FISHING LINES: Snake in the grass, the swim and the box seat

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JUST BECAUSE I once dreamt of working in the reptile house at the zoo doesn't mean I am obsessed with snakes. (After all, I was just 12 years old and my career aspirations took a downwards dive when I found out how much a snake-keeper earned.) I hadn't planned to mention snakes again, after last week's Welsh cobra story. But it's strange how reptiles are now turning up wherever I go.

It all started when I cleaned out my pond, which had become clogged with weeds. Actually, all I had planned to do was unclog the pump. But in doing so, I dropped a tiny washer into the murky depths. That crippled the pump. Unable to find it among the silt, I decided to de-weed the shallow end. The clumps of crowfoot, milfoil, pondweed and hornwort filled five dustbin bags. I had to filter the strands carefully because the carp, tench and koi have bred well. Their offspring were hiding in the weeds to escape their predatory parents. My weeding efforts also disturbed more than a dozen frogs, which looked suitably miffed at having their homes destroyed.

They got their revenge at dusk the next evening when my wife screamed: "There's a huge rat in the garden!" It was hiding, she insisted, under an upturned container. Something was clearly underneath. I could hear movement. Mindful of Weil's disease and other unpleasant ratty things, I called in the dogs. They sniffed... and wandered off. That was mystifying. They are usually better rodent operatives than Rentokil. It was time for heroics. I bravely threw aside the container, ready to leap clear of the rat's fangs, and... a large, fat toad waddled away. My wife is now rapidly becoming fed up with the game where we point to a horse and say: "Isn't that a member of the rat family?"

No such confusion on the banks of the Upper Ouse a few days later. I was fishing a friendly competition in a friend's back garden. Val owns a mill house with a stunning setting, the sort of home fishers dream about. Huge barbel live here. The British record has been broken several times from a nearby stretch, though it's a sad story.

One giant barbel lives there, trapped in a short stretch of river, and a group of anglers (I use the word advisedly) fish for it day and night. Eventually the beast, attracted by the high-protein food on offer, decides to eat, and gets caught. It is photographed, weighed and put back. Then the process is repeated again. And again. And again. Not my idea of fishing, nor in the spirit of Walton either. I feel sorry for the barbel, but even sorrier for those who feel they have achieved some sort of target.

Anyway, I was fishing away, musing about cobras, like you do, when I spotted a snake swimming towards me. Fortunately, it did not have the cobra's flared head and, anyway, it turned off before it reached the bank and swam downstream. It was a fine specimen, at least a yard long. A few minutes later it swam back. It was a grass snake. Ridiculous though it sounds, I can only think it had gone for a dip because the day was so hot, for it must have been swimming up and down for about 10 minutes. I thought no more about it until another angler came to see me.

"You won't believe what I saw," he said. "Yes, a grass snake swimming up and down," I replied. "No, much stranger than that," he said. "I heard a noise by my side, and looked down to see a big grass snake, eating the maggots out of my fishing box. It was there for a couple of minutes, and only went away because it heard someone walking along the bank."

That's a new one to me. I must admit, though, he was pretty calm about it. Though grass snakes are harmless, the sight of any snake inches from your hand is generally enough to provoke mild hysteria. Several years ago, my friend Big Norman reached down to take a worm from his bait box and found a snake coiled round it. He leapt off his box - into 8 feet of water.

As you read this, I shall be travelling to New Orleans for the fishing contest to surpass all, which I'll tell you about next week, the Bassmaster Classic on the Mississippi delta. Locals have a phrase for those who try to fish the jumble of waterways without a Global Positioning System. They call them "gator bait". Adds an edge to your fishing, doesn't it?

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