Fishing Lines: One bittern, twice shy in otter man's empire

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The Independent Online
IN A part of England that had better remain nameless, my friend Richard once saw a snowy owl, a bittern and a sea eagle in the same day. For those who confuse chickens and ducks, I had better explain that seeing just one of these would keep a twitcher happy for months. Spotting all three within a few hours is a bit like winning the Lottery twice a week for a month.

He told no one. Even an ornithologist would have a hard job convincing doubters, but a fisherman? Eventually he plucked up courage to raise the issue with a slightly morose acquaintance who ran a wildlife reserve nearby. His reaction was quite a surprise. "For God's sake don't tell anyone! We'll have millions of bloody birdwatchers down here, trampling over everything. And you'll get a load of stick if they don't find anything, because you're just a fisherman." He too had spotted the birds, but felt their well-being was better served by keeping stumm.

Because we fish together, Richard eventually told me. Normally that is like giving a big news story to Reuters, but in this case I understood Richard's dilemma entirely. So I told him my story of the otter.

When my parents moved from unlovely Wembley to the countryside near Maidenhead, Berkshire, it was as if we had relocated to Bali. Except for holidays, most of my fishing had been done on the Grand Union Canal, a muddy ditch where gudgeon were the order of the day, and roach or bream a highlight. But Maidenhead had the Thames.

Even the journey to the river was exciting. Pedalling across Dorney Common, I saw cows, wandering free. You don't get a lot of those on Wembley High Road. But the highlight was the river itself. You could see the bottom in two feet of water. The canal that had shaped my fishing was so murky you couldn't even see the bottom of your float. Birds I had only seen in books skipped along the banks. A fearsome stag beetle muscled past the satchel containing my tackle. Best of all, the river was full of fish.

I was, if you like, hooked. I never wanted to fish anywhere else, I decided. On that first day, I caught 10 fish. The next Saturday couldn't come round quickly enough, and I did even better, catching 22, mostly bleak- dace. That day, I heard a noise under the bank. Peering down at the undercut bank, I saw an otter. "Oh, an otter," I said to myself, and ticked off another box in my I-Spy Book of Animals.

Years later, people mocked me. "An otter on the Thames at Maidenhead? You've got to be kidding!" Even showing them the tick in my book didn't convince them. Otters, as I was later to learn, had disappeared from this part of the river decades ago. But I knew it was an otter. Before I learned how much money they earned, I wanted to be zoo keeper. So I memorised all the animals. I could tell an aye-aye from a bushbaby, a potto from a kinkajou. And I certainly wouldn't confuse an otter with a ferret or a mink or a stoat, the only other possibilities.

Well, you can imagine how I felt when I read this week that two organisations, the Otter Trust and the Wildlife Trust, both announced they were releasing otters to Thames sites. The story revealed that otters have migrated themselves to the river, and had been spotted in at least two places, but were not yet breeding. Best of all, the Wildlife Trusts programme, headed by Sir David Attenborough, took place at... Maidenhead.

The only other otters I've seen since have been in Devon and Scotland. At the time, I had no concept of how rare my sighting was. It was just the pleasurable vision of the best angler in the country. Jealous that he was eating my fish? Never.

My friend Chris the Stuffer was brought a dead otter a couple of years ago. Again, nobody believed him when he said where it came from. Even the local wildlife trust expressed scepticism. It had been hit by a car on a main road near Cambridge, near where I now live. Me, I never had an ounce of doubt. And I always peer under the banks every time I hear a snuffle or a scuffle, just in case lightning strikes twice.