Fishing Lines: Reeling in a rottweiler

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The Independent Online
IN A SCRUFFY Congo village, a crippled woman limps down the street, her hamstring severed. Elsewhere there are people with toes or fingers missing. Bathe naked in the nearby river, and you run the risk of losing your genitals. The culprit is a nightmare fish with the grace of a salmon and the teeth of a crocodile.

The goliath tigerfish lives only in inaccessible regions of the Zaire river. It grows to perhaps 200lb and fears nothing. Until recently, its very existence was shrouded in mystery. The only significant mention is in a 50-year-old book which talks of its savagery, phenomenal strength, terrifying reputation and most of all its daunting dentistry. Goliath's teeth are like daggers, more than an inch long. They are designed for cutting, not tearing as in most carnivores. They interlock like scissors.

It is the world's great undiscovered game fish - or it was until two English fishermen determined to discover if it still existed. Paul Boote and Jeremy Wade were researching the Indian mahseer, a huge carp-like fish that captivated salmon-fishing colonels in the days of the Raj, when they read about goliath.

Wade travelled first to Zaire, a nightmare three-month trip to the jungle of a country that even expats have now deserted. Living in squalor, he fished for a few days and hooked a powerful fish that immediately threw the hook.

Boote joined him for the next expedition, to Congo. It was another frustrating journey, trying to locate mbenga, as the natives call the fish. Wade was suffering the symptoms of malaria and Boote had cracked ribs; they had been attacked by army ants; they had slept on the logs of a riverboat and fished little. The discomforts, difficulties of finding food and depression brought on by continuing failure had them set to give up. Then a walk through a market turned up a huge goliath, almost 5ft long.

It took a third expedition last year to capture their first fish, and they caught several, the largest nearly 40lb. 'At first, you think the fish is very beautiful with its green back shading into steel blue, and its white belly, but then you do a double take, and it is like looking at a science-fiction monster, its head like a cross between Alien and Terminator 2,' Wade says.

The pair have recorded their adventures, a fascinating, sometimes appalling story in Somewhere down the Crazy River. 'We played down some of the horrors. There were a lot of very grisly moments. Sometimes it was bloody murder,' Boote admits.

Was it worth giving up their jobs and wrecking their domestic lives for a fish? 'Goliath was much more than we expected,' Boote says. 'We thought it would be just a big, dumb eating machine. But it is very smart, incredibly fast and strong. We hooked quite a few, but landed hardly any. It is like hooking a rottweiler.' Wade agrees. 'With most fish, you use the tackle to subdue a fish. But with goliath, it is like a physical assault on the angler by the fish.'

And goliath has hooked them. Next year, they are going back again to the Congo mosquitoes, river pirates and discomfort, hoping to catch one of the giant goliaths. At the back of both their minds is a worry that they will do for the giant tigerfish what they did in India, where mahseer fishing is now so popular that companies run organised trips for them, and the natives now work just as cooks, guides and camp servants.

'I don't think that will happen,' says Boote. 'It will take up to six weeks to get to the heart of the Congo and the same to get back - with no guarantee of catching the fish. There are no systems in place at all, no creature comforts. You can't rely on anything, and run the risk of getting seriously ill. It takes a very special sort of person to put up with those sort of discomforts for a fish.'

Somewhere down the Crazy River by Paul Boote and Jeremy Wade, pounds 18.95, from Sangha Books, 17 Stockton Road, Swindon, Wilts SN2 5DG, telephone 0793 729916.

The telephone number given last week for Telstar Video, which is publishing Jack Hargreaves' Out of Town video, should have been 081-846 9946.

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