fishing lines : Pier memories flood back

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The Independent Online
Followers of The X-Files would have found nothing odd in the sports department choosing Southend Pier to illustrate my less-than serious article on sea angling in Wednesday's Independent. But I found it spooky. Of all the resorts in all the world . . . and they chose the one where I learnt my sea angling techniques (such as they are), and where I later became national sea fishing champion.

It all started because my granny lived near there. For those who don't know (and you're not missing a lot if you haven't visited), Southend-on- Sea is in the mouth of the Thames Estuary. It boasts the longest pier in the world; the tide goes out more than a mile and what's left is mud. Eastenders call it Sarfend-on-Mud.

The fishing isn't very good. (It's not as bad as Bangor, where my friend Ian fished during his university days. The local pier was so unproductive that Ian counted crabs instead of fish. But even the crabs were scarce, so he counted legs to make his catch sound more impressive.)

Along the stem of the mile-long pier, you can catch a few flounders and eels, with occasional mackerel and garfish. Scarcely the stuff of Hemingway novels. But when you're 10 years old, two garfish (they have green bones) is a pretty good return for 12 hours fishing.

So I grew up thinking all sea fishing was as rotten as Southend, and set my standards accordingly. Red-letter days when I caught six mullet or 10 mackerel were worth three pages in my fishing diary, whose usual entries were: Caught nothing. One man caught two flounders.

It wasn't really surprising. I only owned one rod, which I used for freshwater fishing too. I adapted it for the stronger currents and heavier weights by simply removing the top joint. I also had no idea about bait. All I knew was ragworm, that I dug out of the mud. For a while, I even supplemented my pocket money by selling worms to local tackle shops. They paid 15 shillings (75p) for 100 worms. The rate now is about 15p a worm.

The turning point was when I discovered crab as bait. Previously I had only known them as pesky critters that ate my worms. Thousands of them live around the pier struts, and I never realised that a couple of times each year, the crab changes its shell, becoming wonderfully attractive to fish in its soft, yummy state.

Collecting crabs became a sport of its own. They hide under tyres, in tins, behind seaweed and in the mud. At certain times, they even hitch a lift with other crabs which protect them in their vulnerable state. Spotting them is quite an art. So is storing them.

At the time I was in love with the station-master's daughter (unrequited, alas) and stayed at their home. I stored my crabs for the next day's fishing in an outhouse, and woke up one morning to discover panic at the station. Crabs are wonderful climbers and my bucketful had scaled the bucket, escaped the outhouse and gone looking for the sea.

The direction they chose (it was obviously a team decision) was along the platform and across the rail lines. It came as a bit of a surprise to passengers on the 8.23 to Fenchurch Street to discover dozens of crabs scuttling across the platform, particularly as the station was a good half-mile from the sea.

This ability to scale vertical surfaces became even more pertinent when we slept in an old van to save money on accommodation. It was around that time I became national champion. I also came close to being arrested as a burglar, nearly won two cars for my fishing prowess and almost lost my job because of a mackerel. But I'll tell you all about that next week.

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