year-old to explore with a bucket and fishing net.

And very productive they were too. I caught shore crabs, shrimps, prawns, winkles and even a couple of blennies. These rockpool fish supposedly feed on barnacles, though goodness knows how such a tiny fish prises them off rocks. My friend Ian did his marine biology thesis on the feeding habits of blennies, and kept one in a tank (he called it Benny) to observe it in action. But he never saw it eat them au naturel. The only way he could get it to feed was to smash up some barnacles with a hammer whereupon Benny went into a feeding frenzy. Ian concocted 20,000 words upon this scanty evidence, and it's probably still the definitive work on blenny behaviour.

Anyway, back to the story. I had wandered far from my parents and the comfort of their windbreak (then, an essential beach accessory). The tide was coming in, and so I started to make my way back, paddling bare-footed through the rockpools. As I went to step in the water, I saw a movement, and pulled back my foot. Filling the pool was a huge, spiky thing with legs a foot long. It was terrifying, like a cross between Edward Scissorhands, Alien and The Lobsters from the Black Lagoon. I made a detour, but wherever I went, each pool contained one of the creatures. By now I was petrified. The tide was rising and the pools were getting deeper. I was eventually rescued by a fisherman, who carried me back unconcerned about the monsters.

From my Observer Book of the Seashore, I discovered that the horrors were actually spider crabs, and far less dangerous than the spiky sea urchins that I found occasionally. These crabs have spikes and hairs on their back, and often disguise themselves with tufts of seaweed, which they plant themselves. Their legs are often more than a foot long, which makes them look enormous and extremely frightening to small children.

Why hadn't I spotted them? Well, it could have been their disguise, but it was more likely that they had hidden under the rocks and come out as the tide started to rise. A couple of years later at the same resort, I met a fisherman who hunted these same rockpools with a gaff poking under the rocks and hooking out lobsters, edible crabs, even a conger eel or two, but lots of spider crabs, which he told me were inedible.

He was wrong. They're actually good eating, and off Alaska, the king crab industry has been so plundered that specimens of six feet or more, once common, are now rarely seen. The French are very keen on them, and so are the Japanese, where the world's largest spider crabs live. These stilt or giant spider crabs are caught in deep water off the south- eastern coast, and have an average claw span of nine feet. One with a 12ft claw span weighed 41lb. Imagine that in a rockpool.

Spider crabs can be a real nuisance to anglers. Their small but sharp claws can nip through line, and the presence of these crustaceans explains why your weight or hook mysteriously disappears. (The answer is to use a split ring and a stronger shock leader.) There seem to be many more about too. Mild winters and warm summers have meant good breeding, while a species usually found much further south has invaded our waters. Trawlers in North Wales have been catching up to 1,000 in nets.

You would think the trawlermen would be delighted. But fishermen, like farmers, always find something to complain about and in this case, it's that the crabs are tearing nets and eating the fish in them. Ironically, Hastings fishermen have been forced to ask the French for cuttlefish traps to capture the crabs.

If you fancy catching one to eat, just get a tangled mess of line and hook a piece of fish in the middle of it. As the crab tries to eat the fish, it gets its legs tangled in the line and is easy to haul up. The only trouble is: where do you find a saucepan large enough to cook something as big as a dustbin lid?