Fishing Lines: Search for that slippery feeling

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The Independent Online
I AM paddling bare-footed in a muddy Scottish estuary with a plastic bag tucked in my shorts. In three hours, I could be world champion.

It's not going to be easy. Some competitors are so serious that they are wearing wet suits. And I've never actually caught a fish this way, though it is not the first time I have fished without rod or line.

As an urchin, I caught everything from minnows to trout with my hands. At 14, I got a fearsome cuff from the bailiff for trying to stun trout using the poacher's trick of hitting with a hammer a rock under which fish were sheltering. And off Barbados, a native showed me how to catch flying-fish at night with just a light on the front of the boat. But this will be the first time I have ever been fishing with my feet.

Our quarry is the flounder, a plaice-like flatfish without the red spots. It lives in shallow estuaries and often swims into freshwater. (I've caught them more than 30 miles from the sea.) It is often too lazy to swim out with the tide so, relying on its camouflage, which can change chameleon-like from sandy white to muddy black, the fish buries itself in the bottom and takes a few hours' siesta. It will hide happily in water shallower than a paddling pool. But today the flounders of Glen Isle Sands, in the Firth of Forth, are in for a surprise.

Catching flounders with your feet is a traditional sport in Cumbria and on the east Scottish coast. It is called tramping, and involves feeling for buried fish with your toes, then reaching down into the water and pulling them out. It sounds easy. But I am somewhat nervous because other creatures live in the mud besides flounders.

What if I stomp on a skate? Unlike flounders, which have a smooth back, skate such as thornbacks are as big as a coffee table and have a daunting armour of bramble spikes topside. I certainly don't want to tread on an eel or a big edible crab. But my biggest fear is a lurking weever. This is a nasty piece of work that looks like Noriega's passport picture. It lives in shallow water and is the only British poisonous fish.

The other 200 competitors in the World Tramping Championships reassure me. Mike Clark from nearby Carlaverock has been catching flounders with his feet 'since I was a wain'. He says this estuary is not as good as his local Glencaple, where he has caught more than a hundredweight in one tide, but he's never caught anything other than flounders and a few plaice. No soles, then.

The secret is to walk slowly through the water, waiting for your feet to tread on a smooth shape. Finding a fish is rather like treading on a flat jellyfish. The trouble is that on the few times I encounter a flounder, my reaction is to jerk my foot away from the unknown living thing as quickly as possible.

'You don't always tread on the middle of the fish,' says Robin Tilson, who finishes the competition with four flounders weighing 5lb 7oz, the second highest weight. 'You have to move your foot to the middle of the fish. It wriggles a little, then stays still. You reach down into the water, feeling for the head and the tail, and bring it slowly up and out of the water.'

I didn't catch anything, though I did get my toes nipped by several crabs. Any flounder I caught would have lived up to the fish's alternative name of fluke. The biggest, weighing 2lb 7oz, wins pounds 150 for John Robertson of Dalbeattie. However, his fish was caught by a liester, or spear, a method used by several competitors.

'This is called the World Tramping Championships, and I don't think spearing should be allowed,' says Clark. The organiser, Harry Ellis, retorts: 'We don't like to impose too many rules.' So next year I may come back wearing running spikes.

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