Fishing Lines: Paying the price for descent into Disney hell

THE AVERAGE American redneck fisherman, I have discovered, is even more dim than his British counterpart. A sweeping statement maybe, but two shining examples this week have convinced me that when it comes to downright stupidity the Yanks have us totally out-gunned.

Yes, I know that I swore never again to venture into the hell-on-earth that is Florida's Disney Belt. The state's central area is largely unspoilt and hides some undiscovered gems; the Keys, though suffering overdevelopment, still retain much charm, while the West Coast can be delightful. But Orlando? It makes Southend seem like Aspen. Dante couldn't have done better.

A few years ago, I made a foolish promise to my daughter Fleur. "Win a scholarship and you can have whatever you want," I said, never dreaming that I would be called to account. The little monster has a good brain, but a better memory. And so it came to pass that she bounced home from school and said: "I want to go round all the Florida theme parks." Bless her.

From dawn to late at night I have trudged round the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, MGM Studios, Busch Gardens, Typhoon Lagoon, Universal Studios and a few more whose names temporarily escape me. This has meant standing in queues, in temperatures as high as 90 degrees, for up to two hours. Such delights have been broken up only by eating some of the planet's most tasteless food - though this does not seem to deter the fattest people I have ever seen. They look like giant fishing floats (and wear clothes to match).

Jet lag has meant I have not been able to sleep properly at night. But that, at least, enabled me to discover one late-night oddball story that many Florida fish are dying from some obscure disease. It happens all the time, but my ears pricked up when I heard that these fish included tilapia.

What the hell is an African fish doing in Florida waters, I wondered? I did some phoning round. It turned out that tilapia is just one foreign species that is spreading through local waterways in Lake Okeechobee, a vast expanse of water so big it even shows up on world maps. Other tropical species show up from time to time.

There are conflicting views about how they got there. The common view is that the prime suspects are demented anglers wanting to add variety to their fishing. One redneck, who would have been a prime candidate for such criminal acts if he had possessed an IQ above room temperature, thought it was great for angling - never mind the danger to native species. Tilapia are now so common that you can even eat them in local restaurants.

For a short while, it seemed there might be something to lift my gloom. That was when I discovered that it is possible to go fishing within the Disney complex. For a while it was tempting. It would, after all, give me a break from theme park punishment. I was even willing to pay the fairly outrageous price of $137 (pounds 85) for two hours just to fish on my birthday. (To put it into context, the best bass guide I have met, Reno Ally, charged $200 for a five-hour session.) Yet amazingly all Disney's guides were fully booked.

Then I started thinking. Why should the fishing be any different from the rest of Disney? Was there not the distinct possibility that the boat would be shaped like a cute swan, beaver or something equally daft? Would the guide be some garishly dressed loon muttering platitudes like "great fish!" and obviously not meaning a word of it? Would my quarry be basketball-shaped bass, fattened on burgers and chips? If I caught something, would the Little Mermaid appear beside the boat and burst into "Under the Sea"?

Such ramblings will probably get me banned from Disney territory for life - with any luck. To preserve my sanity, I phoned Reno. He juggled a few customers, and is now taking me fishing on my birthday. It's a bit of a drive, but there won't be a blue genie or singing teapot in sight.

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