Fishing Lines: Thrill of a lethal sport

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FEELING particularly daredevil this week, I took my life in my hands - and went fishing. Not impressed? Well, try this for size. I didn't just go fishing; I did so from a small boat. If you are still not astounded, it probably means that you haven't seen the figures released by a professor from Middlesex University, claiming that angling is one of the most dangerous sports, causing more deaths than hockey, rugby and football combined.

Professor David Ball is clearly a man who knows how to have a good time. He spent 10 years ploughing through figures from the Department of Transport's Consumer Safety Unit and annual figures published by the Office of Population, Censuses and Surveys. In one five-year period, he found that swimming was, not surprisingly, the sport that resulted in the highest number of fatalities (191). Other sports that recorded more than 50 deaths were boating and sailing (69); motor sports (65); horse riding (62); air sports such as gliding, parachuting, hang-gliding and flying (51). Angling was rated sixth, with 50.

You may wonder how sad old gits sitting on a river bank could die from anything except boredom. Well, inevitably there were quite a few deaths from drowning. The bulk of Professor Ball's angling statistics were sea anglers who had fallen from boats, been washed off rocks or simply gone fishing when the weather said: "I wouldn't if I were you."

However, a further cause is anglers who insist on dangling a line near overhead power cables. If you're using a rod made of carbon-fibre, this is a bit like putting your head on a railway line to see if the train's coming. Carbon and electricity go together like cod and chips. You don't even have to touch the power lines. Electricity can jump quite a distance to see its friend carbon. The same applies when there's lightning in the air.

I'm surprised there are not more deaths from lead weights, especially from beaches and piers. Weighing up to 12oz, these sinkers travel at a terrific speed. To give you some idea, they are used to hurl a bait 150 yards or more. I'm sure those who are better at physics will tell me what velocity they attain. But I know that these weights sometimes snap off. If the owner of a Sussex beach hut is still wondering what went through one of his windows and came out the other side, I can reveal it was a lead weight that my friend Alan hadn't tied on properly. PS: Sorry, we were too cowardly to leave a note.

Even lighter weights of less than an ounce could be lethal. Some years ago while I was salmon fishing, my weight got caught in the bottom. I heaved and heaved. It suddenly came free, flying out of the water and burying itself in the tree behind me. At the time I thought: "Oh good, I've got my weight back." Afterwards, I realised that if it had been a few feet lower, it would have been my head that stopped the weight.

Being able to swim is important for an angler, but it's scarcely a guarantee against drowning. Fishermen are generally encumbered with bulky clothing and boots. Many deaths occur because an angler refuses to let go of rods and tackle bags, rather than concentrating on staying alive. It's easy to understand a desire to cling on to your gear; it's also easy to understand that desire to wade out just a step or two more, on the assumption that being able to cast a few feet farther will bring a whopper.

My friend John Bailey, whose job as an angling guide often puts him in pretty hairy situations, tells of fishing in fast- flowing Indian rivers, where the guides help you to a rock in the middle of the river. "Fish there, sahib," he was told. "Lots of very big fish there." The trouble was, John said, that any fish he hooked would undoubtedly pull him off. In addition, the river held crocodiles. The dilemma was: lose face, or drown.

John solved the problem by sitting on the rock with his line in the water, to all intents, trying to catch a giant mahseer. The only thing was, he played safe but not putting any bait on his hook. "I didn't catch anything, but I was alive," he said. A lesson for us all.