fishing lines: Thames, they are a changin'

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The Independent Online
Not A lot of people know this, but the Thames was once the best water in Britain for catching big trout. The premier Thames trout fisher, A Edwards Hobbs, accounted for 878 trout over 3lb between 1890 and 1945 (which may explain why there are not a lot around now).

Hobbs's exploits were so spectacular (he had 10 trout set up, with an average weight of nearly 10lb) that a Henley pub is named after him. In his seminal book Trout of the Thames, Hobbs relates losing one of more than 20lb. He told the chap who made a bash of netting it: "You've lost me the trout of a lifetime and yourself a guinea!"

You may find this obsession with size strange for someone whose largest Thames trout is just over 2lb. I had started this column intending to write on what is about to be the world's most expensive fishing rod (pounds 20,000 and it could be yours, guv). But as someone who grew up on the Thames and very occasionally saw these legendary fish, the subject tickled my fancy as I pottered through Angling Auctions' catalogue. Its 5 April sale features a cased 14lb 10oz trout, caught at Molesey in 1883 and listed as the Thames record.

Well, the fish certainly has an impressive provenance. It is mentioned in several angling books and for many years it was part of the Piscatorial Society's collection. More recently, it has been down on its luck and living on the walls on the Contented Plaice restaurant in Kingston-upon- Thames.

Strangely, Hobbs does not mention this fish. He says that the largest Thames trout caught by fair angling was one of 14lb 9oz 8dr, "caught by Mr Forbes at Chertsey", though he concedes larger ones have been taken. He details one of 17lb 3oz that he saw on a fishmonger's slab in 1898. It had been caught by a workman somewhere around Radcot on a nightline baited with worms. "Diligent inquiry failed to get me in touch with the poacher, who quite naturally took every precaution to cover his tracks," Hobbs writes. The trout was sold whole to "a London gentleman".

Another huge fish, 17lb, was netted from the Thames tideway in 1897 by a professional fisher and presented to Alderman Nuttall of Kingston. He obviously had no idea what to do with a great big trout because he put it back in the river.

In those days, the Thames still had a hefty run of salmon and there must be some doubt over claims by lesser men than Hobbs who probably could not distinguish a big brown trout from a salmon. In the 1960s, there was the case of a famous angler and columnist for a national newspaper painting spots on a salmon and claiming it was a Thames brown trout. He almost got away with it.

Nowadays, fish farmers can create a 20lb trout in a couple of years by playing the genetics game. A total duffer can pop along to one of today's artificial trout fisheries, heave out a 10lb trout and think nothing of it. That's a bit sad because it rather lessens the impact of a 14lb Thames fish. In Hobbs's day you would need a professional to guide you to such specimens, and even that was no guarantee of success. Hobbs's best year was 30 fish over 3lb; nowadays people expect to get that in a month.

Thames trout still live and breed in the upper reaches. But the populations that Hobbs plundered came from regular restocking. There was even a trout hatchery at Colstrop, near Hambleden, but it was abandoned because the stream started to dry up. Some of the stocked fish had Scottish accents. Between 1883 and 1888, 172,000 newly born brown trout from Loch Leven were introduced.

What would Hobbs think if he came back now? He would certainly bemoan the state of the river, and he certainly wouldn't catch many trout. The Thames Water Authority shoved a few hundred into weirpools in the 1970s, but you rarely hear of one now. Anglers caught a few, pike caught a lot. And your only chance of a monster Thames trout is to buy one in a glass case.

For catalogues of Angling Auctions' sale at Hammersmith, west London, on 5 April. Telephone 0181-749 4175